NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Monique Mojica speaks to honour the words of Rita Joe

Monique Mojica during a performance of I Lost My Talk in St. John's, NL. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Monique Mojica is looking forward to the NAC Orchestra’s trip to the Eskasoni First Nation.

For her, it will be a celebration of the message of the poem I Lost My Talk, by the Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe and of the poet herself.

Those words have been set to music by the Canadian composer John Estacio and Mojica speaks them on stage during performances of I Lost My Talk on this NACO tour of Atlantic Canada. The work is part of a major NACO commission in 2016 of four pieces of Canadian music called Life Reflected.

They are powerful, meaningful words and they resonate deeply with Mojica, who is of Kuna and Rappahannock heritage.

Mojica was “brought into the project by the (Six Nations) choreographer Santee Smith. She is someone I have worked with before. I was in the premiere of her project Re-Quickening last year.

“She chose the dancers for the film component of I Lost My Talk,” Mojica says. The film that accompanies the NACO performance was made in Killbear Park near Parry Sound, Ontario, at  “ungodly hours. We started at 4 a.m. and it was absolutely freezing and we were also barefoot on the Canadian Shield.

“It is challenging, the way Santee works. She choreographs on our bodies.” Smith asked the dancers to come up with some “moves” and then she chose what she wanted to work with after the dancers performed for her. In that way, Mojica says, the dance steps remain authentic to the dancers.

But it is even more challenging to speak the words of I Lost My Talk story to Estacio’s music, she says. The music is “beautiful and powerful but it is Western European music and you are talking about I Lost My Talk” which is about what happened to Rita Joe in residential school.

“How do you tell this particular story that happened for all the reasons that have to do with settler colonialism and white supremacy against this enormously powerful symphonic sound?”

Mojica says the music “gives me something to work against. The truth is we didn’t lose (our talk). We weren’t careless. It didn’t fall out of our pocket on the way to the store. It was forcibly removed.

“I don’t think you can talk about that experience without acknowledging all the reasons that it happened. One of those reasons is because of the supremacy that Western European culture has had in the places where it has colonized.”

Mojica has worked in indigenous theatre for many years; it’s the family business. Her mother, Gloria Miguel, and her two aunts founded Spiderwoman Theatre, a well-known company in New York City where Mojica was born.

She moved to Canada in the 1980s to work on the original production of The Rez Sisters written by Tomson Highway and produced by Native Earth Performing Arts. She settled in Toronto and has been involved in theatre and dance and film work there ever since. Her son is DJ Bear Witness, a member of A Tribe Called Red, the Ottawa-based electronic band experiencing great success worldwide. A Tribe Called Red picked a couple of JUNOs at the recent 2017 awards in Ottawa.

One of the themes underlined by the NACO tour is reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.

In 2015, when the project began, Mojica was more hopeful that reconciliation might be possible. No longer.

“I think we are at a different point now. I had this conversation with Donna Feore, the director (of the Life Reflected performances) that we are kind of in a different place now.

“I think we were more optimistic then about the reconciliation thing. I always thought it was the wrong word. How can there be reconciliation when there has been no conciliation. And from where we are now we know that many of the promises made … it’s pretty empty.

“By last fall I had decided that I wasn’t going to do any more reconciliation projects. I had committed to this one but it seems clear, as my son said to me, ‘Oh no, mom, as a band we don’t do anything that has to do with a reconciliation theme. It’s not for us, it’s for them’.”

Mojica is dignified and composed when she speaks but she is angry about promises not kept and about the abuses, past and present. Indigenous peoples in Canada generally have little to be happy about with 150 years of Confederation and many are not marking the anniversary in any way.

“I say those words in honour of Rita Joe and all the survivors and all those who didn’t survive. And that is what carries me through the performance … her words and Santee’s choreography. I look up there at the film and I get choked up every night because they are my people.

“There has been conflict all along (in this project). I think conflict was built in by telling this story with a symphony orchestra and telling this story within an institution like the NAC. When I do it, I do it for the ones that never made it home … and the fact that there are more native children in care now than there ever were during the height of residential schools.

“They are still apprehending children and they are still dying. It makes it tricky, touchy to be an indigenous actor asked to step into a role like this.”

Mojica knew of Rita Joe before she signed on to the project but she wasn’t all that familiar with her work. She has dug into that with enthusiasm, especially after meeting Rita Joe’s daughters.

“I know she wrote all the time on any scrap of paper she could find. That’s how a lot of women writers who are not women of privilege wrote … at kitchen table.

“We get to see Eskasoni (on May 2 and 3). I expect that visit to be the absolute highlight. To be able to be in the community and to be able to take something back to the community, I think that is what we have to do. I feel an enormous responsibility to do that with my work.”

Mojica believes Rita Joe’s words need to be heard. “But it has to be heard without creating trauma-porn. That is another tension. When we start talking about missing and murdered women and residential school survivors there is that level of trauma-porn. People get titillated by the suffering.”

It seems so simple, her speaking the words of this poem, but it really is a surprisingly demanding role.

“Every night I say the words, I have to keep an eye on the end of maestro’s baton. It’s like I am another instrument in the orchestra. In the theatre world if it’s a little different one night (it’s not a big deal). But with I Lost My Talk that can’t happen.”

In Newfoundland, for example, she was nervous because she had developed a cold.

“What if I coughed. That would put me behind.” Fortunately it went off without a hitch.

And then she is also connected in time to the video in which she is seen. So she is responding to the baton and to the video version of herself and her younger self.

“I’m working pretty hard for someone who is being so still up there (on stage). A  lot of it is internal and a lot of it was creating this bond or cord between me and Alexander (Shelley) and to my screen selves old and young.”

Mojica sits on stage beside the violas. She likes that because she studied the viola as a child.

“Regardless of everything we know about cultural colonialism, it’s damn powerful sitting in the middle of a symphony orchestra and that music is beautiful and strong and the vibration gets inside you.”

Mojica will be on the rest of the tour next fall.

“It will be interesting to see how I Lost My Talk is received in Western Canada. There is a larger native population there,” she said. But more immediately, it is really important how Eskasoni, on Cape Breton Island reacts.

“I can’t be her, I can only be me with all the integrity I can bring that I have as a performer and that has been passed down to me by the generations before. I’m looking forward to being on Mi’kmaw land.”

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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.