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Of dreams, dams and beavers: Interview with Indigenous theatre artist Émilie Monnet

A Montreal-based artist brings her theatrical piece ‘Okinum’ to New West as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

A recurring dream of a giant beaver led interdisciplinary artist Émilie Monnet to explore her ancestry, reclaim her language, and create a moving art piece.

Monnet first dreamt of the animal about a decade ago. Over the years, when the same dream kept coming back, she made it her mission to decrypt it.

The result was a monologue called Okinum — first launched in 2018 in French; translated to English in 2021. Both versions include words spoken in Anishinaabemowin — Monnet’s ancestral language. 

“It’s a journey through language reclamation, through messages of a recurring dream that I'm trying to decipher,” said Monnet, who is of Anishnaabe-Algonquin and French descent. 

“And that leads me on the river to go up my DNA and think about relationships between the beaver and my family.“

Okinum, which translates to “dam” in Anishinaabemowin, is also a “reflection on inner dams — blockages — we all have,“ she said.

“It follows me in my journey, as I am diagnosed with cancer in my throat, which becomes the dam — an analogy for the cancer or a voice that's being shut down, blocked… suppressed,” says Monnet.

"What's the journey to remove these dams enough so that the water of memory, ancestral memory, can flow again?”  Monnet explores in the autobiographical piece that will be performed as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival at the Anvil Centre.

Here are excerpts from a phone interview with Monnet about her journey as a self-taught artist, the practice of recording dreams, and how Okinum came to be. 

What's the significance of the beaver in your dreams?

I've always felt connected to beavers. It's one of the animals that I dream of the most. 

But in this particular dream, the beaver was the size of a black bear. The beaver comes out of the water, walks towards me, puts a little bag in my hand, closes my fingers around it and speaks some words to me; then I wake up. 

It's through this dream that I actually found out that giant beavers once existed before the Ice Age. There are fossils in and around the Great Lakes region in Yukon and proof that they really did exist in Turtle Island (a name for North America that's used by some Indigenous peoples). 

After talking with elders, I found out that they're part of our mythology. There is a Anishinaabe story about the giant beaver and how the territory that I'm from (between the Outaouais and Tiohtià:ke/ Mooniyaang/ Montreal) is shaped so because of the flap of a giant beaver — all the hills and all that. 

So it was a very profound experience to have this dream. And I felt that I needed to understand the words that the beaver says to me in my dreams.

I dreamt the same dream two other times. Every time it was a reaffirmation that it was an important dream and that I had to listen to it. 

That inspired the writing of the story because I wanted to decipher it.

But then the beaver became a good metaphor to speak about the colonization and genocide of people because beavers were almost completely extinct at the time of the fur trade as well.

So I'm drawing parallels between beavers and humans, and more specifically, beavers and my family.

Do you record all your dreams?

Yes. But not as diligently as I used to. I try to take care of that muscle of remembering my dreams, because it is a muscle. And the more you're tuned to it, the more it informs and guides your decisions.

Dreams have always been a big part of my artistic process. I like to write them down in a notebook, and I often find inspiration in them for my creations.

The dream (about the beaver) became the subject of my obsession for a while, with me trying to decipher it. That led me to writing about it, and starting to make those connections.

I was bringing to surface a story that was already there. 

What kind of research did you specifically have to do for this project?

Just speaking with knowledge keepers who could tell me more about beavers, I guess. But then it was really just tapping into my imagination and kind of bringing that story to the surface. 

The story was in me already, I just had to bring it out. 

There are also excerpts of audio interviews in the play, and some of them are recordings of my lessons of Anishinaabemowin with my Anishinaabemowin professor Véronique Thusky.

It's my grandfather's first language, but because of the history that we know of, the language was not transmitted to my mother and siblings. So it's been a journey to learn it and reclaim it. 

The piece follows me in this journey. 

It also features the traditional art of birch bark biting (a form of art where artists create patterns on thin strips of birch wood with their teeth) — it gives space for the voice of a woman who is a birch bark biting specialist. 

You have been sharing Instagram posts of your time in the Amazon forest recording sounds for another art project; what was the process like to record sounds for Okinum? 

Okinum is a very rich sonic piece. I did a lot of recordings of beavers in the territory I'm from. So it's been a sound exploration to see the interrelations and the connections between the human voice and animal voice — the beaver’s and my voice. 

I worked with an amazing sound designer Jackie Gallant. Together, it's like this sonic dance that we have created because she generates all the sounds live. 

I like to say that people are kind of cradled in the sounds of the land, the territory and also the sounds of the language.

You started the interdisciplinary arts organization Onishka in 2011, and you also launched the Indigenous Contemporary Scene — a platform for Indigenous artists — in 2016. How have they evolved?

For me, it’s been about finding my own artistic voice throughout all these projects.

I'm a self-trained director, writer and performer. So it was through Onishka (translates to “wake up” in Anishinaabemowin) that I was able to experiment and find my voice. 

I wanted to have a voice and to be able to have autonomy in my projects. 

Indigenous Contemporary Scene usually takes the form of a festival (there have been five editions so far). And I started it because I felt that there's less exposure of Indigenous artists’ work, especially Indigenous Francophone artists', in Montreal, Quebec. I wanted to give a platform for expression to these artists, and also artists that have a very multidisciplinary practice and perform live art. 

It stemmed from a need to have these spaces for gathering and presentation. 

Attend Monnet's Okinum show at the Anvil Theatre (777 Columbia St.) on Feb. 2 and 3. The show will also be streamed online between Feb. 2 and 5. Tickets are priced at $39 for in-person, and $25 for streaming. For details, visit PuSh Festival website.

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