Theola Ross, Matwêwêstan, is currently living in Toronto and is originally from the Pimichikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. They are Âsêtêw iniw (person who walks backwards), non-binary, and queer. Ross is a storyteller through language, film, Northern Traditional Dancer as their media.
Theola Ross InterviewTheola Ross
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
"I got a lot of my lived experience from where I'm from, and that's northern Manitoba. So, you know, the bush and lakes, surrounded by lake and nature, and we lived off the land. You know, geese come to mind in spring, moose in the fall, fish summer, like, we just kind of - those foods we ate, right? And it's like you learn from that. You learn from how to live as a human being."
Interview with Theola Ross for Kindling
Theola Ross: Okay, so my name is Theola Ross, I have a Cree name as well, which is Matwêwêstan, which is I Blow in the Wind. You know, if you blow in the wind, you know, you hit a wall, you go past that wall as wind. Nothing stops you pretty much, so. Yeah, so that's me. And I'm currently living in Toronto - shouldn't say currently, I've been here about more than 15 years, but I'm originally from the Pimichikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, and I love long walks on the beach.
I love avocados.
So I don't... I'm torn with using Two Spirit because it's the English version of it, but Aaseetee, I think maybe that's one I like, Asseetee Iniw, which is Person Who Walks Backwards. So I think I feel that one a little bit more. And then so that kind of tells all where I'm from, so I'm [unclear] Cree, so territory [unclear] can tell you where I'm from with that, just that one word. I do things backwards. I guess maybe it could say that I'm not conservative in my thinking. So gender wise, I'm not binary, conservative thinking, sexuality, I'm not conservative with that either. So yeah, that encompasses my identity in a whole. Yeah. Yeah, as opposed to "my sexuality is I'm gay or queer or -" doesn't tell me, doesn't tell the person where I'm from or who I am, so I said Aaseetee Iniw.
Louis Esmé: Cool, thanks. What's your method of artistic expression?
Theola Ross: So my method - so I... Maybe labelling what I do might be hard for me so... In a linear sense, okay, so I do film. I do a lot of art practice related to language, and I do dance - traditional dance, so I do traditional men's dance, so my method may be performing, not just like in a powwow, for example, I like to perform telling stories. So all those three might encompass - I'm more of a storyteller. So I think telling stories is my method through those three mediums. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Why is it important to you?
Theola Ross: I think it's important because the first thing that comes to mind is language, and I feel like from time, I think, like learning Cree from my grandmother, and then my grandmother learning Cree from her parents, and so on, you know, my ancestors that, like, it's in my blood to kind of be or feel the need to tell stories. And it's always through language.
Louis Esmé: Why is storytelling important to you and why those three methods?
Theola Ross: Storytelling is easy for me, I guess, it's like an identity, I guess maybe it's my personality. I don't know names, like if someone tells me their name, I forget names. I'm more of, "okay, so I met you and you told me something about yourself," so I know more about stories as opposed to their names, which I guess in this world, in this environment here in Toronto, that could be a bad thing because people want to know, you know, you don't know my name, you can't pronounce my name. And it's like, "ugh," you know, I feel like growing up, just that example of naming people that we were always given nicknames and language based on what our personality and what we did or the story that happened in that situation, and then we were given those names and I feel like I don't know, I guess maybe it's rooted in me. It's in my blood, nature versus nurture, you know. Yeah. So that's very important to me because it's basically my identity. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Cool, which piece of work or works are you most proud of and why?
Theola Ross: I think the film stuff that I'm doing is quite challenging because it's very new to me, so I feel like though that medium is... I guess I'm proud of because of that, because of like I grew up dancing, I gravitated to dance, I guess it comes easy and natural for me, but with film, everything's changing. Technology is changing. Mostly technology and how to, you know, edit your work. And so when I completed a project, I'm like, "wow, I had to go through a lot of like the learning curve of that," so it kind of gives me - it excites me more because I completed that because of the challenging aspect to it. Yeah, so, but I think all of it I'm very, very proud of. Yeah. Because, like, I didn't - I came out as an artist not too long ago, like, it was like maybe eight years ago, nine years ago maybe? So it's been recent. I didn't ever consider myself an artist. I was always that person to coordinate activities for like the population I was working for because I'm a social worker by trade. So I would coordinate art activities for youth because I was the population I worked for. I was like, "oh, this is great," and I'm watching you do art. It's beautiful. It's like, you know, "what do you want to do?" "I want to do this, I want to do film, I want to do dance," and it's like, "okay! I'm going to get it done. We're going to get this done," and then I'd be always watching it. I'm like, "Hmm..." and then when I started dibbling and dabbling, I felt like, well, I guess I'm an artist too. But when I look at a broader perspective, I feel like all of us artists in a way. So, yeah, I don't consider myself special in that. I think it's just I think we have - everybody has a point or has something innately in them that makes them an artist. It's just defining what it is, like, it's like, you know, like, the contemporary means of being an artist, I guess, gets more attention than, you know, our cultural means of expressing ourselves like language, for example, like Cree poetry. Is that an art? To me, it is so, yeah.
