New play with Blackfoot actors examines effects of Treaty 7

Actors Mary Rose Cohen, left, and Janine Owlchild rehearse for the play O'Kosi in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Jeff McIntosh, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Young Blackfoot actors are to embark on a time-travelling journey focusing on the signing of the historic Treaty 7 with the Canadian government in a play opening in Calgary this week.

“O’KOSI,” a Blackfoot word meaning “in the fall when we gather,” is filled with music and poetry, and propels the audience through history, beginning on the day Treaty 7 was signed at Blackfoot Crossing, east of Calgary, on Sept. 22, 1877.

It’s no coincidence the show at Victor Mitchell Theatre begins Thursday, on the 145th anniversary of the treaty.

“Every scene you see basically takes place on Sept. 22, but in a different year,” explained director Michelle Thrush.

“At the time, the people of this territory did not understand the repercussions. They were in the middle of starvation because there was cultural genocide that was happening, the loss of buffalo, disease, smallpox,” she said.

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“They had no idea that they were going to be put on to these reserves and kept in an apartheid state.”

Treaty 7 is one of 11 treaties signed between First Nations and the Crown between 1871 and 1921.

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The treaties set aside land for reserves and promised annual compensation in exchange for First Nations ceding the rights to their traditional territory.

Thrush said although the plays centres on historical events that have affected her community, she did not want to focus on the residential school system.

“We mention it once, but truly it’s about how our family systems were destroyed, our bonds between parent and child for two to three generations were broken and how do we regain that?”

Actor Garret Smith said there is some humour despite the dark subject manner.

“I play a father and I also play a game show host,” Smith said with a laugh.

“It is very out there but it’s also very grounded, too. As fantastical as the play gets, it’s really rooted in just the land and our people.”

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Smith, who grew up in the Calgary area, said he hopes those attending the play will come away with a better understanding of what First Nations people have gone through.

“We really want people to connect to something and whatever it is, so long as they walk away touched, with a smile or a tear,” Smith said. “That’s really the result we’re looking for.”

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Dusty Frank, who grew up in Lethbridge but is part of the nearby Blood Reserve, plays a young Indigenous man who is adopted into a Polish family. He hopes the subject matter will help inspire young people and educate them about Indigenous history in Canada.

“It’s an education that I really needed as well,” he said.

The musical score is a combination of traditional powwow and dance, but some of the songs include a fusion of guitars and bass music.

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“It’s a cool journey,” said singer Faith Starlight.

She said one song is a rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” that is overlapped with powwow music instead of English words.

“All of us who have helped remake that song? We cannot hear that song the same way now,” Starlight said.

The play runs until Oct. 1.

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