Amy Gottlieb Maybe we could begin by you just telling us your name, the name you used in the ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s, if it was different, yeah.
Monique Mojica I’ll introduce myself in the language.
Amy Gottlieb OK.
Monique Mojica Nuedi, nuegambi. A nuga Olonadili Oloedidili Ganosohktah Those are my names in Dulegaya; I also included my Cayuga Bear clan name. I am Monique Mojica. I was born into the Guna and Rappahannock Nations and adopted into the Cayuga Bear Clan of the Haudenosaunee at Six Nations, and that was done so that my son could have a clan. His mother had to have a clan in order for him to have a clan. I was born in New York City, in Manhattan, in 1954, and I lived all over. And I came to Toronto in 1983 to be the second Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, which I did for about a year and a half, and I’ve been here ever since.
Amy Gottlieb We’d like to talk to you about your involvement in efforts to promote Indigenous culture and Indigenous women in the Arts, and particularly about your work as a performer, as a writer and a theatre curator. I’d like to ask – you talked during our previous conversations, and also I’ve seen this in writing, that you self-identify as a women word warrior. As you told me, this term is something that Paula Gunn Allen writes about in her book, The Sacred Hoop; what does that mean to you?
Monique Mojica That was written quite a while ago. What I remember about saying, me, me – I’m there, I’m in, That came from not only Paula Gunn Allen’s term “Woman Word Warrior,” but came from the time when This Bridge Called My Back was published. And that was two seminal texts along with Beth Brant, who I hope I’m quoting her correctly, wrote « this is the only weapon I have, this pen, this language. » I’m thinking what else is it that I could do at that moment, as the mother of a young child who could not, at that time, put my body on the frontline. What was my weapon?
And talking about being a “Word Warrior,” I knew that I had the ability to cobble words and imagery together in an embodied way. And I think it’s important to distinguish what I do from writers like Beth or Paula Gunn Allen did. They’re no longer with us, but they were writers; I took a lot of permission from those women at that time. But because I’m a performer I embodied that permission to tell stories. And say oh, but that’s what a writer is. But it was so powerful to me, the things that they wrote, that I can activate this – I know this in my body, can I turn that inside out and show what this is?
So I guess I would never use those words ”promoting Indigenous culture” it was what I was driven to create in order to be able to reclaim and be in my body in the world. Because there was not, certainly at that time even less, space for inhabiting as an Indigenous person, and certainly even less as an Indigenous woman. Well, as an Indigenous woman artist [laughs] – that was like not – there wasn’t a lot of space for that unless we were recycling and refrying the Pocahontas image. I mean two you’re either Pocahontas, or you’re an ancient, wise museum piece, and I wasn’t really looking to be either.
Amy Gottlieb Well speaking about reclaiming and performance, I remember, I think it was the first time I saw you on the stage, you and Makka Kleist – Makka an Inuk from Greenland, performed in the 1980s as the Sea Cows. I’d never seen theatre like that before; I was blown away. Can you talk about those performances?
Monique Mojica Yeah. Yeah. Makka lived in Toronto for a while after the – in the early ’80s, what was a gathering called The Indigenous Peoples Theatre Celebration that happened twice, once in 1980 and once in 1982. And that’s where I met her, and she came to Toronto to work and during that time it was quite a struggle for us to find interest, support – ways to create organic work. You know what these days is called “devised theatre” right, and we didn’t even use that term then. It was just that how do we tell those stories in an embodied and organic and physical way?
She came out of Tukaq Teatret (in Denmark). And during the time that we did work together, both at Native Earth and in other productions, we did a workshop in Clown, under the auspices of the Richard Pochinko school of clowning, but we didn’t study with Richard, we studied with Ian Wallace. And we went through that Clown Workshop, and at that time, Ian felt – which I think there were five of us – there was Makka and myself, and Tomson Highway, Billy Merasty and Gary Farmer – no, Gary came later – and Doris Linklater.
And Ian felt, as we did, that we all had such a grounded and innate understanding of Trickster that he allowed us to make an additional mask which usually is not made under the Pochinko School of Creating Clown. And it’s those characters that Makka and I then took into what you saw. The first piece that we did was a piece of street theatre, that was done I think on University Avenue, at King and Bay at a demo the folks that were doing around Uranium mining in Elliot Lake. So we took a piece, a long poem by Leslie Marmon Silko, and we created a piece of street theatre from Leslie Marmon Silko’s poem called The Witch Story, and we did that on the street.
From there we performed it a few other times, and then we did our own version of Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Emperor’s New Clothes. And we did a few other sort of impromptu things. I think we also – we MC’d a few performances and things like that, as those characters. So those two characters were Uaajeerneq Iothuk 00:09:45] which Makka drew on the Inuit living mask and Coyote was the Trickster that was closest to me.
So we used what we knew about those beings and how they function to create theatre; that’s it’s probably why we’d never tried anything like that before – it was part of – also part of what – the way that those kinds of characters teach. They are not – I would not call those characters Sacred Clowns, because that belongs in a ceremonial context. But we drew on the principles of performance of Sacred Clown, in that they’re very scatological, they do – everything has to do with pooping and pissing on everything, lots of farts, and they’re scary and they’re sexual.