Louis Esmé: Maybe on that note, which artists or art movements have you been influenced by? And you can define those words however you want to.
Theola Ross: But because she did a lot of like, I guess, controversial means of performance and this was like back in the '80s and, you know, that kind of paved the way. I'm going to remember name.
Louis Esmé: Rebecca Belmore?
Theola Ross: Right! You did it!
Louis Esmé: I love it, like, you're so Cree, you're like describing the situation.
Theola Ross: Yeah, yeah, the story, see? So she to me is like so powerful in the sense of like "I'm brave," like, "I'm going to do this taboo art. I don't care if -" you know, in our own - like if we push the envelope, for example, in our own communities, it's like, "no, no, no, no, no, we're not ready to tell those stories, that's too harsh, you know,". But she's like, "no, I am. I am going to tell the story." so she comes to mind and her performance and how she carries her art in her body and how she expresses it, it's very powerful. I feel that she pulls a lot of that anger that I keep in my body. When people say, "oh, you have to get rid of angers," and I'm like, "how do I get rid of anger?", oh, you meditate, you know, you go to the gym or you do certain things that try to pass that through your body. But for her, just watching it just forces that anger out somehow because it's like I feel like I want to embody myself inside her body and just feel - like she makes me feel. So, yeah. So she definitely comes to mind, her stuff definitely comes to mind.
Louis Esmé: So the next section talks about childhood and younger years - memory can be complicated for lots of reasons, so if you need anything, if you need to take a break or a glass of water or change the subject, it's all good. There's no pressure to answer any of it. How does the land in the water where you're from influence your work?
Theola Ross: I obviously learnt a lot from where I'm from, I got a lot of my lived experience from where I'm from, and that's northern Manitoba. So, you know, the bush and lakes, surrounded by lake and nature, and we lived off the land. You know, geese come to mind in spring, moose in the fall, fish summer, like, we just kind of - those foods we ate, right? And it's like you learn from that. You learn from how to live as a human being. It's like you're not supposed to be a greedy person, you know, you only take what you need from the land or you, you know, try to eat well, for example, if we’re talking about food. I'm hungry, by the way, right now. That's why I'm talking about food a lot. And, you know, how the the land moves in itself, you learn a lot of, like for example, if you want to talk about like sexuality, for example, you know that there is, you know, not just binaries in nature. There's a lot of like - we'll use the scientific terms of homosexuality, even when there's homosexuality in nature, right? There is also not binary and one - what are they, what's the scientific word for like... it's not - what do they call it? You know, when a worm..? You know, that they…
Louis Esmé: Intersex?
Theola Ross: They are intersex! Yeah, they use that word? It's so rigid, anyway. So like it's like for humans we think we're so fucking we're like so above nature when nature is the one, or the land is the one, that's going to do us in if we don't smarten up, right? So I think, in the forefront, when I do my art, I don't - it's just innate for me. The land is always there for me because that's where I'm from and that's what I learn and that's what I honour. Or so I don't approach and say, "oh, you know, I'm going to do this piece based on the land," it just naturally evolves that way, because through traditional dance, you know, men's traditional dance or grass dance, for example, obviously the name in itself, grass dance, there is a story related to grass dance. My poetry, for example, I talk a lot about Residential Schools, of my grandmother, and language - and especially through language where a lot of that talks about respecting the land and only taking what you need and all that stuff I learnt from the Elders from my reserve. And then through my film, it's definitely a lot of politics, like the forefront we see in media right now is like back home our issues are hydro, the hydro dams. So the generation station is creating damage within our waters. Debris moves into our lakes and gets caught in fishing nets, the erosion on the side of the lakes. So a lot of the land is like, you know, eroding and mercury in the water, and then, you know, there's evidence of, like, children having sores on their skin because they're so sensitive to the water. We are on boil advisory programs.
My grandmother, always, before even that came about, they knew right away, like boil the water. Like we didn't need those advisories. We just - they just knew by looking at the land, they didn't need scientists to tell them that, so. So I boil - even here I boil, you know, so, yeah, I think what I'm trying to get at is I don't think of - I'm gonna - it's the land I'm always holding or the land is always holding me and honouring myself to do what I do. And so I always give gratitude and, you know, love to the land. I should do more, though, that's the thing, you know, being in an urban environment, it's like you have to - and being distracted, the fact that you have to pay so much rent and you have to, you know, maintain a job and and then, you know, if you're not surrounded by this, you can quickly forget about that. So I always have to go back to it, be like, "where are you from? You know, keep that - keep that in mind, don't get - you're not above the land, you're not superior." So. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: How did your gender identity or sexual orientation, knowing that these are also maybe not relevant terms culturally, but how do you feel about this idea that influenced your early years and how do you bring that into your art practice?
