In the loop: Students in the Bear Lodge are making musical magic for the Big Bang

Moe Clark and Ahau Marino lead the students inside Philemon Wright High School's Bear Lodge in a workshop to prepare their performance at the Big Bang Festival at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Peter Robb

Inside the Bear Lodge, a circle and some modern technology are making magic happen and the result will be a show at the National Arts Centre’s Big Bang Festival for people of all ages this coming weekend.

The Bear Lodge is a room inside Gatineau’s Hadley Junior High and Philemon Wright High School building. It is a safe place where some 60 students who self-identify as Indigenous can be with their peers. But these days, you could call it a recording studio as 11 students create songs and sounds and stories that they will feature during a show they are creating called NOMAD: Papâmacihowin, which is a Cree word than means always moving, never still in the same place.

The students are working with the multi-disciplinary Metis artist and educator Moe Clark and her partner in art the Mexican musician Ahau Marino to create the performance.

The NAC approached Clark about working with students in Gatineau to prepare something unique for the Big Bang Festival

Moe Clark is a multi-disciplinary Metis artist and educator.

“I have done a lot of work in various contexts with Indigenous youth working with this notion of using our voices and our bodies and instruments to create sonic landscapes that we can inhabit and can move through,” she said.

The students come from many different communities. Most have ties to Kitigan Zibi (KZ), the Algonquin First Nation located in the Maniwaki area. But there are young people from as far away as Labrador and students who have connections to other nations such as the Haida.

Clark and Marino have been working with the students, aged 13 to 17, for the past few months, holding regular workshops at the school.

“The performance is musical, it’s ambient, it’s poetry, it’s song and ultimately it is the students uncovering their connections to each other and to themes of identity, racism, residential schools. It takes them from the colonial impacts that they are living to the technology they are using.”

The magic carpet that seems to carry them all is Clark’s looping pedal. The device allows her to record sounds and use them as a way to establish a sound world.

“Someone stepping on a piece of crumpled paper sounds like a footprint in the snow,” she said. Or “a zipper may sound like a snowmobile engine starting.” It’s possible to create an environment then within which the words and songs of the students live, she said.

“Using such sonic creations can inspire stories and a journey that we can take together,” Clark said.

Ultimately the students want to invite people to come into their lodge in the salon in the NAC and join them on a journey to their world.

“Let us invite you to discover us and by discovering us you learn about yourself and your connection to sound and land. These are the themes that we are going to be presenting,” Clark said.

The trick is moving the safe room that is the Bear Lodge into the National Arts Centre which is a massive “colonial structure.”

Some students come from KZ and some have spent most of their lives in Gatineau, Clark said. There are a lot of distinct different identities within the group. They relate differently to their own indigeneity, she added.

“They are conflicted about it. They do face prejudice and stereotypes. A lot of them are mixed and they can appear ‘white-coded’ and people may not think they are Indigenous.”

So in their workshops the group talks a lot about what connects them, she said.

“It’s about how we connect, through our diversity, as Indigenous youth. We also connect through different challenges and struggles and conflicts we experience” because of prejudice.

In the end they are all coming together to create one performance that is also a ceremony.

“What we are really talking about is what makes our stories sacred and what makes our experiences sacred and how can we use music and our own voices to create a ceremony.”

The key that seems to unlock the door to the ceremony is the looping pedal.

“The kids love looping because they get to do it together,” Clark said. “There is this element of experimentation and seeing what is possible. The can see how we we use something that may not appear to relate at all to the notion of land and the environment. It really immerses us in this imagination and alternate reality and universe that is the soundscape.”

In the lodge during a workshop, you can record the sound of paper crunching or a zipper opening and closing and run it through the loop to create an instant environment.

The students sit in a circle, which is an ancient symbol and cut through time with the looping pedal.

Clark hopes that this exercise helps create a sense of being heard and understood in a different way. That leads to a different understanding of themselves. In school, she says, there is a lot of judgment, uncertainty and not always a lot of trust.

So this project is about building trust too.

“When we think about stepping into a sweat lodge or a pipe ceremony other ceremonial gatherings, there is always this assumed notion of safety and protection because we are engaging with spiritual leaders and elders and people assigned to be the medicine people and the wisdom keepers.

“How can we as youth in this context also hold that space for one another though art and creation. We are trying to take the mundane and make it sacred and special in a school.”

The students will be performing in Le Salon at the NAC, a spot that is infinitely preferable to the first proposal, Clark said.

“We will be in there, instead of in the big foyer where they wanted to put us originally. That would have been a nightmare, performing in a walk-through space.”

She said she had to put her foot down to get the performance moved.

She says she told organizers that “this isn’t about your audiences only. We need to start from the perspective of the people who are actually doing this work.” They listened.

The salon is just right, she said. It looks and feels like a lodge, she noted.

Clark is embarked on art and education, she said, because it is part of her own journey as a Metis woman and artist.

“I think re-appropriating stories through the oral tradition using technology and contemporary reality is important. I don’t need to go to a sweat lodge to learn about myself. I can do that on a stage. To be able to use that process and methodology with the youth and hear where they come from is an incredible experience for me.”

It might be a bit of a cliche now, but Louis Riel’s famous quote ‘My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back’ seems appropriate to Clark.

For Ky Jarret, one of the students, the idea of performing and writing is important.

“I like writing what I feel. Growing up as a boy people always tell you should be a man. I feel it’s been shown guys suppress emotions, writing it out is a way of expressing it, I think.”

Nibi Tenasco is a 13 year old with roots in Kitigan Zibi. She said she likes “performing and stuff. Even when I’m nervous, I still like putting myself out there and trying new things. I like writing too. I like showing my emotions in a different way. In a song they may hear you better and listen to what you are saying and feeling.”

She was born in Gatineau, but mother and family are from KZ and “I visit there almost every single week.

She says she joined the group “because I’m with people who understand what I am feeling. In classes I’m often the only person who is indigenous. Everyone thinks I’m some kind of outsider.

“Sometimes people get mad at me for saying this is Algonquin territory because they don’t understand what that means. They’ll get mad and say I’m crazy for thinking that.

Lana Lafontaine was born in Gatineau but she has roots are in Haida Gwai.

“I have never been there, but I really need to go,” she says of the islands off the British Columbia coast.

“I have a lot of anxiety and I don’t do a lot of things. I stay home and I do my own thing but I knew that if I passed up the opportunity of performing at the NAC, I would hate myself forever. It’s a big thing.

“I’m OK with expressing myself in my own bubble. We spend so much time together all of us. In the song we are writing, it says ‘We are family bound by culture’.”

For Grade 11 student, Courtenay Price, “making these art forms and expressing our emotions it lasts a long time.” People are still reminding her of a performance she was in in Grade 8.

“I am still getting support for it. I went to events that I would never have gone to because of it. The lesson is ‘Get yourself out there, it lasts a long time’.”

The Big Bang Festival presents NOMAD: Papâmacihowin
Where: Le Salon at the National Arts Centre
When: Feb 17 and 18
This is a free event. For showtimes please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.