Share Article   
Submit to Facebook

Dec 10, 2014

Reclaiming Indigenous voices and staging

eco-activism in northern Indigenous theatre

Written by Melissa Colleen Campbell


Eco-theatre/ecocriticism is a bourgeoning field in theatre studies.[1] In recent years, Indigenous playwrights have been creating eco-dramas where the theatrical, the natural, and the political intersect in the hope of “shaping and transforming human attitudes” towards the environment and an acceptance “of our enmeshment in the larger ecological community” (Arons and May 1). Indigenous eco-drama goes beyond this concept of eco-theatre; Indigenous eco-drama recognizes that Indigenous sovereignty and protection of the environment go hand-in-hand. At its core, Indigenous eco-drama connects the colonization and displacement of Indigenous people with the need to redress one of the most pressing contemporary concerns for Indigenous people globally: the ecological crisis.  By exploring three northern Indigenous plays, Marie Clements’s Burning Vision, Allison Warden’s Calling All Polar Bears, and Beaivváš Sámi Našunálateáhter’s Min Duoddarat III, I highlight how Indigenous eco-dramas are an anti-colonial act of resistance that manifests the desire for physical and spiritual survival of Indigenous peoples globally.

Indigenous eco-theatre synthesizes contemporary Indigenous concerns for climate change (which is already dramatically affecting Indigenous economies, lifestyles, and self-governance) with concerns for the emancipation of Indigenous peoples in order to overcome the oppression of both, and in a manner which also converges with ecofeminism. Indigenous eco-drama connects the oppression of Indigenous people to the oppression (and destruction) of the environment, so that resistance to one becomes resistance to the other. This is a simplistic view of eco-theatre and ecofeminism, since it does not appear to take into account other forms of oppression at play; however, it is my argument that both eco-theatre and ecofeminism recognize the impact of colonization for Indigenous people in that “dual oppression” – or at least they should. Andrea Smith writes in her article “Ecofeminism through an Anticolonial Framework” that “it is essential that ecofeminist theory more seriously grapple with the issues of colonization, particularly the colonization of Native lands, in its analysis of oppression” (A. Smith, 1997, 22). An Indigenous approach to ecofeminism explores the intersection of feminist concerns (including: colonization, sexism, racism) with ecological concerns. Ecofeminism does not just challenge the oppression of women and environment, it challenges the forces of oppression that help support the continued subjugation of all people because it acknowledges that “all oppressions are related and reinforce each other” (1997, 21). Indigenous eco-drama seeks to honour Indigenous sovereignty and the environment, and respond to issues of colonial violence and oppression. It gives us the opportunity to reconfigure the ways we understand Indigenous people, the environment, and the connections between the two.

In many Indigenous eco-dramas, the natural world plays a significant role; it reveals not just humans in conflict within their environment, but humans in conflict with their environment. Indigenous eco-dramas uncover the ways that environmental conflicts are human conflicts; they disrupt, if only momentarily, the binary between the human world and the natural world. Indigenous theatre frequently foregrounds the environmental/natural world as a significant element – sometimes even a character – in performance, which in turn offers a way to address issues of ecological violence and the consequences of that ecological violence for Indigenous people. This investigation of eco-theatre and Indigenous playwrights here does not wish to perpetrate the myth of the “Ecological Indian”(see Greg Gerrard’s Ecocriticism). Instead, I wish to reveal the ways Indigenous playwrights are at the vanguard of acknowledging their role in the protection of the environment and engaging in (theatrical) activism to help reshape both their relationship (and our relationship) with the eco-crisis.