And they’re the ones that are allowed to break all those protocols and boundaries. In the most sacred ceremonies, they often come in at a certain time and they’re terrible, they’re awful; they pick people up and drag them around, and they hump people and you know. So it was those kinds of ways of using what we knew of these immutable creative forces that were – well many figure in the creation stories they’re neither male nor female. They’re neither good nor evil. They’re – so that’s – those are the Sea Cows that you saw, the Coyote and Uaajeerneq, and that was a long time ago. [Laughs]
Amy Gottlieb Yeah. [Laughs] So following a little bit later in terms of your work, I’m wanting – I’m thinking about Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, and I know you wrote it, it was published by Women’s Press in 1991. But prior to that, in 1990 it was produced by Nightwood Theatre here in Toronto with foundational support from Kate Lushington, then artistic director of Nightwood, as well as with amazing support from Djanet Sears. So I’m hoping that you can talk with us about both the writing and the performing of Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots.
Monique Mojica That was produced also I think with the support from Native Earth in the beginning, the first workshop, and it was at the Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace. Wow. I can tell you about the seed, that I knew I had to write that. My great-grandmother was Rappahannock, and Rappahannocks are part of the Powhatan Confederacy which is the southern most of the Algonquian peoples that go from, what is now Virginia – North Carolina/Virginia all the way across – all the way up the Eastern Seaboard and across over into Alberta and Wyoming there are Algonquian speaking peoples, it’s one of the largest groups.
And that spread speaks to migrations that happened way pre-contact and forced removals as well. Pocahontas, the living historical woman, was Pamunkey, and Pamunkeys are part of that Powhatan Confederacy. Those nations that were all neighbours. So I knew that I had a lineage, not to her specifically – that’s a whole different thing – a lot of Virginia, blue bloods – white people always say I’m a direct descendant of Pocahontas – well, maybe not. You know she had one son and he stayed in England pretty much until he – he was brought back to Virginia eventually, but he went white. So who knows?
There was a production I was in called Jessica, that was written by Linda Griffiths from a story by Maria Campbell, and it’s a whole other kettle of fish, and they wrote about it. But during that time, there were sometimes the Stage-door Johnnys who’d come, wait at the stage door, and sometimes they were people – they were guys I didn’t even know, right. So one of the cast would yell to me, Monique, there’s someone out here who wants to meet you. And being cheeky, I yelled back out through the dressing room door; well is he a white guy? I don’t go with white guys. They’re too hairy and got no lips. [Laughter]
And one of the actors in that cast took great offence; she was like, oh Monique, I’m so surprised at you. How could you say something so racist? And I was speechless. I was absolutely speechless that this was being put on me that I was the one that was being racist because I said « Well, no white guys for me », and I thought it was pretty obvious – you know I’m not going to be any white man’s piece of exotic fruit – you know that time is over, this is not happening. And there was a lot of pressure on Indigenous women, black women, women of colour to be the exotic for white man’s fantasies. [It’s innate, it’s historical, it’s built into the…]
So I couldn’t explain it; I was trying to explain it, but it always just came back to, I was so racist, I was so prejudiced. So I went home and I remember sitting in my kitchen and say, if I had to explain it, how would I explain this? Where did it start? And picked up her and head and said it was me – it was poor Pocahontas. [Phone rings].
So the person who answered that question, and said, and I saw her; she said “it started with me,” was Pocahontas, who was much, much maligned and exploited. And I started to research her both in books rapidly found that there was very little in the books about any historical Indigenous women – there’s more now. But at that time I kept coming up with the word – well there was lots of savage, but there was nubile – all these women whether they were in South, Central or North America would be referred to as the nubile Indian Princess – was all over history. And all of these suppositions by white male historians.
So when I started out, and this was directed by my aunt, Muriel Miguel, from Spiderwoman Theatre, she came from New York and was with me generating this work. And it was generated, it was created by asking a lot of what ifs? And before Muriel even came, I was working with Kate Lushington, who was amazingly – well maybe not so amazingly – it was neither before nor after her tenure have there been – has there been such an opening and concrete support for Indigenous, black or writers of colour – ever? You know it was a really, really concrete, absolutely from the ground up, like this is how you use a word processor, you know [laughs]. And this is how you use the copy machine.
And that’s when we were cutting and pasting; we would actually cut out paragraphs or lines and take the glue stick and put it on another sheet she’d typed. And asked me all kinds of questions, and Djanet Sears, before Kate came on, it was Djanet Sears who was at the same time working and writing with Nightwood. She was the first dramaturge on that project, and sometimes it was Djanet and Kate together.
So at that time, for that opening in that history of time, there was somebody at Nightwood who made it their business to run Nightwood with those questions about how are you anti-racist and feminist at the same time, which was not the case in other feminist gatherings or events.
Amy Gottlieb I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about Princess Pocahontas. And I mean I understand that you were trying to confront a narrative, a Colonial narrative and a narrative about an Indigenous woman, you know an exotic Indigenous woman. Could you tell me a little bit more about how the play was structured, and what you were in the end trying to impart to those people who – many, many, many people who went to see it.
Monique Mojica Well in terms of structure; I didn’t know I had a structure until afterwards and I had to like take the script and figure out how I type it out so that I would submit the manuscript to Women’s Press. It was only after the fact that a very specific structure emerged. So this is a difference in the way that I work, the way that Spiderwoman works and the way that mainstream theatre works. In mainstream theatre you’re supposed to have all of that thought out from the head ahead of time, and anything you write then gets plugged in into that.
