Edna Manitowabi a vital Nokomis in Indian Horse

Edna Manitowabi as the Nokomis in the film Indian Horse with grandchildren Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier of Wiikwemkoong), right, and his ‘brother.’ -photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Her pivotal role in the movie drawn from her own childhood experiences

PETERBOROUGH—At almost 78-years-old, Edna Manitowabi, originally from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, has lived a life shaped by her time at the Spanish residential school. Ms. Manitowabi, a success in her own right, has recently acquired much media attention from her role as Naomi, Saul Indian Horse’s Nokomis (grandmother), in the recently-released film ‘Indian Horse’—a role that has been life-changing for the elder.

Ms. Manitowabi played alongside fellow Wiikwemkoong band member Sladen Peltier, who acted the part of young Saul in the movie. Sladen, who had never acted before, is “going places,” Ms. Manitowabi told The Expositor in a Monday interview.

Ms. Manitowabi, along with fellow Wiikwemkoong band member and Trent University traditional elder Shirley Williams, acted as the official residential school consults for the movie, as both attended school in Spanish.

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“It’s a difficult film to watch; it’s heavy,” Ms. Manitowabi said.

Ms. Manitowabi said she was excited to plan the role of Naomi, wanting to leave a legacy for her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“I was six-years-old when I was taken,” she said. “It’s a part of history that’s been very difficult. Even at my age we’ve struggled with those emotions all our lives; those issues of abandonment, rage, anger.”

Ms. Manitowabi explained that nine of her brothers and sisters were taken away from the family home and placed into residential school. She was the youngest.

“We ended up being quite dysfunctional,” she allowed. “You’re severed from your family and there’s a disconnect that went on into adult years.”

Ms. Manitowabi said she was familiar with Richard Wagamese’s work, the author of the book of the same name on which the film script is based and felt she could relate to his books as he is also the child of residential school survivors and a product of them, having been placed in foster care as a child.

“Reading was his way out,” she said. “For me, it was ceremony. It wasn’t until my late teens and 20s when the powwow first came to Wiky. It was quite cathartic. It created a hunger and a thirst for cultural knowledge.”

Until that time Ms. Manitowabi felt almost naked, that she was lacking something.

“In the 1960s it was taboo to talk about traditional or ancestral knowledge,” she continued. “I pursued that knowledge in my 20s and into my 30s. I had to find the elders and teachers.” That quest for knowledge even took Ms. Manitowabi west and eventually led her to become a professor at Trent University in the school’s Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. Seeking a creative outlet for tradition, Ms. Manitowabi founded the Nozhem Theatre, Trent’s Indigenous theatre space. It was after seeing a production of Debajehmujig’s ‘Lupi the Great White Wolf’ that Ms. Manitowabi was spurred on to use theatre as a way to pass on the language.

Ms. Manitowabi, who’s now retired but stays on with the university as an elder, received a phone call from her sister who had received a call from a Mohawk actor. The actor had been asked to audition for the role of Naomi, but didn’t know Anishinaabemowin so didn’t feel comfortable with the part. Ms. Manitowabi’s sister recommended her for the job, and so she auditioned and got the part.

“I really have to thank his spirit,” Ms. Manitowabi said of Mr. Wagamese (who passed away earlier this year before the film’s release). “I was able to use his spirit and his words to really help me with my own healing. He helped me conjure up strong emotions that were buried deep inside.” When she first read ‘Indian Horse,’ Ms. Manitowabi cried and knew it was a story that had to be told.

“It’s about a grandmother who loses a grandson to the school,” Ms. Manitowabi said of the story. “He runs away to find her (his Nokomis), but comes back with the coughing disease, TB (Tuberculosis). Another son, Saul, him and I really bonded. I’m trying to protect him and the boys so I encouraged the parents to let me take them to a safe place where they can’t be found.”

Ms. Manitowabi explained that in the movie, her grandsons’ parents are struggling with alcohol and, eventually, the eldest grandson passes away. In that scene director Stephen Campanelli asked the grandmother to wail.

“I thought ‘how am I going to do this’,” Ms. Manitowabi shared. “I use the images from my own childhood and remember the look on my mother’s face as her last child was taken away and her own wailing. There wasn’t a dry eye on the set,” she said. “Even the cameramen had tears in their eyes.”

Ms. Manitowabi also used her own lived experiences for the scene when the parents come to take the body of their son away. Naomi tells the parents to leave the booze behind, that they won’t find their way. “I used my own experiences with my brothers; I remember hearing my mom say to them ‘don’t drink, you won’t find your way back home’.”

The scene that sees young Saul and his Nokomis trudging through the snow after losing their boat, with Naomi losing strength with every step, was also a powerful one for Ms. Manitowabi. ‘As we’re trudging I’m encouraging him,” she explained. “I’m using that scene as a metaphor for the way I taught my own children.”

“I always taught my children to find the Red Road—it’s been my own salvation,” she explained. “A way to overcome the ‘ghosts from the past,’ as Richard says. The road is up ahead, but grandma knows she won’t make it. ‘No matter what, don’t stop. It’s just ahead’.”

Ms. Manitowabi also spoke of the scene in ‘Indian Horse’ when Saul first arrives at the residential school and is forced to cut his long hair.

“That scene is pretty traumatic. When your hair is cut like that, it’s like something is severed. (With residential school) everything is severed—relationships with your mom, dad, siblings.”

Being a part of the cast of ‘Indian Horse’ was a powerful experience for Ms. Manitowabi and one that has helped her on her path to healing. “It’s almost as though it shifted me to a different space.”

“It was a story that needed to be told,” she added. When word of the film first got out, there was talk of cultural appropriation and even some protest, but Ms. Manitowabi credits the directors with shooting the film true to Mr. Wagamese’s vision and doing their due diligence with every facet of the movie.

“I may have done some things in my past with my own kids to make sure my kids didn’t go through what I did,” Mr. Manitowabi admitted. “I left the reserve quite young. I was always searching, and for me it was searching for the Road—my identity, my voice, my spirit, my songs, my music.”

“I wanted to make sure my children got that and we got ceremonies, even if we had to travel a great distance to get to them,” she shared.

Ms. Manitowabi says she feel strongly that the healing is to be found in the culture. “Tell your story, express it. Tell the whole world.”

“The images on a big screen—this is a powerful way to communicate to the rest of the world what happened to us. You get tired of people saying ‘get over it.’ In order for a person to heal you need to bring it out or the poison inside will fester, and what an incredible way to do that.”

“Our people have a feeling of being inferior,” Ms. Manitowabi continued. “When that is drilled into you from childhood, things latch on—they stick to you, you wear it. But now you can’t shut me up,” she laughed. “I struggled with finding a voice; that’s why I got into theatre.”

When the movie first came out she said she heard a lot of ‘I didn’t know.’

“Well how come?” she questioned. “How come you didn’t have the sense to ask what happened to the original people of this land?” This dark chapter of Canada’s history, until recently, has been an afterthought with hardly a mention in any textbook. “I say to mainstream society, ‘you have to be enlightened because you are enjoying the fruits of this land’.”

“It’s about time this story was out there in the open,” Ms. Manitowabi said. “Before reconciliation can happen we have to tell our truth. Before we begin our healing, there has to be compassion.”

“I’m glad I did it,” she said of the film. “What a relief. It’s something I carried all my life and now I’m free.”