How one Indigenous woman reclaimed her personal history through art

For her role in the film "Indian Horse," Edna Manitowabi drew on her own experiences of residential school
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Aug 21, 2018
Edna Manitowabi, seen here with actors Sladen Peltier (right) and Skye Pelletier, plays a grandmother in Indian Horse. (Elevation Pictures)



Edna Manitowabi, of Ojibway/Odawa ancestry and originally from Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, is an Elder and professor emeritus at Trent University's Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies. In 2017, she also became a movie actress, playing a role in the film adaptation of Richard Wagamese's novel Indian HorseThe film takes place in the 1950s and centres around an Ojibway boy who is taken from his family and placed in a residential school; a residential-school survivor herself, she took the part because she believes that creative expression fosters healing. 

"I needed to find a creative way to tell our story," she tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. "One of the things I found out about it is that you can draw on the energy from your memories and pull it out of your body and give voice, give expression to it." 

Manitowabi spent three years in a residential school in Spanish, Ontario. "I remember the look on my mother's face when she put me on the school bus, because I was the last one to be taken. Four brothers and four sisters, and I was the last one. Her responsibility as a parent was taken from her. I drew on all those emotions and those images of my mother, and where I was asked to wail and bring out certain parts of the story,  I dug deep to the core of my memory and drew out the memories of my mother — the way she looked and the way she sounded."

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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When the film debuted earlier this year, some expressed concerns about the fact that its director, Stephen S. Campanelli, is not Indigenous. Cara Mumford, a Métis filmmaker of Anishinaabe descent who consulted on Indian Horse, tweeted about her experiences with the film and about Campanelli's respectful interaction with the material and actors, saying, "Elders Edna Manitowabi & Shirley Williams, who both attended Residential School, say that movie is their Truth, which would be good enough for me even if I hadn’t worked on the film. This is why I believe wholeheartedly that it’s an important cross-cultural film to see."

Manitowabi says that she didn't fully confront the effects of her early experiences until later in life, when a therapist suggested that getting back in touch with the culture she had lost would help her heal. "I found the stories, I found the songs, I found the dances, I found the ceremonies. And I found those things that helped me to be free," she says. "That was my salvation."



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