But the story that needed to be told is what informed the structure that was only revealed afterwards. So in that one there are 13 moons; so there’s 13 sections, right, 13 – one for every moon of the Lunar year, and four sections – four stories that are told where there is three faces of women that are all one. Because if you go back and look at a lot of these women, they’re called by many names. You know Pocahontas is the one that went down in history, but she had the name Matoaka before that, and there’s – you know she may have had other names and there’s variations on the pronunciation of that and after she was abducted and Christianized , she went by Lady Rebecca – some of the other women, their names were usurped like Tonantzin who became the Virgen de Guadalupe – and that’s a whole other story. But there were three – there was always three faces, four times.
But I didn’t know that when it was created. It was that these are the stories that I want to tell. It also had very much to do with – because I am both Central American Indigenous and North American Indigenous, I was finding it necessary to respond very, very much to what at that time – and it’s still around – but a very specific Colonial Canadian mindset that there are Canadian Native people and there are American Native people, and then there are Mexicans and the rest of them. So it was – it’s something that was harder to talk about in the Indigenous community at that time, because everyone was very much holding onto their Canadian nationalism – remember when that was progressive? Well, [laughs] we didn’t escape that in the Indigenous community, yeah?
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica It was built on the storytelling technique that I inherited from Spiderwoman theatre, where you tell the story many times in many ways and you tell it in sound and movement and gesture, and word, phrase, so that the text is the very last thing. And that way of working, which I’m really still having to fight for; the text is not what is privileged – the body is privileged. So when you ask me these questions about what, as a woman and as a native – it gets me very confused, because I think it’s very much more holistic than that.
If I’m writing and performing and creating and generating stories from the land through my body – and this is the only body I’ve got – and trying to pick out which part is what, I don’t know that it – to me it’s kind of almost counter-productive. Telling it – looking at those stories of Pocahontas and other women who were considered the Princesses and all of the – there’s a certain – what do you call it, requirement – no. List of what a – the Princess and the Squaw was the same dichotomy used to create the literary and cultural narrative about Indigenous women as Madonna/Whore, right – so it was related to that. And it was not created by us.
And there are certain things that the Princess had to have; you know she was a beautiful, virginal maiden who as a prerequisite that she recognised the superiority of the white man so that she would betray her evil Indian Chief, father, nation, culture, brothers, husbands to aid and abet white men. And in the aiding and abetting of white men, she was also sexually available at all times to white men. So that’s what I looked to blow up.
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica I don’t read reviews, but I remember some of the responses from that time is that it was received as “angry.” Even by some Native men; you know “well that’s angry” – when angry was a negative critique [laughs].
Amy Gottlieb [Laughs]
Monique Mojica I remember like of course it’s angry. [Laughs] I mean what else? But it also had very much to do with – I mean where do we go to find the evidence of the lives lived by our grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great-great-great-grandmothers? You know those things aren’t – they didn’t leave written records; they left different kinds of records. So this “finding the footsteps” is something that – finding the footprint; how do I follow, what footprint does that – finding a map. Finding a trail is a theme in my work that came back very much in Chocolate Woman Dreams The Milky Way,  it’s in Izzie M: The Alchemy of Enfreakment , that finding your way when you have no map and what are maps, and who’s maps are you looking at?
Are we looking at flat cartography or are we looking at veins and arteries of rivers and landmarks or trees and migrations of peoples and old, old, old stories? Those are held and told and sung by women. And they’re woven into clothing, and they are etched into pottery, and they are stitched into molas. So I don’t know if – hmm – the lens is different, therefore the entrance to storytelling as performance – performance storytelling – is different. Gunas are very layered; there’s always more than one aspect to anything that you might choose.
Our stories aren’t told in a chronology, they’re not linear. No, and I’ve been much more excited in recent years about really moving towards culturally-specific dramaturgy and towards helping other artists in supporting their work with what I know about where you can go to find those dramaturgical models that are from Indigenous narratives. Literary narratives like effigy mounds and earthworks; they’re all over the hemisphere. Literary narratives like wampum belts. Literary narratives like our material culture in beadwork and in pottery. But those are literary narratives, and that’s what I used in Chocolate Woman Dreams Milky Way, it was very much later, after the time period that you’re talking about.
But Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots was the piece that I did that gave me the initial springboard to be able to tell stories from my body. Because if we’re going to take the supposition of some white man as historian and call that truth, then anything that I – I asked Pocahontas about what happened. Why were you running around out in the woods warning white men? What the heck? And where was your mother? Letting you lose your way; where are all your aunties and [laughs] what was a 10 year old doing out in the woods?
So I was able to – knowing what we know about Indigenous cultures now that have survived, I was able to reclaim and reinterpret some of those narratives that were told by her – about her I mean. They were told about her by John Smith, who was like 36 years old when she was 10. You know so – I went to her grave; her body’s no longer there, but I was in England in 2013 and I knew that was one of the things I had to do was go to the place where she had been buried. And her remains were very early on looted and taken. So nobody knows where she ended up.
But the singer, Wayne Newton, tried for many years to get her remains, but she wasn’t there, so he’s Powhatan – he’s actually a Potomac – he’s one of us. [Sings] He’s one of us, eek.