Theola Ross: I talked a lot about the poetry stuff because I started doing poetry because I needed to express myself somehow and I was showing signs of not doing that, basically, this world of mental health, you know, anxiety, anger, depression. So I was I was suffering through not being able to find a way out, basically. So a lot of, you know, past colonial, you know, things that happened - Residential School. So I'm third generation, well, first generation post Residential Schools. And, because my grandmother and my mother went to Residential Schools, so their parenting styles kind of, you know, we're forced to think in those binary terms when it comes to gender. So that was definitely pushed on me. So my expression didn't really match that. So I wanted, I really wanted, to flow like going back to nature. I really want to just be fluid in it, you know, but because of Christianity and colonial thinking, that was pushed on me. So when, you know, you become an adult and you can make your own decisions, I was like, "okay, now I could,” you know, "come out," and then - but I didn't know, I was fumbling. I was a baby in it. So I was like, "how do I learn to do this?" Like, this is...
So it took me a long time for me to learn what that looks like for me: gender, sexuality, and how to express myself, how to think, how to feel - especially like how do I feel in it. So I think all that influence and that lived experience has been expressed in my poetry. So, yeah, so because I started journaling and the only way that I feel and I said, "fuck, I can't - I can't write in English,". I tried really hard to write in English, like poetry in English, I'm like, what did they say in English? STANZA What? In five lines this, in three lines this. I couldn't think in that - in those, you know, in those technical ways. So I just said, "fuck this, I'm going to just start writing in Cree," and it just flowed off, you know, I just flow because I couldn't stop. Like, I - there’s no fucking way I can intellectualize what I was feeling. So I just kind of started writing in Cree, and kept on writing in Cree. And then, when I read it back, it kind of - I start chopping away and making it look the way I wanted it to look. But free writing was a blessing for me. Yeah, so then it became this thing that I could build upon and be like, "okay, so this could be like a project that could distract me from those other things that might pull me away from my true self.”
Louis Esmé: You've touched on it a little bit, but if you want to expand about how like what role art, poetry, language played in your early years…
Theola Ross: I want to say that I don't think we called it poetry on the reserve when we talk Cree, when we speak it. I think ineemow - ineemow means, like, speak Cree. So I'm trying to - I always try to find the, like, where it derives from; ineemow, and then achimoh is tell me a story, but it's like you could tell someone, say, achimoh, meaning, like - say, for example, if something - and it doesn't have to be like a story, like a, "oh, tell me a beautiful story from intro to middle to end, conclusion, it has to flow as a story,", you could tell me that you came on the bus here and then how you travelled here in your van and me on the bus and yadda yadda yadda, so that's - you could tell that person the achimoh, achimoh would still be the same word as if you told someone to write you a novel or a poem. Or, say, a politician - or not a politician, the Chief doing a speech, for example, or a spiritual person conducting a ceremony, for example, they're doing their - achimowin is what it's called, right? The philosophy of that, so achimoh, you're asking someone to achimoh. Now, if you transfer it to english, it's "tell me a story" would be different. You're specifically saying tell me a story, and it kind of puts this strain on the person. It's like, "oh, fuck, now I have to - and I feel pressured here to tell a nice intro," you know, an end story, or "what happened? How did you get here?" there's a lot of content and they have specific words for specific situations. So it's a little bit more complex as opposed to to Cree. It's just natural for me to tell stories, no matter how boring it is. You know what I mean??
So for me right now, telling you this stuff in english, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking Cree. So I had to train myself to do that, so, and as a child, it was like I'm speaking Cree to everybody. So there was no - these feelings of feelings weren’t like, say, for example, if I'm talking about, like you said, these topics could be heavy - english to me... I could be triggered about things, but also I'm also trying to think a lot more when I'm telling you, so, as opposed to Cree... It's automatic for me to feel better in it because I'm talking Cree and then I'm easily feeling, there's no thinking involved. So, you know, I could save a lot of money in therapy if I went to a Cree speaking therapist, trust me, as opposed to, you know, in english, because it's a lot - I got to go back now and, like, decompress and, "what did I say?", or, you know, it's a lot of that, as opposed to agree, I understand it. I understand what I said, I understand the philosophy of what I'm saying, so.
Louis Esmé: It's very generous of you to even share that, but also to meet me here in this space, so thank you.
Theola Ross: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, I mean, like I said: it's a thing for me since I've left the reserve when I was eighteen, so it had to be... It was a - I had to learn quick, basically, is what I'm saying, I had to learn real quick. But yeah, I mean, I think all of that - because art, to me, it doesn't feel like a job. So, an artist, being an artist, doesn't feel like a job because it feels good to me, as opposed to being a social worker, and I have to document everything and paperwork and all this kind of stuff. It doesn't - it's not natural, so it didn't come from my childhood, so I feel like back home - and then dance was very important to us, too. I mean, they jigged and square danced a lot more than traditional dance, but dance - expressing yourself in movement is ever since you're a baby. I think you dance first before you even start walking. So express in movement and some sort, but then film - I think film to me is more of when I was a teenager, I think because a funny thing that happened on the reserve is we first got HBO; it's so funny, it was so hilarious. It's like all of a sudden I only have four channels and they were, you know, the TV with the knob thing? And you had to get the pliers to turn it. So that was my TV, and we only had four channels. We had CBC. Where the hell did the Disney came in? I think it was through CBC.