Marie Clements’s Burning Vision is a historically-inspired eco-drama that draws its inspiration from the uranium mining that happened at Port Radium in Canada’s northern territories, and the role of that uranium in the creation and subsequent use of the atomic bombs during the Second World War. Beyond this historical narrative, Burning Vision highlights the interconnectedness between human/human and human/environment. One character, “the Little Boy” (named after one of the atomic bombs used in the Second World War), is a “beautiful Native boy” and also “the personification of the darkest uranium found at the centre of the earth” (Clements, 2003, 15). He is a representation of the uranium mined in Canada as well as representative of the Aboriginal populations who lived (and/or who were displaced from) around the mines. The Little Boy not only disrupts the dichotomy between human and nature, but also inextricably links the colonization of the landscape (uranium mining owned and operated by a Canadian corporation) and the colonization of Aboriginal people. The destabilization of that binary allows Indigenous eco-theatre to confront the colonial, heteromasculine, capitalist, patriarchal ideologies that sustain the continued colonization of the natural environment and the colonization of the Indigenous people who live on it.[2]

The play’s focus on the damaged, contaminated, and dangerous environment also highlights the consequences of environmental destruction for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. The landscape – that is the natural world – becomes a character to denaturalize the violence against the environment (and the violence enacted on the people who inhabit that environment). The positioning of the landscape as a character destabilizes the binaries between humans and their environment. The soundscape is ever-present, always forcing us to recognize its presence within human spaces of the play. In doing so, it pulls the audience’s attention to the ecological impact of the mining. The sounds of caribou hooves between the movements serves as a reminder of the natural world’s place in a performance about environmental crisis. The caribou migrate and eat from a polluted landscape and that has an effect not just on the environment, but also humanity as well, since the Dene traditionally followed the migration of caribou. The jarring nature of the soundscape reveals an environment in crisis. Throughout the play the sound effects remind audiences of the natural world. This includes: “The sound of a fishing line whizzing through space” (26), water splashing (88), “caribou hooves stamped[ing] across the surface of the earth” (42), and a continuous sound of “hearts beating” throughout the play. However, the representation of the natural world is engaged in an auditory battle for attention between an industrial soundscape of feedback, clicks, ticks, and static that invade the natural soundscape in the performance and denaturalize that environment. Each of these moments invites audiences to recognize the connections between the natural world and eco-crisis created by radium mining. Clements’s positioning of the environment as an active agent enacts moments of survivance. She rejects the historical absences of Indigenous voices and perspectives, and in doing so, she creates a counter-narrative, which as Steven Hoelscher argues, “undermines the master narratives that sustain imperial rule [...] and offers new opportunities for self-determination and cultural sovereignty” (Hoelscher 14).

Clements not only uses the natural world as a character to heighten spectatorial awareness of the interconnectedness of humans and their environments, she also uses the other characters in the play, such as Rose, a Métis woman living and working near Port Radium, or the Dene worker who haul sacks of uranium ore (without radiation protection because the workers have been told the uranium is safe).[3] Both Rose and the Dene worker link “issues of place-identity and environmental justice with transnational and cross-cultural concerns" (Gray 29) in the play. By addressing issues of environmental justice Clements engages in elements of not just ecocriticism, but also ecofeminism, which recognizes that "the liberation of women [...] cannot be fully effected without the liberation of nature, and conversely, the liberation of nature so ardently desired by environmentalists will not be fully effected without the liberation of women" (Gaard 21-22). This is, in part, because environmental changes reveal the fragile connection between Indigenous women and the environment; they are more likely to have their homes, families, and work affected by the eco-crisis. It is because the landscape  near the radium mines has become toxic for all living things that Rose experiences an identity crisis as a result of an environmental crisis. Rose contextualizes the need for environmental justice and social justice by revealing the impact of environmental destruction on both.[4] A black dust – a radioactive byproduct of the uranium mine– covers the town: “The kids are playin’ in sandboxes of it, the caribou are eating it off the plants, and we’re drinkin’ the water where they bury it. [...] everybody’s wearin’ it these days, so I guess there’s no harm if a bit gets in my dough” (Clements, 2003, 103). Not only does this scene highlight how environmental pollution from the mining infiltrates the whole ecosystem – landscape, plants, animals, people – but it also gestures towards issues of gendered and women’s labour within traditional (Indigenous) and capitalist frameworks. Both Rose’s work space and its by-product (the bread) are polluted. The pollution of the landscape also contaminates Rose’s opportunities for financial independence, interrupts her livelihood, and highlights the vulnerability of Indigenous women within an ecological and economic context. This is, of course, not limited to women’s work. In fact, Indigenous communities in general are greatly affected by the destruction of the natural environment. The play reveals how the Dene worker is exploited for profit. However, these workers are not just exploited economically, their homes and traditional lands are polluted by the mining (as discussed above), and many became sick and/or died of cancer.