Amy Gottlieb [Laughs] I’m wondering if you could talk – I want to talk a little bit about some of the work you did as part of Native Earth Performing Arts. I know that you were the second Artistic Director. I’m wondering – you’re talking about this different lens that you were bringing through Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots – you know that was in – Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots was in 1990. You were, as I understand it, Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts from ’83 to ’86, and I’m wondering what did you bring to Native Earth Performing Arts as an artist?
What do you feel was your contribution, and what impact did that theatre have at the time? Your own impact as well as maybe more generally, Native Earth Performing Arts?
Monique Mojica I think that probably the biggest impact that my presence there had was to shift the necessity for having tools and training to be on the stage. I think that at that time, in the early ‘80s, most of the work being shown was by people who were – either had no or very little training. And the stories were all about explaining us to them kind of thing. You know – like –
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica And I think the first story was – the first play by a Native writer was called Who Am I? and things were – that’s what was popular at the time, was the whole identity, in crisis [unintelligible] to the world, kind of Indian lost in the city sort of focus. And what I did is I brought my aunt Muriel Miguel and my mother Gloria Miguel to Toronto so that they could share the way that Spiderwoman works, which can work in any kind of group of finding your own stories. Putting voice to your own story and telling that story in a way that doesn’t necessarily follow – doesn’t necessary – doesn’t follow the Eurocentric guide of – oh I even forget what it is. When you have a beginning and a middle, climax, end, resolution – all of that kind of – that it’s not told in that way.
I would think that that was probably the biggest impact that I had at the time at Native Earth, was to bring in senior artists – senior Indigenous artists to share and teach emerging artists. And at that time, Makka Kleist and Maariu Olsen were living in Toronto so they had the training that they brought from Tukkaq which I think was largely Grotowsky but mixed with their cultural ground base. Billy Merasty was around at that time, so we had – and also we would have many languages in the studio that we also used.
So I think that my recollection was that it wasn’t – people were not wildly excited about the work that we did. We did “Double Take/A Second Look.” We did “Give Them a Carrot For As Long As The Sun Is Green”. And we did “The Trickster Cabaret” during the time that I was there. And I remember people going well, it isn’t very sophisticated, it doesn’t follow the – you know people were upset that it didn’t follow European expectations. I felt they didn’t understand it, or culturally, or was it the language they didn’t understand.
I remember Billy Merasty sang that song from La Cage aux Folles – I am what I am, but he translated it all into Cree. So there were things like that – Maariu telling a story completely in Greenlandic. So there’s always that response from non-Indigenous audiences, oh well it’s unaccessible – it’s not accessible. Who’s your audience? So I don’t think that Native Earth started to be noticed, or have an impact in mainstream Toronto theatre until Tomson’s tenure.
Amy Gottlieb And was that in the ‘90s or –
Monique Mojica No, it was mid-‘80s.
Amy Gottlieb – mid-‘80s.
Monique Mojica So The Rez Sisters.
Amy Gottlieb So after ’86?
Monique Mojica Yeah.
Amy Gottlieb Yeah. OK.
Monique Mojica Because I think that work was more recognisable. It was more recognisable; the form was more recognisable.
Amy Gottlieb Right.
Monique Mojica And I’ve always been about, yes our stories are – I’ve never been really interested in taking the same form and stylistics and dropping in Native content. It just – I think there are people who can do that if they want to do that; there should be all kinds of Indigenous theatre. It’s not my interest. I also am – I’m excited about changing the grounding of the form.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica So I think our literary structures are different. Our story narratives are different. So looking at how do we tell a story; how do we stand, how do we walk, how do we dance, how do we sing? How do we stand to orate, how do we show respect? And it causes all kinds of complications in terms of how conventional theatre is produced because well, the first thing it causes is a big problem about duration. And if we are talking about things like taking story narratives from mound sites and earthworks, well duration we’re talking thousands of years. The two that are in – well one – one of the mounds that’s in Magwood Park here in Toronto is 8,000 years old. Seven or eight – give or take a thousand years – it’s been there a long time.
So what does that mean if duration – duration is one of the aesthetic principles that I used in creating Izzie M: The Alchemy of Enfreakment; it does all kinds of things – it really challenges expectations. And I’m not interested in doing theatre the other way anymore.
Amy Gottlieb I’m wondering if you could talk about Turtle Gals; I know it’s a little bit later than the period that we’re talking about. But I think you formed it with Michelle St. John and Jani Lauzon; I’m wondering if you could talk about the context for this formation and some of the work that you did with Turtle Gals.
Monique Mojica Yeah, well that was deliberately formed with women, because we did feel at the time really strongly is OK, now they’re paying attention, but it’s only the work written by the men that have been produced, and produced many times over and began to be far and wide. And we felt that women’s histories and women’s experience of being Indigenous wasn’t being told. And we had met on the film set, a CBC set for A Conspiracy Of Silence, which was about the murder and cover up of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Manitoba.
Michelle played Helen Betty; I played her mother, and Jani played her best friend. And at that time we had a conversation in a van on the way to set, 4:30 in the morning, in bitter, bitter, bitter, bitter North Bay weather. And we discovered that the three of us had each either had the experience or knew of someone who had had the experience of trying to scrub off, or bleach out their colour. And it was some years before we came together to start telling those stories that became the Scrubbing Project.
