A few years ago, Coteau Books published a biography called Prairie Visionary by Alberta historian Donald Smith on Honore Jaxon — a Métis activist and archivist who was a colleague of Louis Riel during the 1885 Resistance, and later became involved in the labour movement in Chicago in the 1890s, and ultimately moved to New York where he built a fanciful fort in the Bronx and died in 1952.
Conceived by Edward Poitras in collaboration with New Dance Horizons and multiple artistic collaborators, The House of Chow Mein is inspired by Jaxon’s remarkable life and the role he played in preserving and celebrating Métis culture.
“I first learned about him through a famous photo I saw in the Globe & Mail around 2000 that showed him on the street in New York surrounded by all this archival material after he’d been evicted,” Poitras recalled in a recent interview at the NDH studio.
“In 2004, [current MacKenzie Gallery CEO] Anthony Kiendl commissioned me to do an installation for Database Imaginary at the Walter Philips Gallery in Banff. Jaxon’s dream was to create a library for First Nations people, so I made a piece called Shelf Life where I tried to imagine the material he might have had and might have lost.”
When Riel was tried for treason, Poitras says, Jaxon wasn’t allowed to testify. “He wanted to, and I think it was really unfortunate he wasn’t allowed to as it might have turned the trial in a different direction.”
When I spoke with Poitras he was still fleshing out the dance work’s structure. “It’s styled like a western. It begins in Batoche, and ends in New York City. There’s lots of text, including a poem by Tim Lilburn, along with live fiddle music, and we’ve been looking at jigging and tap and trying to incorporate them into a contemporary dance work.”
The title, says Poitras, is a play on “The House of Charlemagne” and a prophecy Riel made about Manitoba in 500 years. “Down the road, he said, Manitoba would be totally French Canadian speaking and would have 40 million souls. Manitoba is an indigenous word meaning ‘the great spirits crossing’, and it made me wonder if maybe he was referring to Manitoba in that sense as opposed to thinking of it as a province.”
Another source of inspiration for Poitras was a family photo of his great great grandfather. “It was taken between 1922-24, right after Duncan Campbell Scott with Indian Affairs had issued a document prohibiting First Nations people from doing their dances at powwows and attending ceremonies like the potlach. It was a very difficult time for everyone.”
“The community has been really generous through crowd-sourcing to get the first draft out there and get it documented,” said NDH artistic director Robin Poitras. “It’s a long process, as there’s plenty of layers with solos, duets and group pieces. Once this is done, we hope to get some funds to develop it further and be able to tour it. That would be fantastic.”
The House of Chow Mein will be staged as part of Performing Turtle Island which runs Sept. 17- 19 at the University of Regina and First Nations University. Most festival events are free, but there’s an admission charge for Chow Mein to further the work’s development. The company’s been rehearsing at University Theatre for a few days now, and the performance is Saturday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are Adult $30, Student & Senior $25, 13 and under $15. Find out more on the NDH website.