Louis Esmé: Oh yeah?
Theola Ross: And then all of a sudden, I was 13 years old, we had a local station also and they always played bingo at a certain time on the local TV station. Bingo, and then they would have looping information, just general PowerPoint looping, you know what I'm saying? Like it's a, you know, hockey tournament, blah, blah, blah, this time, this day, make sure you have your registration for your children. Next page, it would be Women's Council meeting, blah, blah, blah, meet here, da, da, da. And so it'd loop all this information and then they would have Christian moments where they would have a telethon they'd call it, where you would call in for people that are going through issues like, say there is a death in the family, you want to help out with the funeral costs. And there's a medical situation in the family, they want to help with them, so the family can travel - anything to do with that kind of stuff. And they would - oh, they were called the Pledge Hour, that's what they had called it there, and then they would have local Christian singers going in and singing gospel music. Yeah. So it'd be an hour long. So that will play.
And then all of a sudden they added HBO. I was like, “what a fucking contrast," you have that and then you have HBO. HBO is like probably like back in - I don't know if it's still the same, but it's like you get R rated, you know, shows on that. Right? And then that was mind blowing for me because it opened more for me because documentaries start to come on, my favourite was Taxi Cab Confessions. Do you remember that? Oh my God, so it's about reality TV, about New York, and camera in taxi, yellow taxis, taxi driver picking up passengers of all walks of life. Yeah, so you would get new people that are living in, moving from small town Missouri or something like that, and they would, you know, be drunk in the backseat of the taxi and be like (unclear), and talking about their lives. Obviously, they consented to it after the fact, probably. And then you would have drag queens, you would have - back in that - that's how they described it, was drag queens. And then they would have queer people on there, you know, kissing and, you know, just all people from different walks. So this was, like, this the first time seeing all this stuff for me as a 12, 13, 14 year old and I'm like, "damn," and then I'm like, "this is on TV? Watching people's lives on TV?" and I'm like, "what is this?" So it blew my mind, so then my mom had bought me a camcorder. So I started making videos.
Theola Ross: I started making videos of rez dogs.
Louis Esmé: Yes!
Theola Ross: Yeah. And I used to - there was this older lady that never left her house.
Theola Ross: Something like that. Yeah. So I really wanted to get her story and I would actually try to go in and be like, "hey, can I take a video? Can we talk," or whatever. And of course she told me, "no, get the fuck out of here," but I wanted - I was very interested in what was going on and then, yeah. So I would like, you know, take B-roll shots of her house, would wait for her to look outside her curtains so I can get the shot - this was, I mean, being 12 years old... So yeah. So I was like, "wow," you can - you could tell stories, you know, with a camera. I mean it's like, you know, it was very exciting for me. But then I put that away and I thought, "nah, you know, that's too much," because I don’t know the technical aspect to it until it came up again just recently. So, yeah. So I think it was always there, but I just kind of shut it off for a bit. And then my career choices were social services, like working with people. And I think that has a hand in in my art as well, because I like learning from people and their lives and their lived experience, too. So, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Louis Esmé: You maybe already talked a bit about this because, like TV stuff is generational and like the way you describe the TV is about our generation too, like the thing breaking off and using the pliers.
Theola Ross: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Do you want to talk a bit more about how the generation you grew
up in influenced your ideas about art making and how you work?
Theola Ross: I think I'm more - I feel like because of old school style of making art, I feel like I don't get hung up a little, maybe? I don't want to assume anything, but I feel like the new generation, I think is because they're faster with technology. So if nothing is working, technically, a perfect example is we ordered Little Caesar's yesterday, right? I love Little Caesar's, by the way, their crust is amazing. So you know, you can order on your damn phone, right? And then you get to see the person travelling on the map. And then so we see the car pass our house and I'm like, "where are they going?" Like - and that's not the first time it happened. So we call and then we're like, "you passed our house, are you okay?" And they're like, "oh, Google Maps says - Uber Map says that I'm 400 metres away," and I'm like, "okay, great. Yeah, you are. You're 400 metres away,". And then they come back, apparently, and then we're like, "okay, they're there. How come they're not ringing our doorbell?" So we call again. And they're, "Google's still telling me I'm 400 metres away," and I'm like - that's like... Just put down your phone and look at the address. Do you see number 50 on the house? But they still don't understand, they don't do anything yet. So they're like, "no, I can't, but Google is telling me -" So I said, "I'm sorry. Google is telling you - it's wrong. Google's telling -" and anyway, so we had to go meet them. So I feel like I think for me, I think I could improvise if technology shut down right now; I think I would be able to manage a little bit with with my art, through cursive writing.
Louis Esmé: So glad we learned cursive writing. It's true, it's gonna save us.
Theola Ross: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: So what, if you want to expand some more, what aspects of your Indigenous identity influence your art practice?
