Healing work of Vera Manuel honoured at U of R
Reading staged in memory of author
On Friday, Nov. 1, Dr. Michelle Coupal of the Department of English hosted a live-reading of Vera Manuel’s play, Strength of Indian Women, as part of a celebration of a newly-published volume of Manuel’s work.
Dr. Coupal, along with fellow editors Deanna Reder, Joanne Arnott, and Emalene A. Manuel, published a collection of plays, stories and poetry by Vera Manuel entitled, Honouring the Strength of Indian Women earlier this spring. The volume’s purpose is to give voice to Vera Manuel, an artist who was under-published at the height of her career in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Coupal originally planned to do a traditional book launch in Regina; however, the idea shifted slightly upon speaking with her colleague, Deanna Reder, Associate Professor in the Departments of First Nations Studies and English at Simon Fraser University.
“Deanna and I were talking about the possibility of doing a live-reading. She’s read [Strength of Indian Women] aloud in her class and I have in mine as well. It really brings everyone into community by doing that, a community of talking and witnessing. We thought it’d be a great idea to do a live-reading and Emalene and Joanne were both on board with that idea.”
Coupal raised funds from the faculties of Arts and Education as well as the Office of the VP of Research, and the Office of Indigenization, in order to fly in both Manuel and Arnott.
The event was held at La Rotunde in La Cité and, in addition to Coupal, featured the voices of Emalene Manuel (sister to Vera); Dr. Allyson Stevenson of the Department of Politics and International Studies; Dr. Jesse Archibald-Barber of First Nations University of Canada; Joanne Arnott, who is a renowned Métis poet; Pamela Sparvier, administrative assistant at the Office of Indigenization; Dr. Heather Phipps of the Faculty of Education; Jesse Pelletier, senior student at First Nations University of Canada; and Alma Poitras, Faculty of Education Elder-in-Residence.
Elder Poitras offered prayers and an opening smudge for those in attendance as a way to prepare for the healing words and themes within the play. Elder Poitras also sang the beautifully sombre honour song at the play’s end, closing the reading.
Strength of Indian Women follows an Elder, Sousette, and her surrounding family members. The coming of age of Sousette’s granddaughter sparks a need for the women to acknowledge the role that the Residential School still plays in their lives. Each discuss memories of abuse, loss of innocence, regret, and their ability and inability to express love. In the tradition of Vera Manuel, the speaking of the words on the page inspire a feeling of empowerment for the reader, allowing the audience to witness the heart and healing happening, not only amongst the characters, but with the readers as well.
Vera Manuel was a Ktunaxa-Secwepemc writer whose work sought to heal cyclical wounds affecting Indigenous families and individuals, stemming from the trauma of Residential Schools. Manuel’s theatrical works helped her to become a dramatherapist, reinforcing her role as a healer. She died in 2010 at the age of 61.
It is often noted that Vera’s observations in her writing were ahead of any national common knowledge surrounding the trauma caused by Residential Schools. Emalene spoke to Vera’s strong understanding of healing practices.
“People were saying, ‘what can we do for First Nations?’ and [Vera] was saying, ‘Create the resources and the space. Move aside, [leave] that space for us to develop our own ways, because we have the answers to our own situation.’”
Turning now to Honouring the Strength of Indian Women as a whole, Emalene and Coupal shared some insight into the volume’s origin.
After teaching Strength of Indian Women as a graduate student, Coupal became increasingly interested in Vera and other work that she had written. Deanna Reder introduced Coupal to several other of Manuel’s scripts which led to the two being put into contact with Vera’s sister, Emalene.
Emalene Manuel was holding on to Vera’s archives and she reflected on the emotional significance of entering into this project. “I didn’t feel quite ready even though it had been a while. I still hadn’t gone through or even looked at some of the boxes or anything. When I had, over a year or so before, it was quite emotional and so I was kind of keeping it at arm’s length. But I was so excited when [Coupal] called. I just thought, ‘this is the answer to what we’d been hoping for.’”
Joanne Arnott, who was a good friend of Vera’s, was welcomed onto the project, bringing with her a volume of poetry that Vera had written. It would be Arnott who would travel to Cranbrook to visit Emalene and look through Vera’s archives.
“[Arnott] just went through everything and I just felt totally fine with that; I could just step aside. One day I left the house for the day and I left [Arnott] there. Vera’s writings were in good hands, her sister poet.”
Coupal explained that the collection does not have a singular readership. “One of the reasons we chose a university press is that we were hoping to get [Honouring the Strength of Indian Women] into the university classrooms as a start, and into teacher education programs so that it would have a chance of getting into the high school system, which I think it would be fantastic material for.”
The volume was not solely intended for university students and scholars, however. “We also are hoping that it reaches more broadly into communities through some of the events that we’re having because there’s much interest from the general public for new understandings of the Residential School experience and reading about that in a positive and strong way, which is what the wonderful work of Vera is; it’s really intensely healing. We hope [the book] goes across Canada and goes across Turtle Island and then gets out to other countries.”
Emalene reflected on the long, healing journey, one that led to unexpected friendships and saw her sister properly honoured.
“That whole process, in the time that it took from that first phone call until it actually got published, it felt like we were really walking closely together, even though we were living in different places.
“We found each other and it’s like a perfect family.”