Environmental crises can (and do) cause economic crises, which in turn disrupts Indigenous traditional economies, often before the capitalist economies are affected. Burning Vision reflects on economic exploitation of Indigenous people and the environment. While all Indigenous people will be affected by economic/ecological crises, Indigenous women are more likely to be driven to migration, exploitation, and poverty. The contamination of Rose’s bread reveals how these environmental crises pass through other economic and social sectors (from food to bodies) and affect multiple generations (Rose’s baby). This brief moment reveals the interconnectedness of ecological destruction not just between natural environments, but also between humanity’s physical, geographical, and economic environments.

The ecofeminist concerns we see in Clements’s play are echoed internationally as well. Allison Warden (who also goes by the stage name Aku-Matu) “is an Iñupiaq Eskimo Inter-Disciplinary Artist” (Warden) based out of Anchorage, Alaska. Her 2011 solo-voice performance, Calling All Polar Bears, raises the concerns of the Indigenous populations of Alaska. Warden creates transnational links between climate change, the current eco-crisis, and Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) people globally. As with other Indigenous eco-dramas, nature is not just represented in the performance (although it is represented through photographs projected onto a screen); it is an active agent in the performance. As with Burning Vision, the natural world in Calling All Polar Bears has an active voice. Warden uses both animal and human characters to highlight Indigenous perspectives on colonization and environmental concerns.

Aana Nora, an elder woman, is the main guide through the story. She offers us a glimpse at Indigenous people’s perspectives, and the significance of the story being told.



You know Indigenous people, like me, we're so cool, first of all. And then second of all, we have had a connection to the land for thousands of years. If we had two more hours, I could tell you the lineage of my people. We know; we remember. And we remember our stories about the land, and you know that's kinda cool. It's kinda important. And the people, we take care of the animals of the land you know, it's like they're entrusted to us [. . .] and we take good care of them because they take good care of us. We don't have tofu [. . .] Oh, anyway, so you know these Indigenous peoples, these perspectives they are really important, okay, so just remember us. (Warden)[5]



In this opening monologue, Aana Nora asserts the importance of Indigenous perspectives, and by calling on the audience to “remember us,” she rejects the possibility of the play participating in the “vanishing Indian” stereotype. She defends not just an Indigenous voice, but the necessity of the visibility of Indigenous people. In doing so, however, she also begins to create a throughline between Indigenous feminist concerns and ecological concern, thereby revealing that the two are thoroughly linked.

Indigenous storytelling in the theatre, as we see in Warden’s performance, is an act of resistance and an act of survival. Indigenous storytelling in the theatre alleviates what Joy Hooten calls the “cult of forgetfulness” (qtd in MacKenzie). One element of Indigenous storytelling is the use of direct address. In Calling All Polar Bears, direct address entreats a sense of responsibility for the story we witness; at the heart of that story is a call for environmental change. It “demands a high level of interactive exchange between storytelling and listener” (Emberley, 2013, 148) so that witnesses are not passive spectators, but creators and holders of that history and knowledge, which in turn, becomes embodied in both the teller and the listener. Indigenous storytelling appeals to its audience to become witnesses and “to be the keepers of history when an event of historic significance occurs” because it is through witnessing that the event is “validated and provided legitimacy” (TRC “Witness”). Calling All Polar Bears is positioned in the first person (in this instance Aana Nora) and it implicates the audience in the story by drawing on the Aboriginal concept of witnessing, and creates a moment where the character (and the performer who is behind that character) asks the audience to pay attention to the importance of the stories being told. Aana Nora’s opening speech features a moment where she speaks to an audience member directly, compliments him/her, and then likens that person to a beautiful polar bear. She goes on to survey the room and then suggests that the whole audience may be polar bears that have gathered to witness the story; that small moment of interaction and humour (as the performance videos demonstrate, the audience laughed throughout this scene), Warden suggests that we, the audience, are just as affected by climate change as the polar bears we are likened to are. Through its frequent direct address of the audience, Calling All Polar Bears implicates the audiences in a call for change. The play signals the importance of Indigenous perspectives as they relate to both decolonization of Indigenous people and decolonization of the environment.

