Exploring my narrative. An Indigenous artist's experience.

By: Ira Kramer, Guest contributor

Ira & Ida (Son & Mother)

I am Ira Kramer. I am of mixed Anishnaabe (Oji-Cree) and settler heritage. My mother is a Residential School survivor. My father grew up Mennonite and is a humanist. I am privileged. And I believe in and strive to embody equality by challenging my own narrative.

With our world in a state of cultural, social, and economic disarray, the call to find one's voice to initiate, cultivate and enact change is louder than it has ever been in my lifetime. The Black Lives Matter Movement, in my experience, has acted as a catalyst, inspiring me to donate to multiple organizations who are actively advocating for change, attend Zoom town councils and labs whose primary dialogue is racial (in)justice and join a discussion group geared towards educating and navigating the difficult truths in regards to the racist constructs in our institutions, I still feel unsure when exploring my own voice as an Indigenous Person.

My mother is an Indian Residential School survivor of Portage La Prairie Indian Residential School and Brandon Indian Residential School. At a young age of 4 ½, she was forcibly taken from her mother, Emily Baptiste of Lac Seul reserve (Treaty 3 territory), and it wasn’t long before she found her hands in boiling water while being questioned by a headmaster, “Are you still Indian?” This is reminiscent of the blood-curdling words, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” infamously spoken by Richard H. Pratt - founder of the Carlisle Indian School. This sentiment provided just the right amount of dehumanization to justify the systematic genocide of Indigenous peoples all over Turtle Island and the Americas. It is nothing short of a miracle that my mother exited the Residential school system alive. However, the physical, emotional and spiritual trauma branded into her existence left her fragmented from her own cultural identity, violently alienated from her Indigenous culture, language, songs, kin, family, ceremony and community and also pushed her deeper into the margins of the dominant narrative, white culture.

The reverberations of her trauma, as you can imagine, followed her into adulthood. She left

our family unit in London, Ontario when I was 5 ½ years old and began studying Native Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Although our relationship was often laden with undercurrents of abandonment, inconsistency, and heartbreak I feel fortunate to have discovered forgiveness in my heart. Hurt people hurt people. I accept that the weight of her own fragmented narrative as an Indigenous Person of Color has been heavy. She has spent many years teaching the Ojibwa language, art, and culture in the Kendaaswin (knowledge) elementary school, in the Progressive First Nation Community that is the Mnjikaning Chippewas of RAMA First Nation. Even though my own experience and exposure to my heritage have been limited, I am proud that she continues to do the work every day to be active in the resurgence of her culture, rekindle and fan the flames of our young ones, elders and ancestors.

As someone who experiences intergenerational trauma from the Indian Residential Schools and the effects of erasure of my Anishnabe heritage, being disconnected from ceremony, traditional song and dance, community, family, and kin, I struggle to trust my own voice as an Indigenous Person who is white-passing. I have invalidated my own voice as not Native enough. When asked by a cousin, Amber Clark, to stream a set of musical selections for the Migration Music Festival, I felt a pang of anxiety and fear that I was indeed not Native enough to partake. After discussing with my sister, Lara Kramer, a choreographer and multi-disciplinary artist, I was encouraged to trust my voice and did indeed present material. I am thankful to have the support of my family. However, the struggle of reclaiming my own identity feels vulnerable.

"We were 100% Anishinaabe before contact now there is blood quantum, the blood quantum era. The government's winning in assimilation policies" - Ida Baptiste

As a child of a survivor, I have lifelong unpacking to do with both the invisible and direct impacts of colonial trauma. Still, I am actively questioning my own blind spots. How have I been informed and benefited by systems based on white supremacy and misogyny? My education and training are not aligned with Anishnabe thought and value. How has my experience been deeply informed by dominant systems and inherently racist values?

I am originally from Canada and have lived, attended University, worked and paid taxes in this country, the USA, for 10 years. The Jay Treaty states, “Native Indians born in Canada are therefore entitled to enter the United States for the purpose of employment, study, retirement, investing, and/or immigration "if they can prove that they have at least 50% blood quantum, and cannot be deported for any reason.” In November of 2018, I booked a contract at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine. This contract would grant me Equity Status with the Actors Equity Association. After sending in my registration forms, Social Security Number, Maine State ID, Government Issued Indian Status Card and Blood Quantum Letter multiple times (both electronically and paper copy), I was finally able, after over a month, to receive the response that Equity was well aware of the Jay Treaty but required that I have a Green Card. Initially, I felt angry that the Federal Government would recognize my Legal Permanent Residency, via the Jay Treaty, but the union would not recognize these documents as viable sources to allow me to join the Union. So 3 days away from the end of my contract that was granting me access to the Union, I began frantically navigating Immigration Services to obtain a Green Card. I now understand that the Actors Equity Association does not honor the Jay Treaty, and although I find this problematic, I feel fortunate that I was able to obtain one quickly because of my Indian Status. That being said, the complete lack of communication left me feeling unimportant, unwanted, and lost in the mix by a union that prides itself on inclusivity and diversity.

This is not to say that I haven’t been the benefactor of white privilege. As an actor would I have portrayed all of the leading roles I have played if my phenotype were more that of my Anishnabe ancestors? The questioning will and must continue, forever. We find ourselves taking a stand amidst the Black Lives Matter movement and we are working to dismantle, reimagine, and reinvent our social, cultural, and institutional norms. We are working to change legislation to encompass a global narrative, not one ripe with the stench of white supremacy. I believe that we, the Theatre Arts community, are one of the best-equipped communities to cultivate and enact change. Our malleability as humans is our advantage. Our ability to be vulnerable and empathetic empowers us to create change. Our ability to succinctly communicate our ideas makes us stronger. Our experience in improvisation makes us adaptable. The arts community is at the forefront of establishing the cultural pulse of the world. As a member of this community who will be actively working with The Weathervane Theatre, in NH, as well as the NYC based Off-Broadway Company, Out of the Box Theatrics, while also realizing that I am fortunate enough to have work while so many are out of work, I look forward to continuing to find my voice and hearing the voice of others, for communication is just as much listening as it is speaking. The fear of change, for some, is great. But I ask you, with the sacrifice of your privilege what might you gain? What might your grandchildren gain? Let us grow together.