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A First Nations twist on a Greek classic

A controversial adaptation of Antigone comes to the U of R

Jonathan Petrychyn
A&C Editor

Art imitates life, or so the saying goes. This will be particularly true when the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) hosts an adaptation of Sophocles’ classic Greek play Antigone, which deals with issues of corrupt governance and financial mismanagement.

But this isn’t your average contemporary staging of an ancient drama. Playwright Deanne Kasokeo translated the play from the ancient Greek setting to a contemporary Saskatchewan First Nations reserve.

“When I read [Antigone], I found that there were a lot of universal teachings in the play that were parallel to First Nations culture,” Kasokeo said. “I thought that it would be perfect to do an adaption set on a contemporary First Nations reserve.”

And though Kasokeo might have thought combining the ancient Greek teachings with contemporary First Nations issues was perfect, Kasokeo’s play found itself wrapped up in controversy when a performance of it was banned at Poundmaker First Nation, the nation that Kasokeo and Antigone director Floyd Favel call home.

“The play is about something very important to us as native people, that being bad, unaccountable leadership,” Favel said. Poundmaker’s chief had banned the performance of Antigone because he thought the depiction of Chief Creon, the unaccountable leader that Favel is referring to, too closely resembled himself.

“That brought it national attention,” said Jesse Archibald Barber, assistant professor of English at the FNUniv. Barber was instrumental in bringing the controversial play to the University of Regina campus, offering it as a supplement to a course he is teaching this semester on First Nations drama.

“They went and performed it in defiance of the ban,” he said. “And all that is quite remarkable and I think really deserving of recognition. And so really with all the issues that the play deals with itself in the play, and then all of the issues surrounding the actual production of the play, it raises a lot of very important concerns about our communities and a lot of social and cultural issues that First Nations people are feeling today.”

Antigone follows the story of its titular character, a young Aboriginal woman trying to get a proper burial for her brother.

“Antigone’s brother was banished from the reserve, but then he died off reserve,” Barber explained. “She wants to bring his body back to the reserve to give him a traditional burial. But the chief refuses because there had been previous conflict between him and Antigone’s brother. [Antigone’s brother] ran against him in the previous election and he was calling for an opening of the financial books.”

Kasokeo said that this narrative thrust was not written as any specific comment on contemporary issues, but on a general sentiment towards First Nations governance.

“I think it was just part of a knowledge that our governance systems on our reserve weren’t working for us, and I felt that we really needed to take a critical look at how we are governing and how we are allowing mechanisms like the Indian Act influence us”, Kasokeo said.

By producing the play in the atrium of the First Nations University, Favel hopes that a dialogue will be opened to discuss issues of First Nations governance.

“We will be in an atmosphere where students are engaged with issues, locally and globally, and so our play will create discussion around governance on reserves, “ Favel said.

Kasokeo sees the play as becoming particularly important in the wake of recent issues in First Nations governance at all levels.

“It really became relevant now [because of] all of the issues that are happening now in the political institutions of First Nations right from the band level through to the provincial level,” Kasokeo said.

“Antigone’s brother wanted to reform the spending on the reserve. So right there those are issues that are of course in the news today,” Barber echoed. “The FSIN [Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations] fired Kirk Goodtrack, the laywer who was chair for SIGA [Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority], because he had promised reform of the books, or reform of spending.”

These issues and struggles include those happening right on campus. In 2010, the FNUC saw both its provincial and federal funding cut after it was discovered that funds had been mismanaged within the university.

The play also calls to mind issues surrounding the resignation of FSIN Chief Guy Lonechild and Premier Brad Wall’s comments on the use of government funds to pay out Lonechild’s severance.

“It’s these issues that we’re facing today. This play speaks to issues that we’re facing on an almost daily basis in this province,” Barber said.

However, Favel noted that it is not just enough to point out the issues that First Nations governance is facing.

“I hope the larger society can realize that leadership such as ours on Poundmaker is an anomaly, but at the same time, it happens and we need to find a solution to not allow such leaders to prosper,” Favel said. “Unwittingly, our leadership helped our production by giving us publicity.”

However, Barber stressed that, though the play reflects contemporary First Nations issues, it speaks to larger contemporary issues that face society as a whole.

“These aren’t just Indian problems,” he said. “What happens in Saskatchewan in the media often is that it gets turned into as if these are problems that are always plaguing Indian politics. But this play shows that the issues we are facing today are really universal. They’re issues that the ancient Greeks faced. That helps to break some of the stereotypes that get put on Indian politics.”

Barber hopes that the production of the play at the First Nations University will help begin a dialogue about these issues.

“The production of it allows us to confront those issues, because that’s one of the functions of theatre,” he said.  “It allows us to objectively look at and confront the struggles that our community is facing, and then at the same time, give us some perspective on how we can solve some of those problems and move on.”

Antigone is scheduled for one performance on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m., in the First Nations University atrium. Tickets can be purchased for $10 at the door.

Finding Antigone’s themes in the news

With the key themes of Deanne Kasokeo’s Antigone being the mismanagement of funds and issues with First Nations governance, it’s easy to see art imitating life in contemporary news stories. Here are four recent news events that can be seen reflected in Antigone.

Kirk Goodtrack dismissed as SIGA Chair

Regina lawyer Kirk Goodtrack was dismissed not once, but twice as chair of the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association (SIGA) by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Goodtrack had hoped to reform the spending made at SIGA, specifically as it related to the ever- increasing size of the board and its their associated administrative costs.

Funding Cut to FNUniv

In 2010, the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) had its their funding removed by both the federal and provincial governments because the organization had been wildly misspending its funds on unnecessary trips and vacations. Over $265,000 had been paid out to senior officials within FNUniv, with $98,000 of that going to former president Charles Pratt.

Guy Lonechild Resigns

Earlier this year, Guy Lonechild was suspended from his position as chief of the FSIN based on a drunk  driving charge he had been convicted of in March. Guy Lonechild took the suspension to court, and it was later found that the board of the FSIN board was forcing Lonechild’s suspension out of personal interests, ignoring the accountable and democratic process.

Poundmaker Censors Antigone

Poundmaker First Nation censored a performance of Deanne Kasokeo’s Antigone because Chief Dwayne Antoine thought the play was a direct comment on his leadership. Given that the play presents Chief Creon as a corrupt leader, it’s safe to say that in banning the play, Antoine became more like Creon than if he had let it play.

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