Friday, June 13, 2008

Dinner with the Washo

I'm back at Lake Tahoe, in the US, directing A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Festival (and my old friend Jan Powell, the new Artistic Director here). One project often influences another, and I'm making use of all the ORIGINS work with First Nations people to explore the play's magic, its relationship to the environment, and its preoccupation with healing.

If there's one thing I learnt from Bullie's House, it's the importance of following the traditional protocols in dealing with First Nations people. It's not just that it's right and proper, it also enriches the process massively. Here, the traditional custodians of the land are the Washo people, and we need to be sure that they are not mis-represented in what we do. More than that, I want them to be represented in person - the Indian boy should surely be Washo, and perhaps there should be an adult present to give the whole thing weight and dignity.

Last night, I had dinner with some senior members of the tribe, and realised just how much dignity this might be. Steven, one of the Elders, said a Washo prayer before we ate. It was extraordinary to hear the language, which is very ancient (at least 10,000 years) and very musical. Totally unlike Indo-European sounds and rhythms. I asked them about ceremony and blessing, about music and dance, about clothing and face-painting. As with so many of the people from older cultures I've been lucky enough to meet, they were thrilled that somebody actually wanted to know.

The Washo are quite a small tribe today - about 2,000. There were more before a massacre in the 19th century, from which the nation has never really recovered. The community centre where we met to share our meal was in a small settlement next to the old boarding school, where Washo children were sent to teach them Western ways. The Elders reminisced about the time when their customs and language were illegal; how they had learnt from their own Elders in secret. Listening to Steven speak his Washo prayer, I wondered how long the language could survive at all.

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