Next week, Gemini Award–winning Cree artist Michelle Thrush (Blackstone, North of 60, Arctic Air) debuts her new play, Inner Elder. The play is a poignant, sometimes funny, deep dive into Thrush’s personal memories as she explores her own inner elder.
“The character I explore in this show is Kookum Martha (Kookum means grandmother in Cree),” explains Thrush. “She has been in my life for some 25+ years. She kinda demanded I give her life and has not left my side since. I’ve been doing comedy with her for many years all across Indian Country, and it was only a matter of time before she would want her own solo show.” Though Inner Elder is about Michelle’s life per se, it is about the guidance of the beautiful, spiritual, and very silly grandmothers in her life. “They have allowed me to fall down many times and know I had the strength to jump back up.”
We asked Thrush about her work, her life, and the key teachings she’s picked up from her elders.
SDTC: When and where do you feel most content?
MT: At home with my two daughters. They are both teenagers now, so my time with them is so precious. I love watching how they see the world, and we have some incredible conversations. Youth today are just so much more aware than when I was a teen.
Who/what has had the greatest influence on your career?
My earliest influence was Carol Burnett. I remember staying up so I could watch her. She gave me this comfort in knowing I could be a fool and still fit in. My other influence would have to be the land. Being on the land has always been the place I could be myself, be most honest with myself, and not feel pressured to be something I wasn’t.
What dish always satisfies you?
A really good Indian taco at a totally kicking Pow Wow will never be turned down.
What film/show has recently wowed you?
I recently watched The Hate U Give on a flight home from Toronto, and it was one of those films where you are doing everything to not break down sobbing because you would totally freak out the nice old woman in the seat next to you.
What’s on your current reading list?
TBH I do not have any books on the go right now. I go through stages, mostly in the winter, where I have a few books on the go, but right now I’m just enjoying the earth waking up all around me.
What Toronto places do you truly love?
Kensington Market, hands down.
What exhibit are you dying to see?
The Dana Claxton Exhibit at Vancouver Art Gallery! Love her work!
Your go-to coping mechanism?
Ceremony, smudge, meditation and being on the land.
What five things would you want if you were deserted on an island?
A solar-powered sound box with all my favourite music. A ten-foot shelf full of intriguing books. My smudge. Some really good hiking shoes and a hammock.
What’s a childhood memory that always brings a smile to your face?
My dad loved to fish, and Southern Alberta has some of the best fishing spots in Canada. I remember him catching them, and as a child I knew how to clean fish like a pro. I would then dissect their stomach contents and once I determined what they were eating, I would search the rocks for those particular bugs and flies and give them to my dad for bait. I also learnt how to tie flies with my dad and we had a special one we created and called the Bow River Special. It was guaranteed to catch at least five rainbow trout in one day.
What life philosophy is currently helping to guide your journey?
Searching for the gift in every challenge and being grateful for how it has shaped my journey.
One skill you’d love to improve this year?
The constantly changing skill of being a mother to two amazing daughters. I am always shifting my skills to accompany them as they grow and develop into strong, young Indigenous women. I am always learning how to listen better, to empathize and how to know when to give advice and when to just keep my mouth shut. They are the greatest teachers I have ever known, and I can only hope to keep up with everything they give me as their mom.
What’s a piece of career advice that has served you well?
Do not wait for the work. Create it.
What outfit makes you feel the most you?
Comfy jeans, a worn out T-shirt, and some broken-in Converse runners.
What toy have you held onto since you were small?
I don’t have anything from my childhood. The repercussions of alcoholic parents is that we moved a lot and many things were left behind along the way.
What’s a subject that is currently holding your attention?
Definitely climate change and women. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has always been a huge issue as it affects myself, my family and everyone I know. To me, I feel there is a direct link between how we treat the earth and how we treat women. Both are sacred and the keepers of medicine. Both are life-givers and essential to how we see ourselves. Honouring the sacred feminine is something that has been greatly damaged with colonization.
When you compare yourself now to where you were at ten years ago, what’s a major change you can identify?
Ten years ago I was living under a mountain in the south Okanagan, off-the-grid, with my daughters. Today I am more aware of my footprint. Back then I was angry about this world we are leaving for the next generation. Today I realize the power of meditation and prayer has more ability to create change than force and anger. I am more aware of what I contribute as far as energy into this playground we call life.
Goal(s) for 2019?
To figure out the secrets of shape-shifting and become a coyote or maybe a crow…or to just get my taxes in in time.
What was the greatest lesson you’ve learned from elders in your life?
Not to take myself too seriously. I have been blessed by some amazing elders in my life. Another great teaching is we are never alone. In today’s society, there tends to be such a “me” undertone to everything, but with my teachings it is not about me; it’s about “us.” We are connected to everything around us, including each other. This way, it’s hard to feel too nervous on stage because I know I have my ancestors out there with me.
What do you hope audiences take away from this performance?
That there exists only a thin veil between our world and the other world. We are not alone. Around each blade of grass, there are a hundred thousand spirits gently whispering, “Grow, grow.” Also, that every one of us are doing the best we can with the tools we have been given, and it’s okay to laugh about it all.
Inner Elder runs May 8-12 at Aki Studio (585 Dundas St. E). Get tickets here.