So it was about internalised genocide; if we know that internalised racism exists, and we know that internalised sexism exists – is there such a thing as internalised genocide and what does that look like? And we did it as a – in the Vaudeville style, and structurally it was ceremony. Structurally it was a feast for the dead. Stylistically it was Vaudeville, and it was really whacky. I mean we had a whole production number [sings – Living with Genocide, dancing with Genocide] – I mean we just really – we drew a lot on the Marx Brothers. It was so [laughs] – it was that kind of crazy.
And again, in my pieces there’s usually some Native women sobbing in the back at the end. So we knew that those were the people who were most impacted by our work. And we did that piece – we started creating in ’99; it was produced in 2002, and 2005 we toured it. And then there was a subsequent piece that I did some of the writing for – oh no, in between that there was The Only Good Indian – that went into schools. That was – we were approached by MayWorks 00:44:32] to do something like – I don’t know, Native people in the unions and we said boring. So we did – [laughs] “People at Work,” we were just trying to think about so what is all this – what is this work that we do? And that went into schools.
And then the last piece that was done by Turtle Gals was The Only Good Indian which I was involved in in workshop and development, but did not do the final production of. And a lot of other pieces jumped out of that piece in that we were – we were researching and looking at Native women who were performing, like at the turn of the last Century, up until the ‘40s or ’50s. So we each sort of chose someone who was little known and worked on that. And it turned out that those pieces then each sparked other productions. So it’s still alive in the way that a lot of the work that I – that was not performed of mine in The Only Good Indian, went into Izzie M: The Alchemy of Enfreakment, which is the history of my family performing in sideshows and freak shows.
So even though I knew it all my life, it was quite a cold water in the face, the moment I realised I’m one generation away from the freak show. So that’s the truth; I don’t think – you can’t take our – you can’t divorce the ways in which we have been seen as performers historically from what the expectation is now of Indigenous performers – it’s still very active.
Amy Gottlieb Mm. Well in some ways that sort of brings me back to, what you were talking about earlier, the – what you might call the so-called Native theatre explosion in the 1980’s when mostly male writers and actors were being celebrated, were being recognised. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your response to that at the time, but also since then. It seems that in some ways you’ve answered some of that, but I’m wondering if you could talk about it a little bit more.
Monique Mojica [Pause] Well I think that while there are many more Indigenous women creating and having their work produced now than there were in the ‘80s. There’s the wonderful Santee Smith and the work that she’s doing in dance and in dance theatre is very celebrated and really pushing boundaries. Yolanda Bonnell has had a lot of work done recently. And that’s in this side of the country; on the other side of the country, there are people like Marie Clements who’s, for the most part left theatre, but certainly had a very big impact when she was writing and having pieces produced.
What I don’t think has widely changed is a way to work with Indigenous stories and Indigenous process of creation that keeps us respected and safe. I think that as long as we’re willing to work within the established confines of the way that’s always done in the theatre, which is very much a hierarchy, that you could probably be safe and celebrated. The moment that you start to need and insist on things that would support work being approached from a more Indigenous centre; you know when you put Indigenous knowledge in the centre of the needs, then there’s a great deal of friction and controversy that arises.
And it arises almost immediately, and it’s been – it continues to be kind of excruciating to slog through. And I’m often in the position of supporting and protecting younger actors in these situations, but I’m feeling less interested at this time of my life of being there – being in the – I don’t believe that you change things from the inside – I think that that’s one of the fallacies that they always say. I think that you change things by doing your own – doing your own and making that reclamation and insisting on the things that you need. And I think the only way to ensure that is to do it yourself and the exhausting – the exhausting position of self-producing is also something that’s worn me right down.
Yeah, and the other thing – and perhaps it’s the hopeful thing; that we’re doing this interview in – what’s month three of the pandemic, of the Covid pandemic – where are we, it’s just July now, so we’ve got March, April, May – it’s the beginning of Month four right?
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica We don’t know what the future of live performance is going to be from here on. I mean I heard yesterday that Broadway’s not going to open until 2021. We are certainly going to be the last people back to work – people who do live performance. I’ve had a number of say conceptual kinds of sessions with people on Zoom which seems to be OK. Working as an actor on a script over Zoom, I hated it. [Laughs] It was like how do you – and again, I’m an embodied actress, so trying to work on embodiment you’ve got a bunch of talking heads is shakes her head. And even when you’re working from a script and working in a conventional let’s do a read-through setting; when there’s no energy coming back from the other actors, I found it really, really, really excruciating.
So we don’t know if we’re going to have to re-invent this art form – maybe it’s a little opening. Maybe there’s a little opening for doing things differently. Maybe people are thinking about how to do things differently just out of necessity. So that’s where I’m at; I’m taking joy and inspiration from talking to those Indigenous theatre creators who are interested in knowing what I know.
Amy Gottlieb Right, yes. That’s important. [Laughter] So I want to just take us back – that’s important that you’re doing that work really, because you are an Elder in that community and –
Monique Mojica In that realm.
