Discovering Creativity and Culture in Wasagamack – A Week of Theatre and Learning

Nestled in the remote reaches of Manitoba lies Wasagamack, a vibrant Oji-Cree community steeped in rich cultural traditions and a deep sense of community spirit. Nova Courchene, co-Director of Native Youth Theatre (NYT), and Dezarae Meade, a drama teacher for both NYT and MTYP, the week they spent in April in Wasagamack was more than just another outreach trip—it was a journey into the heart of Indigenous storytelling and youth empowerment.

Traveling to Wasagamack is an adventure in itself. Situated far from urban centers, reaching the community requires a combination of air travel and boat rides in the summer or traversing ice roads in winter.

“Wasagamack is one of many northern communities that are very remote and a fly-in reserve,” says Dezarae (Dez). “The kids do not have shopping malls and movie theatres, they find their own fun. Many practice playing guitar, art, sports, chess, and more.”

The week began with a clear objective: to guide the students through the process of bringing stories to life on stage. With a pre-written script inspired by Nanabush legends, Nova and Dez embarked on a mission to ignite the students’ passion for theatre. Divided into two groups, they tailored their approach to suit different age groups: one group tackled a lively adaptation for eighth-graders, while the other delved into a more intricate narrative for high school students.

“Creating an ‘end goal’ like a performance helps students see the reward of their hard work,” Nova explained, mindful of the logistical challenges typical of remote communities. Despite occasional setbacks–from transportation hurdles to unexpected abscences–the students embrace their roles with enthusiasm. They learned to memorize lines, block scenes, and harness the power of their voices to captivate an audience.

For Nova, Wasagamack is familiar territory. Nova had been there three times and the students had come to Winnipeg once before. She had come to cherish the warmth and resilience of the community. This time, they aimed to enrich the students’ understanding of theatrical storytelling while celebrating their cultural heritage. “We wanted the students to see the parallels between professional theatre and storytelling, which is a traditional way for all of Turtle Island’s Indigenous people,” Nova reflected.

With the invaluable assistance of Wasagamack First Nation School Science Teacher Keith Rainville (who also runs the chess, drama and other clubs in the school and community), and language teacher Emma J. Harper, the team bridged language barriers by integrating Anishininiimowin translations into the script. Emma’s guidance ensured authenticity, allowing the students to infuse their performances with the cadence and spirit of their own language. Through innovative methods like the “total physical response” song, the students not only memorized their lines but also embraced their language with pride.

“Despite the challenges of isolation,” Dez shared, “the community is rich with creativity. From art to sports and music, the youth find joy in their passions.” During downtime, Dez even joined a spirited chess tournament, where a young prodigy humbled her with his strategic prowess—an anecdote that underscored the community’s zest for life and learning.

For Dez, a participant in NYT’s transformative outreach initiatives, the journey has been deeply personal. Being on stage as a kid made me feel good about myself, my hope was that the student actors would feel the same, and many of them did,” Dez shared. Through programs like these, young Indigenous leaders like Dez are reclaiming their heritage while inspiring the next generation to embrace their roots with pride.

Looking ahead, Nova envisions expanding outreach efforts, empowering more Indigenous youth to explore their cultural identities through theatre. With each workshop, they hope to instill confidence and creativity, nurturing a new generation of storytellers who honor reclaiming their traditional knowledge through the arts.

The outreach to Wasagamack stands as a testament to the power of creativity and community. Through theatre, language, and shared experiences, Nova, Dez, and the NYT team have forged meaningful connections and ignited a passion for storytelling that transcends boundaries. As they bid farewell to Wasagamack, the echoes of laughter and applause linger—a reminder of the transformative impact of arts education in even the most remote corners of our world.