Theola Ross: Oh, my God, I can't even pick. So I feel like my being Indigenous I think is all of what encompasses my art. So I don't think there is a specific part to it. I have to use my whole - what I've learnt through lived experience, culture, through my family, friends that are Indigenous, you know, my community and Indigenous artist community, I learned from them. I rely a lot on mentors.
Louis Esmé: What aspects of your Indigenous identity influence your art.
Theola Ross: Yeah I think like the whole thing and my whole being, I think it's who I am, like, I think I wouldn't be able to do it otherwise; if you asked me to do something that is not Indigenous or an artistic medium that is not Indigenous, let's pick one. Mona Lisa, for example, right?
Louis Esmé: Maybe they're all Indigenous.
Theola Ross: Maybe they are, yes, see? Yeah, so I wouldn't - I have to do it that way or else it won't be good, I think, for me. Yeah. And besides, we're in right now, Native people, I think.
Louis Esmé: #trending.
Theola Ross: Yeah, we're trending. So I think that's what people want to hear and see is is Indigenous stuff.
Louis Esmé: What cultural teachings around gender and sexuality do you feel comfortable sharing and how do they relate to your art?
Theola Ross: Well... That's very new to me, too, because, like I said, my family is Christian, so I was immersed in that way of thinking. So culturally, I feel like I pick a lot of - it depends on what you describe as culture, like I think I talked about it before, that I feel like coming into myself as who I really am as an Indigenous person, not this authentic
Ancestry.com kind of Native, where, you know, I went in and gave you my DNA and now
I'm, you know, I have this much Indigenous - now I'm Indigenous. I lived it. I have the
history related to colonialism, which technically is not the culture, but it's basically what we kind of have to do to show who we are as Indigenous people, if we want to separate ourselves from from other humans, is that's our walk of life. And that's what we need to do in order for us to show or to - and for me to do my art, and yeah, so. So gender, gender to me, like, I don't - like I didn't grow up learning a lot about that because it was very binary for me. Right now in our community itself still Two Spirited people are getting hurt by these ceremonies because we're still trying to understand the colonial aspect to things and how we are still living in those binaries in our ceremonies. Like for me, you know, you have to wear a skirt in ceremonies, or you can't be on your moon time, or you can't be under the influence for a certain amount of time before you can enter a ceremony, for example. So I feel like even within that community that is trying to decolonize that we're still fighting. You know, it depends on what gender expression that you, like, you know, you are how you express yourself or sexuality or, for me, the Backwards Person, I do think it's backwards.
So I don't expect people to understand that because they're still trying to decolonize their minds in that, too, right. Trying to understand what Two Spirited means because they were forced to think in binaries. So we're still as queer people, or Indigenous queer, people we're still fighting, we're still getting hurt. We're still... It doesn't even have to be Indigenous queer people, it depends on, you know, being under an influence and stuff, you know, you could you talk about harm reduction, right? What those ceremonies look like. So, yeah.
Louis Esmé: How does it relate to your art practice?
Theola Ross: I think how I do advocacy in my art, I feel like, I want to be as generous as possible. So I can give that to people, especially the youth population. I really want to be generous with myself and share my experiences through art so they can learn and to understand or to feel like and to maybe evoke some sort of passion for them and to... So we could all kind of mobilize this community and start making change. Yeah, so I think I'm very generous when it comes to telling my stories, things that hurt me, things that, you know, like, whether it's, you know, why I suffer from anxiety, why I suffer from
depression, I'm very generous in my art with that. Yeah, I think as artists, our generation maybe, I think - it's not an obligation. I just feel like it's a good thing. It's a good deed to do for the youth, for the generation coming up, because my daughter, I think I feel like she's - like I'm going to be so - I'm very, very open. And so she could feel safe in being open and building strength, if she's ever encountered in those harmful situations on how to deal with it. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, that's great. I don't think great's the right word, but it's something. So how does your gender identity and/or sexual orientation influence your art?
Theola Ross: So, for example, for the dance especially, I picked a traditional male dance, they called it, you know, in the eyes of whoever. I don't know where they came up with that. But I mean, there were women that danced and warrior women that went out and hunted and did those non binary, you know, things in the community. And I feel like I express myself better in what I love and what I do. I don't get forced into things, because Jingle Dress to me, or Fancy Shawl to me, and Traditional Women's - I can't flow in it the way I flow with a male dance. I feel better in the male dances. So I think how I express myself and my gender, how I express myself, I don't know where sexuality might come up with that because I feel like maybe being that Backwards Person, aaseetee iniw - like being that Backwards Person is just me as a whole in how I express myself. So politically, I do things backwards. I don't follow these binaries. I don't follow the forward, I don't just follow the pack. I kind of... So I feel like that's how it's done, that's how it influences my art. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Do you feel like your identity as a Backwards Person is consequential to your art, does it matter?
