Christian Laveau keeps to his roots - both literally and culturally. As an herbalist he stays grounded by following the ways of his people working for several years at the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden sharing his knowledge of native plants and traditional medicines passed down to him by his Huron-Wendat elders. As a cultural ambassador he is a well-known Canadian performer, TV host, comedian, singer, songwriter, television producer and musician. His award-winning children’s show Chic Choc focuses on inspiring stories directed towards Canadian youth.
His most recent role is as the lead singer in Cirque de Soleil’s latest production TOTEM, a fascinating tale of the evolution of man from his original amphibian state to his ultimate desire to fly. Illustrated through a visual and acrobatic language, it falls somewhere between science and legend. Laveau was discovered by the iconic Canadian company while performing at a pow wow on his reservation.
He enters the room filled with coiled energy and childlike excitement, carrying a drum and stick. He seems self-possessed and contained, but eager to let loose. His impish smile is warm and infectious and his arms envelop his well-worn drum like a proud father. As he speaks he toys with a small smooth stone.
Is that the drum you use in the show?
Yes, I play my own drum. This one is 25 years old and made of caribou hide, and these are partridge feathers. The beaded part is the symbol of the wolf. I use the wolf, as my symbol. For me it is very important because he is a warrior. He represents strength and courage. It’s a kind of keeper. The bear is my spiritual animal because I am in the Bear Clan. This symbol is the sun – wenta’ye yändicha’ in my mother language.
What was your childhood like on the reservation?
We call it a reserve. It’s in the Northwest part of Quebec. It’s very small - around 2,000 Wendat live there. Wendat means human being. When the government made the national park they took my grandfather out of the bush. He was a trapper. My mother was just six years old then. That’s when she saw electricity for the first time.
I grew up on the reservation with my sisters, mother, father and cousins who still live there. It’s a matriarchal society in my culture. If you remain there you have no other choice but to work for the Band Council or for the Chief or make crafts. But I had a dream to leave and go to acting school. So I went to the indigenous theatre company, Ondinnok, at the National Theatre School of Canada for three years to study my aboriginal roots.
What did that experience mean to you?
I left my reservation and went to Montreal. At the institute we studied native culture and spirituality. We used songs, instruments and dance as a way to discover our real spirit.
It was more than a school. I studied with Yves Sioui Durand. He’s very intense and made us go very deep inside of ourselves to feel the pain and the joy, and the peace and the war of our ancestors. In my blood I have all those memories. We tried to experience those emotions, to have respect for them and to explore them, to make us stronger. And we will continue to fight.
My grandfather is one of my idols because he spent his life in the bush and my great-grandfather also was in the territory all his life, protecting and preserving the area and its traditions – hunting, fishing and gathering. I learned that it’s important to balance the forest.
I noticed you wrote and recorded an album mixing traditional Native songs with folk and New Age.
It’s called “Sondakwa”, which is my first name in my mother language. It means ‘eagle’. In the video I made for the album I worked with Gilles Sioui, a bluesman and an elder with the native spirit. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a child. He’s been my inspiration. One day he heard me singing at a pow wow and I said to him, “You don’t know how much I would like to work with you,” and he said, “I’m your man!”
How do you reach young people with your message?
I have a TV show called Chic Choc on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). In native language it means, “Go over the mountain.” It’s for the youngsters that I do this TV show. It’s difficult for them. There are not a lot of things to do in the area and there are problems with alcohol and drugs. They don’t even allow glue in the classrooms. But because the children are the keepers of our culture we have to show them and use what our grandparents gave us. My grandmother always spoke to me about the importance of the “Seventh Generation” and continuing our traditions.
Where is your stone from?
Well, they come from everywhere because whenever we have a pow wow we always exchange stones. It’s my talisman. This one is from a friend from the Atikamekw Nation in Quebec. I’ll eventually exchange it for another.
In TOTEM, you sing in your mother language?
Yes, in the show I sing in my mother language. Guy Laliberté [founder of Cirque du Soleil] said, “You are a real culture, you are alive, so you will sing in your mother language.” For me it’s really an honor. Every night I use my own drums and other personal items.
Tim Smith, who has been TOTEM’s Artistic Director through its inception, was there to answer additional questions about the production.
Tell me something about the show.
Smith - We concentrate on the human instinct. In us we have every origin of species all the way through to man’s wanting to fly, which is why the totem pole reflects the many faces of man and why we have an eagle on top. It’s man’s constant need to progress forward and often upward that’s why a lot of our images are aerial and constantly moving artists from the ground to the air.
Are there other Native performers in the cast?
The show is truly multicultural. We have 53 artists from 17 different countries speaking 9 different languages on stage every night. Two are American Indian dancers performing traditional dance - Shandien Larance (Hopi) and Eric Hernandez (Hopi) from New Mexico and California. They are authentic hoop dancers. The hoop shapes describe evolution from frog to thunderbird. We don’t teach them, we go out and find the real thing. We use a lot of traditional images and Christian (Laveau) has written a lot of original music for the show in collaboration with the composers of Cirque. That’s how authentic TOTEM is, and how important it is for the company to embrace that voice and that spirit.