Wayfinding in Canada and the U.S.

by Elaine Avila

in Global Connections

Post image for Wayfinding in Canada and the U.S.

(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)

(PHOTO:  Arvaarluk: an Inuit Tale, playwright: Arvaarluk Kusagak, director: Heidi Specht, actor/ puppeteers: Lenard Stanga, Elaine Avila, photo by Rosa Hong.)

“The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. And no description of a people can be complete without reference to their character or their homeland, the ecological and geographical matrix in which they have determined to live out their lives.” —Wade Davis, The Wayfinders

Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist, botanist, author and photographer who writes about indigenous cultures worldwide. He resides in Northern British Columbia and Washington, D.C. His writing has set me on a path that now informs all I do as a playwright and theatre artist.

Like Davis, I am in residence both in Canada and the U.S., an Associate of the Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) in Vancouver and the Playwright-in-Residence at Pomona College in Los Angeles. My community is fully in both countries. This fluidity has no formula. Plays I develop in my apartment building in Vancouver, which I call the “Tower of Song,” are performed on the streets of New York. Plays I have written in New York and Los Angeles have been performed in Vancouver, Victoria, and Edmonton. My new play commission for Pomona in Los Angeles is set in Kitimat, a small town in the middle of Coastal British Columbia.

While there are many inherent frustrations in living a life in two countries (complicated taxes, immigration paperwork), one of the biggest gifts in such a life is breathing room. There is space in my heart to dream about what theatre can be. I see how much we inherit from our national mindsets, the assumptions embedded in our theatrical economies. When someone tells me that theatre artists need to do something or other to be successful, I know this is only true for a certain time or place. As Davis describes in the quote above, I focus on the Actions of a people. Quality of their aspirations. Nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. Homeland as ecological and geographical matrix.

Stories connect to land.

When I lived in New York, working on my play, Burn Gloom, funded by a Canada Council Millennium Grant, I became acutely aware of the land in Greenwich Village. I thought about how many writers had paced the streets, working out their stories. As I walked, my story, too, dislodged itself from its first moorings and began to sail. Images came. “Problems” unlocked. And every time I visit New York, I feel a city is made with dreams, as well as bricks. Borders and nations too, are collective fantasies, delusions, nightmares, hopes.

Stories connect to our ancestry.

In 2012, I moved from New Mexico to Vancouver. One of my first jobs was with Pangaea Arts, an intercultural, interdisciplinary theatre company. They asked me to dramaturge their collaboration with an Inuit storyteller, Arvaarluk (Michael) Kusugak. Because of my busy schedule, Pangaea booked me on a floatplane to fly into their working retreat on Gabriola Island. As I flew over the ocean, past towering Coast Mountains, over the glorious gulf islands, into Silva Bay, I thought, “Silva? That is a very Portuguese name!”  My family is Azorean, from Portuguese islands in the mid Atlantic. My ancestry was about to become key in our collaboration, vital to all my work.

When Arvaarluk and I sat down for the first time, I said, “Hey, I think we may be related.”  I had read most all of his incredible books, script pages, essays, including the not to be missed book, The Curse of the Shaman, A Marble Island Story. Nestled in his writing was a very funny tale of setting his cousin’s “Portuguese” hair on fire.

Arvaarluk and I are related because we both have Azorean ancestry. At least one Azorean whaler made it to the Arctic, to Arvaarluk’s home in Repulse Bay at the Northern tip of Hudson Bay. That’s why his cousin has Portuguese hair.

From then on, we were family. His stories are from the North of the tree line. Think of it, no trees. Your building material is snow. No planting of seeds. Depending entirely on animals for food and clothing. His stories place great value on unselfishness, and are inherited from his grandmother. His stories are thousands of years old, and are told from Alaska to Greenland. They are portable. They have mysteries in them that are impossible to forget.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, before every play is performed, we say “We would like to acknowledge that this event is being held on unceded Indigenous land belonging to the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.”

The land here is not ceded. We are the only Province in Canada that (with rare exceptions) has no treaties. The idea of land, and who has the right to be on it, to perform on it, to live on it, to use it, to take care of it is being negotiated and considered. It impacts the stories we tell.

Stories connect to waterways.

What about the mystery of “Silva Bay?” The more I have dug into my Azorean ancestry, the more I have unearthed a familial connection to indigenous people.

For example, in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, a 14-foot bronze sculpture is about to be unveiled, as a tribute to the connection between Portuguese and the Coast Salish. Created by Luke Marston, an exquisitely talented master carver, it is a tribute to Portuguese Joe Silvey and his first and second Coast Salish wives, Khaltinaht and Kwatleemaat. Joe Silvey is Luke Marston’s great, great grandfather, who arrived from Pico, Azores (the island my grandparents are from) in the 1860s. He lived in a village, Whoi-whoi or Xway-Xway, in what is now known as Stanley Park. I have walked on this land for most of my adult life, without having any idea that an Azorean lived there. One of the playwrights in residence at my PTC residency in Vancouver, Quelemia Sparrow, and I are both writing about him. Quelemia’s great-grandmother lived in the village in Stanley Park with Portuguese Joe Silvey. Quelemia let me know that Joe Silvey was loyal to his Coast Salish family in a time when many Englishmen abandoned their Coast Salish wives and children. He taught many Coast Salish women to make fishing nets in the Azorean tradition. His descendants founded Silva Bay. Joe Silvey also lived in the part of Vancouver, New Westminster, where I live now. Because of reading his biography, The Remarkable Adventures of Portuguese Joe Silvey, by Jean Barman, I have learned about the waterways. What could take hours to get to on land is a quick canoe trip. As Quelemia says, those who fish and travel by boat, have much in common in how they see the world. Wade Davis’s book, The Wayfinders, is about an indigenous people that use ancestral knowledge to navigate over 1/5th of the globe.

All of this has inspired my work. I am writing a trio of Azorean plays: Lost and Found in Fado (about a woman finding her heritage in Lisbon through music), Kitimat (about a family of Azorean background impacted by a proposed oil pipeline), and Cartas (based on stories of Azorean immigrants to Canada and the U.S.). My play about Azorean cousins recently won the first ever DISQUIET International Short Play Competition.

In North America, we are all aware on some level that we have a provisional relationship to this land and our waterways. Our heritage is hybrid. Our stories come from that. Our theatre history is shifting. I am became particularly aware of this while teaching in New Mexico, a land with 400 years of Spanish theatre tradition and 10,000 years of Zuni, Comanche, Navajo and Hopi dance/theatre traditions. In this context, how can you say that Eugene O’Neill, even with all he has done and inspired in me personally, is the Father of American Drama?  There is much beauty to be found in taking the long view.


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Elaine Avila is a Playwrights Theatre Centre Associate in Vancouver and Playwright in Residence at Pomona College in Los Angeles. Recent plays: Jane Austen, Action Figure, Café a Brasileira, Lost and Found in Fado, La Frontera/The Border. Publications: NoPassport Press (Jane Austen Action Figure and other Plays, in 24 Gun Control Plays) , Canadian Theatre Review, American Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, Lusitania. Selected awards: Victoria Critic’s Circle for Best New Play, Best Production/ Audience Favorite at the Festival de Cocos, DISQUIET International Short Play Award in Lisbon, named a Notáveis dos Açores (Notable Descendant) by the Government of the Azores.