Kainai youth to perform on New York stage

The Lethbridge Herald
Friday, August 22, 2008, p. a1

Ramona Big Head writes script about Baker Massacre which will be mounted at Performing the World in New York City

By SHERRI GALLANT

A southern Alberta woman is bringing a forgotten piece of North American history to the stage in New York City this fall, with a cast of 24 youngsters from the Blood Reserve.

Ramona Big Head, a teacher at Kainai High School, has written a play about the Baker Massacre – also known as the Marias Massacre – in which some 200 Blackfeet women, children and elders were slaughtered by Major Eugene Baker and his troops in northern Montana at dawn, Jan. 23, 1870.

At the urging of her supervisor at the University of Lethbridge, where she’s working on her Masters degree in education, she submitted the script for “Strike Them Hard! Baker Massacre Awakening” to Performing the World, a New York City festival of performances, workshops, panel discussions, lectures, community tours and improvisation. It brings together activists, artists, educators, young people, practitioners and scholars from dozens of countries, all of whom are involved in the emergence of performance as a new way of relating to, understanding and changing the world. The play was accepted and is scheduled to premiere there Oct. 4.

“I first heard the story eight years ago from my cousin, Narcisse Blood,” said Big Head. “And Narcisse told me, ‘one of our ancestors survived this, her name was Holy Bear Woman.’ I went home and looked at my genealogy and there she was. I had done my genealogy before that and she had always been there, Holy Bear Woman, but now her named jumped out. She was my great, great grandmother.”

Big Head found herself wrestling at first with great anger at the knowledge, anger that’s sometimes referred to as unresolved historical trauma.

“Why don’t people know about it? I blame the boarding schools, for their attempts to wipe everything away,” said Big Head, who was forced to attend St. Paul’s residential school on the Blood Reserve for many years, starting when she was five.

She went to the massacre site, about 16 kilometres east of what’s now Shelby, Mont., and has taken her students there as well. She said the heaviness of so much death and anguish could be felt. It was palpable; hovering over the place that is called, in the Blackfoot language, “where they were burned.”

Then in October of 2006, Big Head’s daughter, Galina Brave Rock, committed suicide, despondent over the troubles in her young life and leaving two young children behind. The loss of her daughter sapped her strength and she began to wonder if Galina might have had a stronger sense of hope if she had possessed a better understanding of her people’s ability to endure.

“This story is to let our children know how strong our people are. That we’ve come through so much and we’re still here. The play is dedicated to her and it’s a plea on behalf of all mothers who’ve lost a child to suicide, to never give up. It’s another way of healing.

“The only way I know how to tell a story is to put it on the stage,” she said. “But it was really hard to write.”

Big Head has used the voices of the children to tell the tale, since most of the survivors were youngsters (Holy Bear Woman was 12). The play was selected from nearly 200 proposals from more than 30 countries and is believed to be the first submission to be accepted from a native group in North America. The cast and crew are all children from Kainai and Pikuni, age six to 18 years.

Her research included numerous witness accounts that were recorded to ensure the massacre would not be forgotten. One survivor, a man named Big Bear, gave his story to author J.W. Schultz for his book “Blackfeet and Buffalo”, saying he wanted it immortalized so white men would never forget what they had done to his people.

“Yet somehow it did get forgotten,” Big Head said. “Very few of our people knew about this event.”

Rehearsals began in June and will resume in September, but some funding is still needed. Big Head is waiting to hear from the Alberta Lottery Foundation and other agencies, but would welcome any public or corporate donations. Performing the World organizers have arranged for the group to be billeted for four nights, but they’ll require hotel accommodations for three more.

To contribute, donations can be made to the Kainai High School account, at any location of Alberta Treasury Branch.

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