Special Series: Fast Forward
By Victoria Fenner & Heather Majaury
When Heather Majaury left the Ottawa Valley for university after high school, it was the beginning of a whole new journey. And it wasn’t just about the usual transitions turning from teenager to young adult. It was the birth of a whole new sense of identity.
As a child and teenager, Heather had grown up with her father’s family in the valley. Her father’s family has Indigenous roots, and her Algonquin paternal grandmother was a major influence in her life. Her mother’s family, way out in Calgary, was less of an influence. Yet, as a young adult, Heather tried to fit in with a majority settler community by aspiring to mainstream Canadian culture.
“When I was twenty I was trying to be a successful white person,” Heather explains. “So I went to university because that’s what nice white people do, especially white middle class people, and I really wanted to be that because that was heralded as the standard to live by. I wanted to get as far away from the Ottawa Valley as humanly possible.”
So Heather ended up moving to Windsor, where she studied drama and communications. “Going to university was a completely foreign experience for me,” she says. It was a big culture shock trying to be what she thought the world expected of her as a white woman, yet still rooted in her life as an Indigenous woman in the Valley, which remains the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation.
Heather credits Mary Rose Bearfoot Jones, a Mohawk elder whom she met at campus radio CJAM, as an important person who helped her connect with her Indigenous roots. “She was teaching me a lot about the medicine wheel, and that sort of thing, and so that started to incorporate into how I was seeing the world.”
Heather’s struggles with identity in her early years and those that followed formed the foundation of her play, “This is My Drum.” It was first performed in Waterloo, Ontario in 2015, but had its beginnings much earlier, back in those early days in the 1990s in Windsor.
It’s a one-woman show about a journey through identity, including actual conversations with her grandmother, where she contemplates what it means to become a mother. Heather looks at colonization from a place of being in between cultures. She reclaims her distinct voice through her connection to what she describes as ‘blood memory’ and song.
Though not strictly autobiographical, “This is My Drum” is based on fragments of Heather’s life, elevated to what African-American writer Audre Lorde and Jamaican-Canadian dub poet d’bi Young call ‘Bio-Myth’: performance art based on personal story and collective myth. Young defines Bio-Myth as “a form of creation where the artist uses biographical information as a starting point and then applies poetic license to broaden or deepen it.”
For Heather Majaury, Bio-Myth played itself out in street theater protest at the meeting of the Organization of American States in Windsor in 2000; getting tear gassed at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City; figuring out how to walk two roads with one pair of feet, as both Indigenous person and settler; returning to the rez to work on Algonquin land claim negotiations, including on Parliament Hill.
“This is My Drum” addresses some of the challenges of being the descendant of both Indigenous and settler. It is a unique blend of political theory, personal relationships, well crafted stories and provocative ideas that challenge people’s perceptions about Canadian history and the relationship between Indigenous people and settlers.
Heather began writing the play when her daughter Myrriah Gomez-Majaury was a small child. Myrriah is now twenty. Seeing the play on stage was a milestone in her life. “It was a very emotional journey for both of us,” Myrriah says. “This story in particular is incredibly profound, and profound to me, because it tells people how I grew up. It tells the story of the kind of person my mom was.”
One of the best things about the play, says Myrriah, is that someday she’ll get to tell her kids that “My mom, or your grandmother, or your great grandmother, was a mixed blood Indigenous woman who was proud of who she was. And I get to tell them the story of a beautiful play that she put together and shared with the world.”
In many ways, the process and struggle of dealing with complex ideas of identity, then turning it into a play, has been transformative for Heather too. She says: “Writing and performing ‘This is My Drum’ was a process of deep healing; finding and strengthening my strongest voice; reclaiming my truths and seeing the value in the hardships that my ancestors endured. Sharing this with an audience always transports the personal perceptual into the realm or the context of the public and the political.”
“To me, that’s what life is. Our now needs action to become alive. To really make change in the world, everyone needs to gather a whole lot of courage to work against complacent colonial amnesia and the illusion of ‘that’s all in the past and these are private matters’. Denial is only a short term coping mechanism for all humans and entire societies, including this one. Facing who we really are is where the most important journeys begin, and the only place where the potential for change is born.”
Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor, and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Find out more about This is My Drum here and here. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.