Amy Gottlieb – in that realm, yes. And a very experienced and well-respected one, I should say. I want to take us back a little bit from now to the ‘80s. I know that you were involved in various women’s organisations – or some. You’ve talked about working relief shifts, in particular at the Women’s Book Store; I’m wondering if you could talk about when that was, and what that experience was like for you?
Monique Mojica Mm, what years was that? Probably ’87 to ’89 or ’90 – something like that. Oh, I’m not even sure if that’s right. Alejandra Nuñez and Djanet Sears and I all worked relief shifts at the Women’s Book Store. And it was great to have that support; it was great to go into a book store – the only other – you know when I’ve done like day jobs, I’ve always only ever done libraries and bookstores, other than working in various facets of performance. So this was – I think it was when I became aware of that there were things like theory – certainly when I became aware that there were books written about trauma, and books written for rape survivors.
The Native Women’s shelf was always really skinny – one shelf. I also remember it being kind of thrilling going back years later and my book was on that shelf. [Laughs] I remember, though I was at the tail-end of that – I think the – and I don’t have my years right. I do remember that the clinic was still next door and there were times when people were ushered in and rushed through the bookstore and we had to lock the door – that I remember.
Amy Gottlieb So that was the Morgentaler Abortion Clinic –
Monique Mojica Yes.
Amy Gottlieb – it was right next door to the Women’s Book Store.
Monique Mojica Yes, I remember the rabid people outside. I also remember having to have conversations with the women who ran the book store, because the blanket one-fits-all – one-size-fits-all feminism didn’t fit me – it wasn’t fitting me. And there were a lot of assumptions made, even in that small group of women about race and class and oppressions. It’s also where I – I also think I was first exposed to – towards the tail-end there was all that stuff about Palestine and selling the buttons and all of that. You know that was very, very hot and very heated.
I recently had a conversation with someone who was part of that collective – who I am still in contact with, who told me that there was one exchange that I had had with her around race and gender that’s still with her, like she remembered it word for word – I didn’t. But I was obviously talking about this stuff way back then. I remember it nevertheless as being – it was a safe place; when you came in and you locked the door, you knew that you had to lock the door – you could lock the door when you came through those doors. There were some things that you can pretty well count on not being huge issues, but there are other things that I had still to do the same amount of [sighs] oh the educating. You know –
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica I don’t know what more quite else to say about that.
Amy Gottlieb That’s good. It just sort of follows in terms of another question which was in our – in our discussion prior to the interview you said that you never have and never would identify yourself as a feminist, and I was hoping that you would talk with me some more about that. And tell me that story.
Monique Mojica Yeah, I’ve never found a home in the feminisms, right. I know that there are women now that are calling themselves Indigenous feminists, but I still – I can’t wear the label, I can’t wear the hat. Because the things that have given me a feeling of understanding of myself and understanding of women’s – of real power, not power because it’s perceived that that’s – all men have power so we have to have it too. But honest for real grounded – now power doesn’t even seem right – agency, respect, reverence has come from teachings in Indigenous cultures.
Now when I went for the first time to my grandfather’s birthplace, in Gunayala, I thought I was ready, I mean I knew they were matrilineal, I know the women were tough, I knew that the women were special, but I was still not prepared for what it meant to be in a functioning modern matriarchy. I mean I was floored. And these are all things that mainstream feminists really seem to think well they did it – they thought of it, they – and it’s really tiring. Plus I didn’t fight any less against racism, exclusion, dismissal of identity and cultural grounding among feminists than I did when the boys were there.
I have the same – I have exactly the same fights with white feminists that I do with white men, so why would I count myself among them? I remember – I think I can tell this story and name names because I’m sure she remembers it and she remains a very important and close friend of mine, and that’s Kate Lushington. I remember this would have been early ‘90s and it would have been around the time that I was trying to get the manuscript together for Princess Pocahontas, around the time of being asked to do fem-cabs year after year, right?
And I was talking to her about my discomfort and she said something to me, and I think that this conversation actually solidified our friendship. Is that she has a daughter, Natasha, and at the time she had two sons. And she talked about being aware of the danger and vulnerability that her daughter faced, that her sons would never have to face. And I was able to say – I remember how my heart pounded when I said to her, Kate, that maybe true for you; it’s not true for me. My son is in greater danger than your daughter. Most of the Native men around me have been raped.
And I know it was eye-opening for her, but it also solidified our friendship. So I’m not saying that I don’t have feminists in my life – I do; some of my best friends are feminists, ha-ha [laughter]. But they’re ones that have done that work plus. And that’s the only way that I can – and sometimes as people that are close to me, like Kate Lushington, like Sue Goldstein, are able to understand what I’m saying through that doorway of their struggles within the feminist movement.
But I’ve never been able to feel – I mean I had horrible experiences; I was sent to a feminist book fair in Amsterdam, that was one of the most horrific exclusionary events that I ever had to go to and it was horrible, and I will never put myself in that situation again. My son who was maybe 12 at the time, was following his grandmothers around at Women’s Playwrights conference here and was ejected from a room because somebody said they didn’t feel safe, there was a man in the room – he was 12. And he had a Jack Nicholson shirt on. So I mean it was like – you know it was one of those –
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica – you know – you remember the time.