Theola Ross: Yeah, for sure it does. Just because bravery is one of those things where it's like in order for you to do things differently, or backwards, differently, I guess, maybe would be the - or not the norm. I think it definitely influences in that capacity. I think because I'm very vocal in in everything I do, so if I feel like - and it took a long time for me to do that, I think like, say, I see something that's not right, for example, or - and then I want to express it in my poetry, for example, say, there's a piece that I wrote about with my grandmother about - I brush her hair, and I used to brush her hair a lot, and, you know, in Residential Schools, we all know that they used to cut their hair, right? So I remember like, in my memories, I would like brush her hair and I see strands of hair falling to the ground. And then it goes back to like when they cut the hair in Residential Schools and you probably see all the hair falling to the ground. And it's so innocent in its - not innocent in its colour, but it's like rich, you know, it's not... My grandmother's hair was white, you know. And then, like, the contrast of that, like it shows the time of that. And she still carried a lot of that pain because she didn't express herself a lot when it came to stuff that she encountered in Residential Schools. The only time I think I've heard her when I helped her out with the reconciliation form to receive compensation, there was a long list of questions that they have to answer in order for them to determine how much money they would get, in a sense; and they're doing that right now, with the
Day Schools, right? You have to hit a certain amount of abuse in order to put a dollar sign on it.
Louis Esmé: I'm so sorry.
Theola Ross: Yeah, so I feel like a lot of that, like, politically I feel like for me to be vocal in it and to advocate in it, and I want to use poetry as opposed to... I'm not that personality to go out maybe on the front lines of a protest, which I would like to do. But that's just not my personality. I'm not the one with the - what do you call the horn thingy? What's that called? I don't even know the word. But anyway, the project your voice - I'm not the yelling type, even though I like to be, but you catch me yelling, it's going to be a whole different protest as opposed to a more effective protest that we see on the streets right now, which is the front line people and the grassroots people going out there and protesting that. For me, my protesting is through my poetry. So the last line to my poetry, and that is: aamwees pakiitiiki keestakiya which is: before your strand of hair falls to the ground, nipaaktitamoon which is: I try to catch my breath. Because it's like it’s almost like from watching from children's hair falling to the ground to an Elder's hair falling to the ground. If they fall simultaneously, you see the sense of that time passing, and the Elders are passing on and they're the ones that hold all those enriched things. So when that hair falls to the ground, it's like you want so much for time to stop. So you try to catch your breath and hopefully each time stops for a minute or two to try to work these things out... Reconciliation. Do your art so people can hear it. Protests, front lines, you know, like all these things. Yeah, so, yeah, so I think it influences that way, I don't think gender as a whole encompasses that. But like I said, I said Aaseeteew Iniw encompasses where I come from, I'm Cree, I'm Indigenous. I don't do things the normal sense of the word, I don't do conservative things, so gender also is in there, sexuality is also in there. So that's me as an identity. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Thanks for explaining that. You want to talk about art scenes?
Theola Ross: Sure, which I probably don't frequent. So maybe I'm not the best one, but I'll try.
Louis Esmé: I'm sure you know something.
Theola Ross: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: What's your experience with mainstream artist scenes?
Theola Ross: Oh, my God. What's the definition of the mainstream art scene? So Hot Docs. So that could be mainstream film festival I've attended and was invited to because of my art. Proposal writing I feel like it's like, okay, well... Majority of the time where I'm writing to is more of the mainstream thought and thinking. If I'm writing, for example, for a grant as an Indigenous artist, I feel like we get filtered differently. I feel like, again, it goes to that trendy sense of the word of this is the stories that they're wanting right now. And I feel like that's what's right now and that's what's in and that's what’s mainstream right now. Yeah. So that's my experience, how it feels to me. But logistically, like I've been to film festivals, I've been to - I don't go to a lot of grassroots art scenes, I would like to. Yeah, so, yeah, I have a lot of like artists like you, like friends and stuff like that, but I think we're so... I think the majority of my friends are introverts. So I feel like because I'm an introvert. So I feel like that's just my thing. So for me to go out a lot in the art scene is - I don't want to say it's not my thing, but I feel like it should be my thing, because when I get out there and I get into it, I feel good after the fact of it. But I don't do it often.
Louis Esmé: When it works, you know, when you are able to do that, can you think of any things that non-Indigenous people have been able to do in solidarity, and to support you, and what's worked?
Theola Ross: Like allies, non-Indigenous folks?
Louis Esmé: Yeah.
Theola Ross: What's worked when they tried to help me kind of thing?
Louis Esmé: You know, like when you - if you go to the Hot Docs were there things that people did to make it easier for you or more accessible?
Theola Ross: I think so because I feel like, like I said, I don't know, I don't want to be jaded because of it. I feel like, like I said again, I feel like it's trendy, like our stories are trending, you know what I mean? Like, so to me that, of course, that means okay, yeah, you're interested in me. You're interested in the story. But are you interested in me as a person? Might not be. So that doesn't make me feel good. But I feel like you're interested in a story and you're interested in my story. You're interested in what I have to say. That's great. That makes me feel - that's the price of admission, I guess, I feel like it's good at this point. Hopefully that changes, you know what I mean, because what if we're not trending?
Louis Esmé: Well and that, like, how long does reconciliation money last for? Was it just one year? Was it a year and a half? Or is it is it now forever?
