Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey intertwines magical storytelling with Indigenous cosmology to create an incredible play

Kim Senklip Harvey lets us both learn about and partake in oral history

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Photo: Emily Cooper / PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Photo: Emily Cooper / PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

by Meera Eragoda, Staff Writer

Directed by Kim Senklip Harvey, Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey is a one-woman play where actor Quelemia Sparrow acts out the characters of a granddaughter and her grandmother, with brief appearances as her mother, father, and sister. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it definitely had the potential to be. It’s a difficult feat, even for a highly talented actor, to convincingly pull off multiple characters in a live setting — but Sparrow manages to evoke different sensibilities in each one.

Skyborn tells the story of Sparrow’s granddaughter character chasing her šxʷhəli (translated for us as something akin to her true identity) across the land of hungry ghosts. Along with some interesting puppetry, Skyborn intertwines Musqueam/Sto:lo storytelling to take us along on the granddaughter’s spiritual journey to reclaim her identity.

Despite conversations surrounding Indigenous rights becoming more prevalent, many people still don’t understand the history of trauma behind it. The play opens with Sparrow speaking about how the older generations of her family and community would have been beaten for speaking their language: hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓. Because of this attempted erasure of hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, she now has to sit in a linguistics course at the University of British Columbia in order to learn it. 

What made the play interesting was how it was somewhat interactive. A designated member of the audience was assigned as an honourary witness and was given the job of remembering the events of the play. The rest of us were general witnesses and were given the honour of not only witnessing the events of the play, but also learning about the importance of oral tradition.

Sparrow emphasized throughout the play the need for the honourary witness to remember everything that happens. I also tried to do the same in remembering all the names of places, things, instructions to the various forces, and all the events that were happening within the play. This was not easy, and I retained maybe 10% of it — but it really hit home the level of skill required to hold onto oral traditions. It requires wiring your brain in a completely different way since you don’t have external sources (like paper) to rely on. 

While I already believe in giving oral traditions the same weight as written histories, I’ve never understood what the practice entailed in reality. Skyborn really opened my eyes to the ability of oral traditions to convey beliefs, history, and culture. It also showed the impact of taking language and the effect this would have on people.

The play intertwines puppets into the storytelling, including a puppet version of the granddaughter complete with a Musqueam mask, a rabbit, and a dragonfly embodying “perception.” They are puppeteered by Kelsey Kanatan Wavey to move in a surprisingly delicate and human way. 

The set design incorporates lighting and projected images in order to construct a world that harkens back to a time prior to colonization and bursts with the lushness of nature, incorporating rushing rivers, starry skies, and misty vistas. It also incorporates the surrealness of the journey that is both linear and nonlinear. 

Skyborn is presented by the Cultch as part of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. While Skyborn closed on February 2, PuSh is on until February 9 at various locations around Vancouver. You can find out about other performances and how to buy tickets on the PuSh Festival website