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica You remember the time when you’re the mother of a son.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica So the violence that was willing to be enacted, re-enacted by feminists against youth – Indigenous youth, black youth, youth of colour was very virulent. And I was having no part of it. And I’ve never been able to find a situation where people call themselves feminists where I had a home.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica Where they’re willing to – and one of the biggest things is to stretch the mind to think of – yes, historically in Europe things came down a certain way, but to even imagine that for some of our cultures it was never that way. If it’s that way now, it was that way because of the aberration that followed conquest and invasion and continued genocide and Colonialism. But if I could have been unprepared for the degree of reverence and power that everything that has to do with the female side of life is held up, in Guna culture, imagine how far outside of the imagination of mainstream white feminists that is.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica I was grown when I went there the first time, but it was like – I don’t know what – how appropriate this is for – in the interview, but I’ll tell you this story and you can decide whether it’s part of it or not. There’s no ceremony in Guna spiritual life that’s more important than a girl’s first moon cycle. Nothing. I knew that – I knew that it’s a father’s responsibility, when his daughter has her first moon to take that daughter by the hand and walk her around the community, around the island, blowing the conch and announcing it. With great pride – today we have another woman in our community. Today is a great day. Today is a day to celebrate. In six weeks we all come together and there will be Chicha and there will be dancing, and yeah!
In the father’s absence, it’s the uncle’s responsibility. I walked into a friend’s home on the Island of Ustupu; the women are – their purview is everything that goes on inside the home. The men outside but inside the home – hm? The uncle of that household came home, there was a girl who was 11 who had just had her ceremony, right, her Chicha ceremony. The uncle meeting someone from so far away, his introduction to me is hello, would you like to see the photographs of – we have a new woman in our household. This is practically the first thing he said after hello. We are very blessed; we have a new woman in our household – would you like to see the photographs?
And I said yes, you know being polite and I was brought this photo album, the way that you would somebody’s graduation or a baptism or a Bar Mitzvah, right? And then I’m shown these pictures of this girl completely naked, in a vessel, in a basin, painted blue. You know she had this vegetable dye on her. And I looked at her – and she’s watching me looking at the pictures and she’s really excited and she’s so proud. She’s so proud. And this is her uncle, whose responsibility it is to announce and show to a complete stranger that pride. How do you explain that; how do reconcile that with white mainstream feminism?
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica And I say no, I’m not doing that. No, I’m not making my 12 year old leave the room.
Amy Gottlieb No.
Monique Mojica When he’s there to be with his grandmothers you know. And it was just so much – so many shades of wrong that went on during those times, and continues. But that’s what I mean when I say I saw things that I was not – I was not prepared for how – with the depth of what being a woman means in that culture. To the point where [sighs] – and I’ve never been able to get anyone to talk to me about women, but the Omeggid are third-gender men. They are really revered; it is a status symbol to have an Omeggid. The Molas made by an Omeggid sell for three times the value of ones made by born women, right?
I had an experience where I was in another community, where my grandfather was born, and meeting a mass of cousins – so many cousins. And one of them wouldn’t let me leave; he said well you’ve met all my daughters, you haven’t met my son – you have to stay. You can’t leave – you have to meet my son. And I’m thinking in my head, OK here we go, here’s the boy thing that’s important. So he made me stay until Francis came home and he was ah, here’s Francis – this is my son. And Francis came in [minces in] –
Amy Gottlieb [Laughs]
Monique Mojica – and gave me his hand to kiss. And there’s my cousin going like, hm, hm boastful – saying to me, this is the family you come from. We’re a family with Omeggid, yeah? How do you translate that –
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica – to this other culture that won’t even recognise that that’s the norm? Holds hands in air?
Amy Gottlieb Yeah. Yeah.
Monique Mojica So it’s a big tangent, but it’s related to why I feel like feminism has never been ample enough for me. I’ve always experienced it in very narrow straight lines and I’m not a narrow straight line kind of gal.
Amy Gottlieb Thank you. Thank you – that was – it may have seemed like a tangent, but I don’t actually think it was; I think it answered the question quite amply – with a lot of ampleness. I’m wondering – I’m sort of trying to think a little bit about now, our archive, different movements. I’m trying to think about, how do you think about the issues that you were addressing in the ‘80s and the ‘90s; how do you feel that they’re still relevant today? And if so, in what ways? Now that’s a big question, I understand that.
Monique Mojica It’s so big.
Amy Gottlieb A piece of it in terms of Indigenous performance, in terms of being a theatre curator, dramaturge; like what things that you think that you were addressing in the ‘80s, in the ‘90s, are you still addressing today?
Monique Mojica Most of them
Amy Gottlieb Most of them?
Monique Mojica All of them. Most all of them I think. I think that it hasn’t been a clear trajectory forward in any sense and sometimes you go forwards, sometimes one step forward 100 steps back. There’s a lot of things that have happened in the theatre world that involved Indigenous creations or Indigenous performers in non-Indigenous creations that I felt took us back at least 25/30 years. And set us back there. They were very successful. They were very lucrative. They got the kudos you know. I think there’s – I already talked a lot about form and narrative structure and story and I think that those things remain – I think there are more people considering being interested in that. But if it’s not going to make you famous, it’s really hard for people to – it takes longer, it’s more work.
