Samson Reserve musician Brooklynn McWilliam-Fraser confronts colonialism of Calgary Stampede

“No! I’m not your Indian woman for display – I’m not for profit. I’m not an Indian Princess to use for show.”

– Brooklynn McWilliam-Fraser

 

Brooklynn McWilliam-Fraser (wâpiskikihew iskwêw) is a musician and emerging playwright from Samson First Nation, Maskwacis, in Treaty 6 Territory. A Mohkínstsis-based (Calgary) artist, Brooklynn is of Cree (nēhiyawak), Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) and Tsúùt'ínà descent.


Brooklynn graduated from Central Memorial High School with a certificate in performance and visual arts in a vocal stream. Central Memorial High School is located in what is now North Glenmore on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsúùt'ínà, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, and the Métis Nation (Region 3).


Singing from a young age, Brooklynn’s music focuses on injustice, intergenerational trauma and growing up in the foster care system. A young, first-time playwright, Brooklynn is new to the performative arts scene – bringing with her a unique, passionate perspective.


“I'm happy that my first theatre experience was with an Indigenous theatre company,” Brooklynn says. “I was exposed to drama and plays in high school but it’s very different from Making Treaty 7. We’re exposed to so much knowledge from Elders and artists – I think it’s a really nourishing experience and I want to pursue more [theatre].”


Making Treaty 7’s two-week Istotsi residency was exciting for Brooklynn, but she also faced challenges. Focusing on a traditional theatre performance rather than music was a new kind of artistry – Brooklynn often dealt with writer’s block.


“I was starting to lose hope,” Brooklynn says. “I was like, ‘Michelle [Thrush], I can’t do this, you asked the wrong person.’ But Chris and Michelle really helped me with talking through my ideas, giving me extra time, and figuring out where the story should end. I’m really thankful to them because they helped me to get my story out there and didn’t give up on me.” For her Istotsi project location, Brooklynn chose the Stampede Grounds and the Elbow River Camp (formerly, Indian Village). The location jumped out at her because of its history. Although it’s now a positive cultural event for Indigenous and non-Indigenous folx alike, the camp has roots in romanticizing the cowboys and Indians period of colonialist history.

Brooklynn McWilliam-Fraser on set during the filming of Istotsi.

“I wanted to tell a story, in a comical way, of how Indigenous People came to be part of Stampede,” Brooklynn says. “People don’t really know – when Stampede started, Indigenous People were still forced to live on reserve and weren’t allowed to leave. We’d be arrested if we didn’t have a pass from the RCMP. We weren’t allowed to practice our culture or have Ceremony – it was illegal. The Stampede was the first opportunity in a long time to get to do that. We finally got to share our culture and be ourselves without being arrested for it. Except, it would end after ten days – it was bittersweet.”


Brooklynn wrote her dark-humour Istotsi story about a meeting between infamous Stampede founder Guy Weadick and an “Indian Princess,” named White Eagle Woman. “White Eagle Woman is entranced because this white man is coming and tells her that we’re going to be able to experience our culture,” Brooklynn says. “She’s happy and she loves it – then after 10 days, Guy Weadick is like, ‘sorry, I got my money, time for you to go back to the reserve.’ She realizes how this isn’t fair. She feels like she’s being used more than being seen. The play ends with White Eagle Woman finding her voice and saying, ‘I’m not your Indian woman for display – I’m not for profit.’”


Visiting the Elbow River Camp site, Brooklynn laid down tobacco for Creator and her ancestors. The experience was calming and helped her understand where she wanted to take her Istotsi piece. A surreal experience, finding tranquility along the banks of the Elbow River was contrasted by the sounds of the Stampede.


“I was sitting by the river and I found there were a lot of animals coming close to me,” she says. “Ducks, birds nearby, and little ants – to me, that was something special. Finding serenity is weird because you hear all the rides, laughter, and screaming. I felt like the experience solidified that I was going in the right direction.”


The reception to Brooklynn’s play was overwhelmingly positive. The entire MT7 group was proud of her accomplishments and the work she put into her writing.


“People were very proud,” she says. “There was a lot of laughter – which was good because that’s what I wanted – all of my jitters went away. I felt really good about it in the end. There was a lot of relief in doing this for people – a lot of healing. Hearing Indigenous People find their voice, share their art, and educate people was a really wholesome experience. Istotsi is going to be an awesome opportunity for everyone living in Calgary to learn about the land we’re all standing on.”


 
Istotsi: The Land We Live On is made possible in part by the RBC Foundation

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