Warden later appears as the polar bear storyteller; this performance, like in Burning Vision, destabilizes the human/environment binary. We then watch the polar bear’s struggle to reach land while the polar bear storyteller recounts:



I knew we were going the right way. And I told her more stories.[. . .] [fur mitten/cub drops] She didn't last much longer after that. I kept swimming. I knew...I knew I was going in the right direction so I kept going. I had to tell somebody my story about my cubs. How good they did on the ice, how much they were learning and how good listening they were doing. I knew, I just kept swimming. Further, little further, little further, little further. I would make it to the land; I go this way every year. Little further... I made it, I made it to the land. Why didn't you tell me that the ice was gonna be so far out. Why didn't you tell me to come back sooner. I didn't know! Why are you looking at me, you, stop looking at me, you, land-loving polar bears. I made it. I'm here. (Warden)



Here we are again reminded that we are the “land-loving polar bears” Aana Nora mentioned earlier. The polar bear’s struggle becomes our struggle as well; we are part of this eco-crisis story. The play is a call to adjust our thinking and pay attention to the perspectives of Indigenous communities who are already feeling the consequences of the ecological crisis. It asks us to reconsider our place within the ecosystem in order to foster a decolonization of both Indigenous people and the environment through our act of witnessing and our responsibility as witnesses.

Beyond North American borders, there are theatres and playwrights that seek to continue the decolonization of Indigenous people and raise awareness of Indigenous perspectives. Beaivváš Sámi Našunálateáhter (BST) – the national Sami theatre in Norway– frequently uses theatre to stage a counter-discourse to the ecological and economic crisis affecting Sami populations in Norway. Their performance, Min Duoddarat, tackles issues of encroaching industry and environmental devastation. The 1981 performance drew inspiration from the Alta controversy and increased mining in Finnmark, in order to make connections between the Sami people living in Finnmark and Indigenous environmental concerns. In the 2011 remount of the play, titled Min Duoddarat III,[6] the conflict is around the economic, cultural, and environmental impact of increased commercial mining in Finnmark, the Northern-most region of Norway.

The play centres on issues of identity, displacement from the land, and the consequences for the Sami community and its traditional economy. For Indigenous people around the world, "The significance of traditional economies in indigenous communities goes beyond the economic realm— they are more than just livelihoods providing subsistence and sustenance to individuals or communities”; they are central to Indigenous identity and culture (Kuokkanen, 2011, 215). For Piera, a former reindeer herder, identity is directly connected to his relationship with the land. Selling his herd (and therefore his rights to the land) brought him “shame” because he "mistet [hans] selvrespekten”; han “hadde ingen tilhørighet lenger" (Min Duoddarat III, scene 5).[7] The loss of affiliation, and identity, is connected to the damaged environment:

Sårene ble igjen

i naturen og

dypt i min sjel

Jeg visste ikke lenger

hvor jeg hørte til. (Min Duoddarat III)[8]

