Updated: Nov 17, 2022
"People in the theatre community call it our secret element - Making Treaty 7 is inherently a reconciliation project." - Neil Fleming, Executive Director and Producer, Neil Fleming
Neil Fleming is the Executive Director of Making Treaty 7 (MT7) and the producer of O’kosi (pron: oh-goh-see – Blackfoot: ‘in the fall, when we gather’), the multi-disciplinary, multi-generational, and multi-dimensional production, performed by an all-Blackfoot cast.
O’kosi explores the effect of Treaty 7 on Indigenous families and the lasting legacy of intergenerational trauma passed on to parents, children, and grandchildren.
With a hybrid background in stage design and writing, Neil oversees the technical elements that go into an MT7 production, but as the producer, he also organizes the budget, funding, and team building as well. Neil was also involved in the O’kosi writing group – joining several Making Treaty 7 artists, including Director Michelle Thrush, at a retreat in Waterton.
“We sat in a circle and talked about the elements artists wanted to use – like, exploring the repercussions of the Treaty, the Indian Act, and all the ways that Indigenous families were pulled apart, and how can represent the healing that needs to take place,” Neil says. “It was a wonderful experience. We did a reading for a group of Elders, had a traditional Blackfoot feast, and received their blessing on the project.”
The MT7 creative process is expressed through Indigenous circle teachings. Each member of the writing team takes a piece of the circle and goes in their own direction – writing a poem, monologue, scene, or dance piece. At the end of the day, the team comes back together and molds the stories together as a group.
“Michelle likes to describe our creation model in the same way as an Indigenous village,” Neil says. “The stories in the centre are like a child – People surround them and put all their effort and love into the middle – that’s how we nurture the story. We’re all focused on supporting each other and the product.”
As a non-Indigenous person, Neil reiterates just how important it is for Indigenous stories to be told by Indigenous Peoples. He finds it trickier in a modern sense, as non-Indigenous people want to understand these stories as well – everyone is going through their own journey of reconciliation – but he also understands there is rebuilding to be done within Indigenous communities.
“We need to encourage Indigenous Peoples to feel free to tell their stories,” Neil says. “It’s easy for me to step aside and make space for the Indigenous artists to do their thing. I’ve had my time in the spotlight.”
Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society has been settler-supported since its inception. Inspired by the late One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre and MT7 co-founder Michael Green, Neil is endlessly fascinated with navigating Indigenous spaces and building trust with communities. To this end, Neil has immersed himself in Blackfoot culture and supported O’kosi as a unique experience, telling a story outside of how non-Indigenous theatregoers view Indigenous art.
“Indigenous Peoples grew up with all these lived experiences, wondering why the hell other people weren’t paying attention,” Neil says. “I’ve been questioned a few times about what I know and don’t know... I like being a safe sounding board for white people to ask questions. I’m helping filling in the blanks and I feel like that’s part of the gig too.”
During their writing retreat, the Making Treaty 7 group discussed tropes in Indigenous theatre and art and their reluctance to write another story with characters that are deadbeat or alcoholic stereotypes. Neil mentions that it’s a challenge because MT7 doesn’t want to make settlers feel too guilty – they want to give them Indigenous humour, hope, warmth, and healing. That’s what Michelle Thrush is after – the MT7 mission is to promote healing through Indigenous arts – and for white people to remember that it’s okay to laugh.
O’kosi is also a visual spectacle, incorporating projections into the storytelling through visceral video, motion, and music. There are few static images like in earlier MT7 productions. Set designer and projectionist Andy Moro, described as a wizard by Neil, amplifies beautiful imagery through subtle interactions between performer and stage.
O’kosi is performed by actor Garret Smith (Piikani Nation), Mary Rose Cohen (Syilx & Siksika), spoken word poet Alanna Onespot (Tsuut'ina & Siksika), Siksika Nation drama teacher Janine Owlchild (Siksika), and actor Dusty Frank (Kainai).
“O’kosi is futurism – it’s time tripping and I like it,” Neil says. “It’s not like anything I’ve seen before or worked on. It’s freer flowing than traditional structured playwriting. It’s way dreamier, which I feel is a more immersive way to let yourself go and experience the moments presented to you... it feels like a dream. In that way, it’s cool.”
O'Kosi is playing at the Pumphouse Theatre September 22 - October 1, 2022 - find out more and where to buy tickets here.