I mean it’s a huge question. There’s one of the things that I – and I think we may have talked about it too; in this particular time with the double-whammy of the Covid pandemic and the racial pandemic that we’re living through, you and I are kind of in the same age bracket and we’ve been here so many times before. So it’s really hard for me to say yay, now people are finally listening, now this time, now we’re going to make the big change, now it’s going to be different. Because how many times have we been at this point before?
And in my lifetime it’s always snapped back. The first time I remember, I think it was the first time, not just as a – the first time I was ever marching in the street, I was nine years old and it was for Selma, Alabama 00:74:57] and I remember walking from San Jose to San Bernardino in California. And you can say that in some ways things are not in the same place as they were in the mid-‘60s, but in some ways we’re still having the same conversations. And the same historical events that leach into the culture, that leach into education, that are taught as history, or omitted from history. They are still having a reverberation now.
Amy Gottlieb Yeah.
Monique Mojica So I would say that as we learn different vocabularies and more accurate vocabulary and talk about certain things, I think that helps a lot. As our analogies of things like Colonialism, genocide, race and gender becomes more acute, we’re more bolstered in a place to say, oh no it’s not that’s something’s wrong with me – there’s something wrong with all that. [laughs]. And that takes a lifetime of peeling the onion – just peeling it, and we’re never done. You know my mom is 94 in a few weeks, living independently through Covid in New York City, and we’re still having these conversations.
Now I’m very grateful and excited when we can go into a conversation where she has another shift in talking about internalised racism, because that’s – that’s a killer. Or that cops are murderers, but so is that internalised racism. And un-learning one is a blow against the other. You know unlearning racism; I have very different things to unlearn than you do.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm, absolutely.
Monique Mojica Right. And I’m still working at it. So I think a lot of those things – some of the same – I’m older, so I am really not interested – I’m much less interested in any kind of – [sighs] what’s the word – approval. I’m less interested in approval from the mainstream theatre world, and much more celebratory and protective of my outlaw status. And I’d rather stay there; the degree – the compromise is never really worth it to me. And whenever I’ve been in those big mainstream houses, it’s been hard. It’s been so hard, and the feeling – my discomfort at my own complicity has been very painful.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica And most folks – we’re trained, we’re told not to think any farther than oh but it’s such good exposure of that you’re there or what people are seeing it, what’s good for your career, for you, yeah, and all those things may be true within that box. I don’t think it’s what I want. For me, theatre and performance must be transformative. And if it doesn’t do that, we’re wasting its potency and it’s magic. And I don’t think – I mean there was a time where I was told that I must not, should not, and it was not necessary to bring my political convictions, my resistance into my art form.
That was something that belonged in the ‘80s; there was a time when we were told not to do that because white people won’t like it, right? It was a lot of being afraid of offending white folks. I refused to not have them together. You know if I don’t – [sigh] – if I don’t do that, I’m not – I am not being true. And I’m much more interested in finding out how, through this [points to her body] vessel, through this conduit – how do I keep this conduit in its personal history and in its multi-generational history, clear enough to tell the stories of kinship, family, land and place. How am I the best receptor I can be?
So I feel that my vision of what I would like to do, of what excites me, is perhaps clearer than at a time when I was just trying to say oh let us in, let us in, let us in. [Laughs] I don’t think I’m – I’m not knocking at the door anymore. I don’t think I want – I don’t think I want in.
Amy Gottlieb Mm-hm.
Monique Mojica So that’s the shift. But I don’t think that’s the same kind – I don’t think that the issues, the problems, the obstacles have changed that much. There may be more of us there; now there’s apparently a lot of Indigenous actors through Stratford in the last little while, if that’s what you want, you know? [Laughter] I worried very much when somebody close to me and was at one of those big festivals because I felt like oh, are they going to be ruined? What’s going to be left of them when they come back out to do this kind of work?
I’m not knocking at that door. I do think we need our own physical plants. We need to have our own physical actual theatre spaces, but who is there running them and how they are run and under what structures they are run, it’s still controlled by the Government of Ontario, the federal government of Canada; you have to do things a certain way. I remember that in Turtle Gals when we were going to incorporate and we needed a board of directors and we baulked at having a board of directors because it’s inherently hierarchical. You are not allowed to call that board of directors anything other than President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer.
So I think it’s built in; it’s built into respectability [laughs] that you have to do it that way. So I’d rather be an outlaw.
Amy Gottlieb All power to outliers.
Monique Mojica [Laughs] That’s right. That’s right. I can’t – no can do. Oh, that’s a racist thing you’re not supposed to say anymore. That’s one of those racist things built into the language.
Amy Gottlieb No can do?
Monique Mojica Yeah, it comes from Pidgin.
Amy Gottlieb Right. Hm interesting. So I’m thinking that we should wrap it up; I think that we’ve taken a lot of your time, and I don’t want to take more, I don’t want to tire you out anymore. Thank you – it’s been an amazing interview; it’s amazing to hear your thoughts about work that you’ve done, where we’re at now, the underpinnings of your thinking in terms of performance, the resistance that you see embodied in the kind of theatre that you do and that you help to engender. So I want to thank you, Monique, for this, and we’ll be back in touch again, very soon. Thank you.
Monique Mojica Okay, thanks Amy – it’s good to see you.
Amy Gottlieb It’s good to see you too, Monique – thank you.
Monique Mojica Bane Malo (Goodbye. See you again).
Amy Gottlieb Bane Malo.