I haven’t been to the Government House before. The official residence of the province’s lieutenant governor, it stands as a lasting symbol of Newfoundland and Labrador’s status as a British colony. It is surrounded by large, landscaped grounds. I walked through flower patches and great, tall trees to the Heart Garden, a circular patch of plant life held together by a brick path. Created in consultation with the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Heart Garden is a space of healing and reconciliation. It honours the lives lost to colonial violence and survivors of the residential school system throughout the province. Tonight, it is also the stage for the play Stolen Sisters, starring Deantha Edmunds in the roles of three Beothuk women, written and directed by Leahdawn Helena. As audience members were instructed to settle down along the edges of the garden, I positioned myself in a way that allowed me to see through the bushes to centre stage.
I’ve been a fan of renowned Inuk classical singer Deantha Edmunds since I heard her sing amongst the trees at the Sound Symposium’s Echo Village in 2021 and at The Rooms during Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts earlier this year. Edmunds has been nominated for and won several awards for her work in music, acting, and various other projects. She recently released an original album in June on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day titled, Connections. Throughout the performance, Edmunds recites three monologues directly to the audience that have been crafted from historical events.
Leahdawn Helena, a member of the Qalipu Nation from Stephenville, has a background in theatre and sociocultural studies. She works with the PerSIStence Theatre Company as a writer, actor, and director, and this is her first fully produced show. In addition to her creative work, Helena works within the local art scene as a cultural consultant. Her skills shine through in Stolen Sisters with the support of Edmunds’ performance and the help of the rest of the team at PerSIStence. Established in 2017, this theatre company is rooted in feminist values and boasts a long list of productions that challenge discrimination and oppressive systems.
Stolen Sisters starts with Edmunds walking graciously into the circle’s centre, draped in a red dress, a reminder of murdered and missing Indigenous women and children. Arriving at the garden’s centre, Edmunds enacts several monologues based on the lives of three Beothuk women who are named in the historical record. What little is known about these women exists only because they were forced from their homes and made to share information. Stolen Sisters attempts to enliven the women left in these partial traces.
Different Stories, Similar Truths
Edmunds begins with the story of Oubee, a young girl who was ripped from her family’s arms in the 1790s. She was kept with an English family in Trinity for two years before being taken to England, where she later died. “Not all white folks are bad,” Oubee says as she hugs her doll, Sweetgrass, after telling the audience about her unnatural experience crossing the sea.
Shanawdithit, known as the “last” living Beothuk person, speaks to us next, detailing the ups and downs of her life, including memories of her aunt, Demasduit. She draws with pencil and ochre, depicting her life experiences and those of her people before colonial involvement. Reproductions of her drawings can be seen at The Rooms and Memorial University’s Digital Archives. From where I am sitting, the Government House looms behind me. The large, imposing brick building is a counterpoint to Edmunds, who stands in her flowing bright red garment in her welcoming circle. She is holding up a human skull; it belongs to Demasduit, who died in the custody of her European captors while they were escorting her home.
The final scene features Elder Santu Toney. Toney is known for revealing her Beothuk heritage to Frank Speck, an American anthropologist when they met in Massachusetts in 1910–nearly a century after the death of Shanawdithit. Speck took a recording of her singing, known as “Santu’s Song.” From Toney’s character, we learn of her love for the land and her children, and we also hear her song, now immortalized in the wax of a phonograph recording.
The Heart Garden is circular in shape. This works in service of the play’s themes. A circle has no beginning or end; it represents life and what lies before and beyond it as infinitely connected. You may have sat in a circle in school as a child. Circles create space for Show and Tell or sharing feelings and thoughts with others face-to-face. All of those in the circle are equal in this formation: no one is in front or behind, above or below. European descendants took this practice from Indigenous cultures. The circle and its meanings are invaluable to First Peoples. The characters who Edmunds plays engage with us from this intimate place, within the circular garden, telling us their stories from their heart, freely and uninterrupted.
Each character acknowledges the trees, their branches and the leaves around them. Indeed, mature trees abound on the Government House grounds. The choice to host this performance outside, here amongst the green, strengthens the bond between the play and its reality, the characters and audiences, and the people and the land around them.
Although the tales told teeter between joy, anger, and sadness, the script is gentle. Helena writes each character in a way that invites us to relate to them. As young Oubee plays with her doll, Sweetgrass, I think back to my own childhood and the toys I had. I can connect with that aspect of Oubee’s life, though I can’t imagine being kidnapped from my family at the age of 12, taken to a strange place with strange people speaking a strange language, and forced to wear strange clothes.
Each moment of dialogue–and the play is largely dialogue–invites our full attention. Audiences are taken on journeys of the imagination. They are encouraged to witness the highs and lows in the lives of these women, their loves, losses, and hurts, filling in the missing gaps in the recorded histories. Edmunds’ soprano voice is here in her spoken words and as she hums her aunties’ lullaby. The musical accompaniment stands out to me: each song that flows from the loudspeakers in Stolen Sisters is created by different Indigenous artists, and it fits the tone of each scene just right, ranging from the upbeat to the softness of lullabies.
As the journey ends, Elder Santu slowly returns to the tree line to be reunited with her husband in the land beyond. Edmunds’ moving reenactment of this reunion brings in waves of applause from the audience.
I have learned more about the fullness of these women’s lives than I ever did in a history class. I leave with my eyes and heart open.
I thought about Stolen Sisters for the rest of the evening into the next morning. Edmunds and Helena have succeeded in inspiring me and others to learn more about Newfoundland’s past and remember the Beothuk. The innocence of Oubee, the drawings of Shanawdithit, and the songs of Elder Santu Toney are only a small part of these storied lives and the world to which they belonged. Stolen Sisters not only helps us appreciate the weight of who and what has been lost but also what remains: the lasting effects of colonialism and the Indigenous communities who have persisted despite it.
I recommend you see this show, and if you are as inspired as I am, there are several ways you can support local Indigenous communities. Reach out to pivotal friendship hubs like First Light. First Light is a non-profit organization that supports the province’s Indigenous community through public workshops, performances, and educational opportunities like workplace cultural training sessions. Read Indigenous literature, watch Indigenous film and TV; learn how to listen to and learn about various Indigenous cultures throughout Canada. Reconciliation and healing are not one-sided. Stolen Sisters brings into the present some of colonialism’s untold histories. It creates space for us to imagine how many more life stories have been ended and erased. Keeping all of this in mind will help us move forward toward a tomorrow, one these stolen lives never got the chance to have.
You can book your tickets for Stolen Sisters, running at The Government House grounds from August 23rd to 28th, at Eventbrite. In case of rain, the performance will be held at the First Light Centre for Performance and Creativity on Cochrane Street.