Theola Ross: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: So are there things that you can think of right now, and like it's okay if not, if you want to come back to it later, but like things that art scenes, mainstreamvart scenes, can do, which could settler art scenes, it could be mainstream Native art scenes. But if there's things that people could do to better support, like nonbinary, trans, Two Spirit, women artists.
Theola Ross: It always - you know, I went to this thing today, you know, Duke Redbird, you know him? So he, it's funny, I mentioned something about, you know, how - I don't know if you heard him talk about this before, but the Land Acknowledgement? You know, so you've heard him talk about that? Where it's like you go in and you do a Land Acknowledgement and then it's like, "oh, okay, we did our part," you know, I feel like that's what mainstream art scenes are doing. Like, they're like, “okay, we're, you know, let's do -" and then "okay, we're good. We've done our reconciliation. You know, we did our part by Land Acknowledgement or, you know, we put a poster up of - or we have a category, Indigenous category," or something like that. I feel like - or a Two Spirit a category for our - for example, imagineNATIVE. For example, they have a, you know, they have a queer... You know, but I feel like, why do we have to have a category?
Can't we just be, you know, part of just the whole? Because that's what we're supposed to do. We're part of the circle. We're not just, you know, this other entity over here. So I feel that a lot. So being pigeonholed, for example, in a mainstream art - like, for example, I’m doing my next project is about the IVF process of Kiwetin and Steph carrying her and her being an Indigenous baby because the donor's also Indigenous. And she's a white woman, so she's carrying an Indigenous baby. So it's a ten minute short of that process and that thinking and what comes up. I feel like that's going to be plugged into the Two Spirit category or the queer category. And it's, to me, it doesn't - I just I hate being put in a box because I don't like the box, I don't think like the box. So it doesn't - I feel so restricted. want to be free or at least be in a circle so I could like roll around a little bit, you know what I mean? And, and yeah. So yeah I think making that, making us not - but also I don't want us to get lost in that because yes we do have to, we still have to do some teaching. So we don't want to just, you know, be thrown in a pot and, you know, mix us up, assimilate us so to speak. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Yeah. Does your practice involve or include non-Indigenous people and how does that work?
Theola Ross: Oh, yeah, I mean, there is always a non-Indigenous person and everyone - maybe not in my poetry, and maybe not in the dance, but definitely in the film. So I have to collaborate. I have to learn, so it doesn't matter where you're from. I will learn from you if you're willing to teach me. So in, well my last piece, what I just talked about, Steph's in it and she's not Indigenous, and how does that make me feel? Is that the
Louis Esmé: Sure, if you'd like, yeah.
Theola Ross: I think I'm very - not trusting, I shouldn't use the word trusting. I'm very open to people. It doesn't matter where you're from. But I feel I think I've been burned a little bit on that, so I'm a more leery of people. So this is where references are really good, because you could say you're an ally, but by saying it, but I need to know: what do you mean by that, like, you get - tell me a little bit more about that. What have you done, and what have you learnt? What are you doing to help with this reconciliation aspect of things? Because that's where most of my art is about, my advocacy and all that. So tell me, how are you going to help me with this? You know, how are you going to help me put that out in the world and teach people?
If you can't tell me that, then we're not going to be working together. Yeah. And that goes with Indigenous people, I think, maybe - I'm more forgiving, obviously, but I have never worked with anybody from, I'm going to say, I have never worked with anybody from the rez. Which which breaks my heart a little bit. So, I don't know where that was going, where I was going with that, but yeah, so there, yeah.
Louis Esmé: There's like a - the next questions are about that.
Theola Ross: Yeah.
Louis Esmé: One of them is like, do you work with global Indigenous artists?
Theola Ross: I would like to, for example, there was this - I wanted to do a rotoscoping in this film, like an animated rotoscoping.
Louis Esmé: What's a rotoscoping?
Theola Ross: Do you remember - what's the best way to describe it? Do you remember Roger Rabbit? Do you remember when they would like flashback into the cartoon animation? It's kind of like that. Yeah. So it's kind of like almost like - so I would take the film medium like our face, for example, and it's us talking, but it would be rotoscoped over.
Louis Esmé: Oh, okay, I see.
Theola Ross: Yeah. So I really wanted that. I really wanted that. And there was no way - I couldn't find anybody. And then there was this Australian Indigenous artist in Australia. And so I was like, "oh man, I really want you. We could do this, you know, remotely. I could send you the stuff, and how long is it gonna take?" And da, da, da, da, and of course - and for - like, they're worth it, like, they were just too expensive for me 'cause I didn't have it in the budget. So rotoscoping had to be pulled out of it. So I'm very open to it. But it's... So for me to work with someone on the rez, for example, too, or any reservation: again, that's expensive. So it's - especially for film. 'Cause you want people to be together and I mean, mind you, I'm getting better at, you know, skyping, document sharing, sending files, you know, that might work, but I'm more of like, going back to that old school feel, I like hands on, being there with people, talking to people, and learning from people. We talk too much on the emails and text messaging, which I had to learn, and I really had to organize myself in it because it's like, "oh yeah, you are communicating with me. It seems weird, but you are communicating with me so I better read what you’re saying to me because you're really talking to me," but to me, I couldn't compute because in person, to me, is I feel you more. I'm communicating with you more.
