There's a reason you might not hear many tales passed down from the Kwantlen First Nation.
Located near Fort Langley, decades ago its population was dramatically reduced by small pox. One unfortunate byproduct of having a present-day population of around just 200 is that oral tradition is harder to keep alive.
That's where poet, playwright and writer Joseph A. Dandurand comes in.
"As a writer and storyteller, I try and pick up pieces from here and there and combine it and create Kwantlen myth," he explains.
That was how he penned Th'owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish nearly 25 years ago. Last summer, Vancouver theatre company Axis Theatre debuted the play, which is making its way to Whistler as part of the Arts Whistler Live! series on Sunday.
"I sent plays out to a hundred theatre companies," says Dandurand. "I sent one to Axis, not realizing they were a children's theatre, but Chris McGregor (Axis' artistic director) replied and said, 'Do you have anything for children?' We workshopped (Th'owxiya) and went from there... It hadn't been performed at all. They did an amazing job, the actors."
The play incorporates masks, music and drumming into a tale about Th'owxiya, whose mouth holds "the most wonderful foods from around the world." The only catch: if you're caught stealing from her, you'll be in big trouble.
A little mouse learns this lesson when he's caught stealing cheese. If he doesn't find two young spirits to offer Th'owxiya, she will retaliate by eating his family.
"When I first wrote it she was a cannibal woman, and when I workshopped it with Axis I said, 'Take that out of there,'" Dandurand says, with a laugh. "But they said, 'No, no, leave it in!'"
The story might seem dark, but it strives to teach its young audience a few different morals, he adds. There's problem solving, friendship, cooperation and, first and foremost, respecting the environment.
"What I like about it is it's such a simple lesson: always give something back when you take from the Earth," he says. "In the beginning you hear the sounds of chainsaws. It's trying to give that sense that even with forestry you have to give something back. You have to replant. The idea of food — we can't just take food from the Earth and expect food to always be there."
While Dandurand wound up writing about his culture — and working for his people in his role as director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre — it wasn't until later in life that he came to learn about it. "My mom was five when she was put on a train and sent to residential school," he says. "She graduated at 18 and married my father, who was white. I grew up on military bases."
After studying theatre and direction at the University of Ottawa, Dandurand got an internship at the Museum of Civilization that was meant for Aboriginal students to learn about museology. "In the Grand Hall there was a carving of a feast dish and I wrote this play about it," he says.
While he went on to have many other plays produced — most famously Please Do Not Touch the Indians — Th'owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish sat on the shelf until Axis Theatre debuted it at the UBC Botanical Garden last summer. "(The play) has become even more spiritual and has a ceremonial pace to it," Dandurand says, about seeing it onstage.
He also enjoyed watching the children in the audience interact with the performance last summer. "Some of them were very intelligent," he says. "They gave answers we didn't think about to help the play along. It was really interesting to see kids get up and fly and shout out certain things... Kids are very intelligent now with technology. I think seeing something like this — it's like looking at something you're not supposed to be looking at. It's that old. It's masks and words repeated over and over again. That's what our rituals are."
Catch Th'owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish on Feb. 18 at the Maury Young Arts Centre at 5 p.m. Tickets are $10. Get them at artswhistler.com.