In his new room, The herd, Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams explores Aboriginal identity and spirituality through the story of two white buffaloes.
“Every time you hear about the birth of white buffaloes, the native people are very, very excited about it and [it’s] almost like they’re panting for a minute and holding their breath,” said Williams, who is also an associate professor of drama at the University of Alberta.
In Lakota teachings, the birth of a white buffalo calf is a symbol of hope. “To give you a close approximation, it would be similar, I suppose, in a Christian context to the second coming [of Jesus],” he said.
And while Williams says his piece isn’t about prophecy, that story is at the heart of The herd.
The play, which runs until June 12, 2022 at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto, weaves questions of purity and identity with the ethics of science and corporate profit.
Here is part of Williams’ conversation.
The play itself is not a retelling of this prophecy. There’s a lot more going on here. It’s a very complex story. What is the basic scenario of The herd?
I had this story idea for a long time [ago]…. I really hadn’t done anything with it. I just wrote it. But the bottom line is: what if we could breed white bison just by asking for them through genetic manipulation?
What I did was I took that idea and brought it into this play where my main character, Vanessa Brokenhorn, who is a veterinarian and geneticist from a small First Nation in Saskatchewan, [is] responsible for caring for a commercial herd of bison that has…domestic cattle DNA mixed in with it.
So she replicates the DNA of domestic cattle, but a mutation occurs and… white buffaloes are born. And people say, “Oh my God, could that be the sign of prophecy?”
I examine the question of what happens when the potential for us to do this on purpose occurs. What is the dramatic effect on our culture, on science, on spirituality, and then also on the business opportunities that this is obviously going to create for other people? So that’s the tragedy. This is what happens in the room.
I think it’s so interesting, this relationship between the scientific and the spiritual, the sacred and the discovered, what’s manipulated and what’s pure. How does this relationship between science and spirituality play out in The herd?
This makes people wonder about both. I wanted to put on stage a person who should be an elder but who isn’t, and she kind of ran away from her responsibilities. So, again, watching what’s dramatic and I went, you know what? There are many of our people who don’t know what to do if this happens. They don’t know what their responsibilities really are.
I wanted to make him a dramatic character – someone who has to figure out, “Oh, my God, I was supposed to be ready for this and I’m not”, and what he has to do to deal with it.
But on the science side too, it feels like we have a responsibility to honor the beliefs of Indigenous peoples if we can do it on a scale that can serve restaurants and burger franchises and stuff like that. Should scientists be allowed to create a white buffalo for commercial reasons? And that for me is another important question.
But there’s another complication of the modern world creeping in here: the internet and social media. [are] much of the story you tell in The herd. Can you explain how?
I have a character called Coyote Jackson and he’s a blogger who’s the only one who pays attention to the birth of cows in the beginning. And he’s saying that’s the sign of the prophecy and that a great change is going to take place.
He wants access, and he wants to promote it, and he wants to bring people to the reserve to come and see it — the miracle of these twin white bison. And it gets out of control and it’s like a fire breaking out. Suddenly, it’s a bush fire.
Now we don’t know what to do – again. now the question [is] what happens when you can get instant gratification from seeing a miracle, right? Miracle on demand.
The character of Coyote Jackson has a moment where his Aboriginal identity or purity is questioned. Why has it become such an important part of the story to be told?
It wasn’t something I focused on at all. It just seemed to tie into the whole question of what a pure bison is and challenged the idea of what purity is.
And, also, a lot of aboriginal people now look at other people claiming to be aboriginal and say, “OK, wait a second. What is your connection to Aboriginal people? Who are you ? Where are you? This is a huge question that arises in our communities as well.
It is a secondary story, in a way parallel, which accompanies the play.
As people sit there, they’re coming to the end of this play, they’re about to walk out of the theater. What do you want them to take with them?
I want them to take away the idea that they want to come back and see him again.
Well, you should. It’s a complex story.
It’s probably unique to me in terms of the pieces I’ve written. It is not focused on any type of trauma. It’s a play centered around a community that says “Oh my God, something big is happening here and we need to respond.”
So it’s all about hope, but it’s also about the fear of not being ready when the most hopeful thing you’ve been hoping for happens, isn’t it?
I’m kind of like Kim Harvey, who wrote Kamloopa. She wrote this kind of manifesto for aboriginal playwrights and she said, “No crying, no dying. It’s something that I kind of embrace in this piece.
I believe one, no, we can’t ignore the trauma of what’s going on. We still need to explore these stories. But secondly, I want to develop myself as an artist and also help other indigenous artists to develop. There is a wide range of topics that our communities struggle with and also embrace, so let’s share those as well.
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview conducted by Pedro Sanchez. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.