Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Theresa Cutknife
Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series.
Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists.
Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.
Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Theresa Cutknife
Hello, my name is Theresa Cutknife. I am a queer mixed First Nations Cree and Puerto Rican actor, writer, curator, and producer here in Toronto. I’m from Maskwacîs Alberta, which is located in Treaty Six Territory and I am a member of the Samson Cree Nation. I’ve been living in Toronto since 2016, mainly working as a performer and writer and am now continuing my learning as a producer.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in the arts?
Way back in the beginning of high school, I got involved in a drama club which was a big thing for me because growing up I was a very shy kid who only talked to my close friends. I was very reserved. So when I started doing plays and musical theatre people were shocked. Like, “Whoa, wait, what? You can act and sing?!”, That was when I really started to come out of my shell and pursue things like community theatre and musical theatre.
After graduating high school I went to the University of Lethbridge for one year, because I thought I wanted to be a drama teacher. I transferred to the University of Alberta shortly after I realized that I in fact did not want to be a teacher. I was working on a Bachelor of Arts in Drama with a minor in Native Studies, and that was my main focus for almost five years.
In my last year of university, I was suffering from burnout and was very fried from being in that type of learning, and institutional setting. After a google search for theatre schools in Canada, I found the Center for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto. And I thought, “Hey, this is literally what I’m doing right now, but with more of the actor’s training that I want.” So I applied, auditioned and moved to Toronto in 2016.
After three years in that program, I was working on a directing project as part of CIT’s optional fourth-year development, and then the pandemic hit.
Do you have a vision of what your future in the arts could look like?
Right now, I’m transitioning into the producer position at Tarragon. So my hope is that I will be a kind of multi-hyphenate person where I am acting, writing, and producing, not only my work but other artists as well. I have dreams and aspirations about moving back to Alberta and creating a company for my home community. So hopefully, in the next few years, I’ll be able to gain the skills and experience needed to make that dream possible. I’m not sure what my future in the arts will look like or what places it will take me, but hopefully, I’m continuing my artistic practice and still learning and discovering more about what I can do as an artist.
That’s awesome and so aspirational. My next question is about your plays. You said you’re a playwright, so are you working on anything right now?
Yes. So right now I am working on a show called Talk Treaty To Me. We had a sold-out reading at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, this summer, back in August. This is a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years with one of my best friends, Samantha Fraughton. We met when we were both in undergrad together at the University of Alberta in drama, and she went on to law school and has recently graduated. She reached out to me after being in a class where she learned about the Treaties and Treaty law. She was passionate about talking about how the treaties were made.
As she was going through the transformation of her knowledge she had the idea for us to write a play together. Our first idea about the show we wanted to write was about this big, epic story about the Treaties being broken, which then leads to this huge civil war between all of the First Nations within Treaty Six and Canada. We had likened it to Titus Andronicus but with more blood. (We were very mad and passionate in those early days)
While still keeping that same energy and fire we’ve since moved on from that initial idea and are now more focused on writing a show that talks about Treaties and the oppressive colonial legal systems of Canada. How has the Treaty agreement actually played out? And how has it played out in the hundreds of years since Treaties have been signed? We’ve been researching and consulting with various Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Lawyers, and Professors for a while now about the spirit and intent of when the Treaty was first signed. Last summer is when we had a breakthrough and we’ve gotten to a point now where we’ve distilled our thinking about the Treaty and focused on one particular part of Treaty Six, called the Medicine Chest Clause, which is unique since it is the only Treaty out of all numbered Treaties to have this clause written down. The clause itself isn’t huge and it’s not defined well. It states:
“That a medicine chest shall be kept at the house of each Indian agent for the use and benefit of the Indians at the direction of such agent…That in the event hereafter of the Indians comprised within this treaty being overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine, the Queen, on being satisfied and certified thereof by Her Indian Agent or Agents, will grant … assistance of such character or to such extent as the Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs shall deem necessary and sufficient to relieve the Indians of the calumet that shall have befallen them.”
In terms of law and Treaty, there are many things that have been litigated. Such as laws about taxes, laws about hunting, and other legislation like the Indian Act but when talking about Indigenous health care, it’s not clear. What is a medicine chest, and what does that entail? What’s the actual agreement and responsibility here? Is a medicine chest just a first aid kit? Or does it mean investing in the overall wellness and long-term health of Indigenous peoples?
That’s what we’re exploring and learning within the writing of this play and we’re endeavouring to encapsulate as many different perspectives of people who are included/not included within the treaty. Also dreaming of what the future could look like for Indigenous Sovereignty as it relates to healthcare while also bringing awareness and knowledge non-Indigenous audiences of their shared responsibilities as someone who benefits from the Treaties. We want people to walk away feeling the same passion that both she and I have for these things.
These are things that need to be talked about. Knowing and understanding healthcare, along with other issues that are impacting Indigenous people right now. Health care is an important one, but there are so many systems of oppression that are still in place that hinder Indigenous Peoples’ well being and access for us to have a better life.
Do you think that this is a one-time project or do you think that you will continue to write narratives based on the legislation? Is advocacy something that you intend to pursue? What foresight do you have in terms of that?
If this show could create longer-lasting awareness and change within the legislation that would be incredible! Honestly, I would just be happy if one person walked out of reading or hearing or seeing this play, knowing a little bit more about the systems that are in place, the actual history of what Treaty is, what it was supposed to be versus how it’s played out and how that has affected Indigenous People, The Land, settlers, and non-indigenous peoples.
I want audiences to think about how all these colliding things have shaped the way we all live now. How healthcare is such a contentious subject, because of the way Canada was created through colonial violence. For example, provinces have control over their own systems of healthcare but Indigenous people are considered to be the jurisdiction of the federal government. This then leaves Indigenous People to fall into this weird in-between space where no one wants to take real responsibility or accountability for our wellness and creates more opportunities for the rampant and systemic racism that lives within the healthcare system to continue. The hope for this show is to build awareness and to also stir up a response or action from it.
As for my own artistic practice, I’m still discovering and navigating my own process that’s grounded in my identity and influenced by my desire to write, act, and develop work that changes landscapes. Creating my own pathways to stories that have power and strength at their core and bring joy and laughter to my communities.
I just want to thank you for sharing so openly with me about the reality of life as an Indigenous person. So we’re heard about your reading, is there anything else that we should be looking out for?
I will be a part of Modern Times Stage Company and Aluna Theatre’s production of the “House of Bernarda Alba” coming up in the spring. So that’s exciting. And you’ll be seeing me at Tarragon as a Producer.
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Thank you to Theresa for sharing with us!