Piera reveals to Ásllat, a reindeer herder at a crossroad between selling or keeping his herd, the consequences of selling his herd. He recounts that displacement is followed by destruction not just of identity, but also the environment, and beyond that, the economy: “Gruva er oppe på fjellet der de har funnet malm og gull. Bekkene fører giften med seg ned i dalen. Her finns ikke lenger fisk, myrene er svarte, og ikke et multebær å se” (scene 5).[9] Piera’s warnings to Ásllat of the consequences of displacement/dispossession of the land contextualizes the connections between human/human and human/nature: “Men sårene og giftstoffene fra gruva er ikke borte. Vi lider på grunn av det ennå idag. Er dette min arv til mine etterkommere?” (Scene 5).[10] Piera realizes that his failure to protect the land from commercial mining will not only result in an ecological crisis, but economic and identity crises as well.

Cultural identity and the destruction of the land are central, and for Mons, a reindeer herder, his identity is directly connected to his relationship with the land. His fight against the push for him to give up reindeer herding. This resonates not just with the themes surrounding the displacement of Indigenous people from their traditional homeland, but also connects to the desire to protect the land from a worsening eco-crisis. The play draws a transnational connection and links its message to a wider consortium of Indigenous people and their displacement from traditional lands:



SOLVEIG: Det er bra at han [Mons] ikke lar seg drive vekk fra jorda si. Det samme skjer jo mange andre steder i verden.

ÁSLLAT: Hvor da?

SOLVEIG: I regnskogen i Brasil, i Sibir, i Canada folk blir jaget bort fra områdene sine, og jorda overtas og ødelegges. Du må ikke gi opp nå, Aslak. (Min Duoddarat III, scene 3)[11]


This brief moment of transnational connection is significant. It highlights that the struggles for home (and homeland) and Indigenous rights are interconnected. The play uses this transnational reference in opposition “to cultural oppression across all levels of social existence” (Richards 12-13); it positions the Sami people in a position to learn from the displacements of Indigenous people around the world. If we read Min Duoddarat (or any Indigenous eco-theatre) as rejecting those moments of violation of the landscape – which can be re-read/re-framed as a rejection of the violation of Indigenous people, then the hope for decolonizing the landscape transfers to a hope for decolonization of its people.

While Min Duoddarat is not written specifically by or for Sami women, it nevertheless engages in the same (eco)feminist concerns for the decolonization of both Indigenous people and the environment seen in Clements or Warden, for example. Min Duoddarat III “recognize[s] the value of actions and characteristics typically devalued by dominant (patriarchal) culture,” thereby gesturing towards an Indigenous eco-theatre/eco-critical framework (Vakoch, 2012, 4). The push to colonize Indigenous landscapes are often connected to a push to assimilate Indigenous people by forcing the communities to embrace capitalist economic ventures “such as logging, mining, hydro, and oil and gas development” (Kuokkanen, 2011, 217).[12] If the fallout from a loss of traditional economies is the continued subjugation (and colonization) of Indigenous people, then the fight to protect and preserve Sami traditional economies (as presented in Min Duoddarat III, for example) is a feminist (and Indigenous) concern. The play seeks to decolonize Sami people by challenging the patriarchal, heteronormative assumptions about land(scape) and environment.

Indigenous playwrights are at the vanguard in a call for political change, both for decolonization and ecological change.  In conjunction with this call for change is a call for the end of other forms of oppression. It is a feminist call to oppose any “isms” that support the continuation of the “logic of domination” (qtd in A. Smith, 1997, 21). The eco-dramas Burning Vision, Calling All Polar Bears, and Min Duoddarat III demonstrate an Indigenous pushback against the current eco-crisis; however, there is also a desire to address issues of colonization, violence, and sovereignty of all Indigenous people.

Melissa Campbell is a PhD-candidate at the University of Toronto

Works Cited


Clements, Marie Humber. Burning Vision. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003. Print.

Emberley, Julia. “Epistemic Heterogeneity: Indigenous Storytelling Practices, and the Question of Violence in Indian Residential Schools.” Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress. Eds. Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 143. Print.

Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism” New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism. Ed. Rachel Stein. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Gray, Nelson “Bringing Blood to Ghosts: English Canadian Drama and the Ecopolitics of Place.” Readings in Performance and Ecology. Eds. Wendy Arons and Theresa J. May. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Hoelscher, Steven D. Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H. H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. Print.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence, and Women.” American Indian quarterly 35.2 (2011): 215. Print.

MacKenzie, Sarah. “Representations of Gendered Violence in Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots and Marie Clements’ the Unnatural and Accidental Women.” Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature 2.2 (2012). Print.

Maufort, Marc. “Voices of Cultural Memory. Enacting History in Recent Native Canadian Drama.” Indigenous North American Drama: A Multivocal History. Ed. Birgit Däwes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013. Print.

Min Duoddarat III. Feb 2, 2011. MS. Beaivváš Sámi Teáhter. Unpublished.

Readings in Performance and Ecology. Eds. Wendy Arons and Theresa J. May. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Richards, Constance S. On the Winds and Waves of Imagination: Transnational Feminism and Literature. New York: Garland Pub., 2000. Print.

Smith, Andrea. “Ecofeminism through an Anticolonial Framework." Ecofeminism. Women, Culture, Nature. Eds. Karen J. Warren and Nisvan Erkal. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1997. Print.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of                  Canada: Residential Schools.” Web. <>.

Vakoch, Douglas. Feminist Ecocriticisms: Environment, Women, and Literature. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012. Print.

Warden, Allison. Calling All Polar Bears. Perf. Allison Warden. November 2011. Web. <>.


'[1]. Also see Sarah Standing’s Human/nature: Eco-theatre Politics and Performance (2008), Marnie J. Glazier’s Eco-theatre and New Media: Devising Toward Transnational Balance (2012), Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events by Baz Kershaw (2007), International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism edited by Gaard, Estok, Oppermann (2013), Readings in Performance and Ecology edited by Arons and May (2012), Maufort and Däwes’s Enacting Nature: Ecocritical Perspectives on Indigenous Performance (2014).

[2]. See Stacy Alaimo’s Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000), Gaard, Simon, & Opperman’s New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism (2004), and Douglas Vakoch’s Feminist Ecocriticism: Environment, Women, and Literature (2012).

[3].The Métis are a mixed-heritage group in Canada. They are decedents of Indigenous people and European settlers. The Dene are a nation of Indigenous people from North America; in Clements’s play, they are from Canada’s Northwest Territories.

[4].Even now there are Aboriginal communities pushing to help protect their lands from uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee, a Cree territory in northern Quebec, Canada.

[5]. I transcribed all of the quotations from Warden’s performance from video. I aimed to keep the language as close to the playwright/performers as I could.

[6]. This play is not published. I would like to thank Beaivváš Sámi Našunálateáhter for kindly allowing me access to a Norwegian/Sami copy of this play. It originally premiered in 1981 but has since been remounted and/or revised at least three times. The Norwegian/Sami texts do not have English translations available. Where a text appears originally in Norwegian, I offer the original text with my personal translations in a footnote.

[7]. “lost [his] self-respect”; he “had no affiliation anymore”

[8]. “The wounds were left/ in nature and / deep in my soul / I no longer knew / where I belonged.”

[9]. “the mine is up on the mountains where they found ore and gold. The streams bring poison with them down into the valley. There are no fish here anymore, the marshes are black, and there’s not a cloudberry to be seen.”

[10]. “But the wounds and toxins from the mine are not gone. We still suffer because of it today. Is this my legacy to my descendants?”

[11].SOLVEIG: It's good that he [Mons] does not let himself be driven off the land. The same happens in many other places in the world.

ÁSLLAT: Where?

SOLVEIG: In the rainforests of Brazil, in Siberia, in Canada people are driven from their land, and the land is taken over and destroyed. Do not give up now, Aslak.

[12]. Also see Rauna Kuokkanen’s 2008 article “Globalization as Racialized, Sexualized Violence” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.