Louis Esmé: In terms of working with - are there things that you would find useful from other Indigenous artists in terms of - sorry, I'm just trying to organize my brain a bit, I get cloudy.
Theola Ross: No, me too. Did you eat?
Louis Esmé: I did. But these lights are not great.
Theola Ross: Yeah, I hear you.
Louis Esmé: What's been useful for you in terms of solidarity and support from Indigenous artists?
Theola Ross: Mentorship is the word that comes up the most. I feel like when someone comes up to me, and I don't think it's ever happened to me, but "let me mentor you," if that sentence came up to me, an Indigenous artist that's been through it forever, came up to me and said that line to me, it would be the equivalent of love at first sight, the feeling of it, because it's like you - like are you really offering yourself to me like this? 'Cause it's like - it would be a magical moment if that ever happened to me.
Louis Esmé: That's like a pretty awesome, concrete thing, too. Like, yeah.
Theola Ross: Yeah, yeah.
Louis Esmé: How do you offer solidarity? You do in so many ways, but just how do you offer solidarity and support to Indigenous artists who have different lived experiences than your own or even, like - different is a complicated word.
Theola Ross: Yeah, because I honour mentorship, if an Indigenous artist came to me, and wanted love, and want and need support, and needed help and assistance - I'm like, here, let me know. Let me - let's talk and let me know where I could do this, let's do this. I feel like especially when it comes to youth artists and they need assistance, they need help, they need resources, they need information, I'll go [01:15:37] far and beyond and like do that and help them with it. I don't know. It's just, I think helping and, you know, trying to hold each other up, I think is - will go a long way. And, you know, I guess this word mobilization comes to mind, but it's - if we - but mobilization, is another thing because we kind of have to be friends with it.
Louis Esmé: Do you have to - can we do a little time check, 'cause there's some questions left.
Theola Ross: Yeah, no problem.
Louis Esmé: It's seven now, I think we were going to try to wrap up by seven. Is it okay if we go a little bit longer? How do you use your art to address social and cultural issues?
Theola Ross: Well, I - what's my tagline? I feel like my tagline is: Indigenous artist trying to create, no - Indigenous artist working in the community through social transformation, creating social transformation. I think that's me. I think that's what I want to do. I want to create change. I want to push this envelope a little bit, like, push it, push it, push it as much as I can. And, just, yeah, creating social change is a big thing for me. Yeah, whoever will listen, I guess. Whoever gravitates to my personality, I guess. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: How does your creative practice involve community?
Theola Ross: How does my creative practice involve community? Well, Twilight Dancers - I feel like going back home, like I, for one, I haven't been back home for the longest time, and for me to go back home with a crew and camera was big for me.
That might feel like I'm putting pressure on people and I had to be careful, I had to meet my community halfway in that, where it's like I had to go back to cultural ways of thinking about going and stepping into a community, you know, informed consent, making sure that you get permission, making sure that your leaders are involved, making sure that you respect people's, you know, privacy, confidentiality, things like that. So, I mean, my first project in film was my direct community. Like, I went in and I wasn't even - my first prize, I wanted to chill about it. I wasn't, I didn't just, like, write a poem about my community, about that subject, you know, at home by myself. I went in the field with a fucking camera in my community's face and asked them to talk about something that was very traumatizing, which was youth suicides. And it was very raw because we went there in 2017 and that happened 2016. So who the fuck am I? Like, I left my community when I was 18 and I went back in 2017. I mean, I left when I was - '96, I just aged myself, whatever, or outed myself and what age I am, but yeah, so. So yeah, that involved my community.
Now, if you ask me, "are you ever going to do that again?” I lost my best friend because of that, because of the fact of... And it wasn’t something I did that was awful or anything, it's just based on the fact of funding. So my best friend is the coach of that team. And I had to tell her, "listen, so this is what's happening," and, of course, she was pissed about it, and she's like, "why did you promise? Why did you do that? That's awful. We gave you this -“ and I said, "you're right, my hands are tied. I don't have any money, like, I have - it all comes down to that money," right. And then I thought for a fact, she was like, you know, “you know, it's okay,", nope, she didn't say it's okay. She's like, "I don't want to -" and I understand now because it's like heard her daughter was on that team. You know, if, you know, your daughter got hurt, you don't want to, you - I would be the same way at this point now that I'm a parent, so. Like things like that really affects me when it comes to working with my community and making sure that you're good about - you do things in the right way, the best way you know how.
Louis Esmé: So in honour of doing things backwards, I have some tobacco for you.
Theola Ross: Did that just magically happen?
Louis Esmé: Yeah.
Theola Ross: I love it.
Louis Esmé: Partway through the interview I was like, yeah, of course I'm going
to do it at the end.
Theo Ross: That's awesome. Thank you.
Louis Esmé: Wela'lin.