Ten years after Louis Riel was convicted of high treason and hanged, a young Cree warrior shot a cow near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, where the so-called North-West Rebellion had begun.
According to some versions of the story, the animal was intended for his wedding feast.
That young man, known in English as Almighty Voice, was promptly arrested for poaching.
Taunted by his police guard, and fearing he would be hanged, Almighty Voice escaped from the Duck Lake jail.
A few days later, he shot and killed the North-West Mounted Police constable who was trying to re-arrest him.
The ensuing manhunt lasted until the spring of 1897, when police and military troops used cannons to cut down Almighty Voice and two companions.
For many people at the time and since, Almighty Voice became a kind of folk hero, a symbol of resistance to colonial authority.
In 1978, as a researcher at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario, Daniel David Moses stumbled across that story.
“I didn’t have much history in my education, so I hadn’t expected a story like this to exist, where a young man kills a cow and then other events happen and eventually the army has to track him down and kill him with cannons,” the Six Nations playwright recalls.
“It just seemed overkill to me, and I really needed to figure out what that was about.”
The result of his inquiry was his seminal play, Almighty Voice and His Wife, first produced in 1991 by the Great Canadian Theatre Company and revived in 2009 by Native Earth Performing Arts.
“There were details in versions of the story that didn’t quite fit in with that ‘renegade Indian’ story,” Moses explains by phone from his office in the Drama department at Queen’s University.
According to one account, when Almighty Voice was on the run from the law, he was accompanied by a young woman.
“It’s November on the Saskatchewan prairie, and I was thinking, ‘Why was she out there in this dangerous situation with this man?'”
That version of the story claimed the young woman was a cousin who had been sent to cook for him.
“And I thought, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. Her mother wouldn’t let her go out into danger for such a trivial reason. There has to be something else.’
“I suddenly realized at a certain point that, for me, it wasn’t that tragic story of the renegade Indian, it was the story of a young man in love, and I needed to tell that story.”
In fact, Moses tells that story twice in his play. The first time around, it is a touching tale of two young lovers, including the birth of a son, against the backdrop of the father’s flight from the law.
In the second act, things go far beyond the traditional dramatic narrative.
This time, Moses casts Almighty Voice as a ghost and White Girl, in Mountie attire, as the interlocutor of a minstrel show.
Unlike the standard minstrel show, in which white performers donned blackface and garish red lips to parody African-Americans, Almighty Voice and White Girl are in whiteface.
This device allows Moses to skewer many stereotypes and explore one of his frequent themes, the clash between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures.
“When it was first done, it was just so strange structurally that people didn’t quite know how to put it together; and also because of the subject matter. People didn’t know enough about it then,” he acknowledges.
“Twenty years on, people have been paying more attention to aboriginal issues generally.”
But why a minstrel show?
“I was resisting telling a tragedy. It would be irresponsible to tell a tragic story. It would ignore the fact that Canada is a country in transformation, and I needed to find a way of transforming the story in my own telling.”
But there were other practical considerations, as well.
“To that point I had just focused on the character of Almighty Voice and White Girl, but if I was to explore the side of the story of those people who were pursuing him, I would need to think about the settlers, and the Mounties, and the missionaries.”
Since he was working with a First Nations theatre company, those roles would be performed by First Nations actors, “which is really exciting because, as an actor you want to be challenged to play parts from all different cultures.”
Then Moses recalled that one of the actors’ favourite workshops in the early days of Native Earth were those given by the renowned clown teacher, Richard Pochinko.
“And I had these images in my head of the leading native actors in whiteface, doing clown parts, and I realized, ‘Well, there’s no problem. They’ll be able to do these parts if I write them.’
“That led me to think about the minstrel show and realize that it was a type of theatre that was happening at the time the story happened historically,” he explains.
“It just suddenly made sense that I could use that form to try and look at the story again.”
That blending of two story-telling techniques has earned Almighty Voice and His Wife a revered spot in the Canadian theatrical canon for its poignancy, humour and innovative style.
The Native Earth production is directed by Michael Greyeyes and stars Derek Garza as Almighty Voice and PJ Prudat as White Girl.
It plays at the Yukon Arts Centre Wednesday, January 25 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., co-presented by Nakai Theatre and the Arts Centre.
More information about the Nakai Pivot Theatre Festival is at www.nakaitheatre.com.