Margo Kane, Metis born but raised by an adoptive working-class white father and three different step-mothers, was brought up with a white value system and way of looking at the world. She was the only native child among seven.
Despite being an honour student, her cultural schizophrenia led to a suicidal teenage depression. An abusive and overly strict step-mother traumatized her badly. By the time she finished high school, Margo was totally alienated from her family. She ran away from home.
By the time Margo was 20, she was living on skid row, on welfare; she was dependent on drugs and alcohol; she was the mother of an illegitimate child that she had to give up for adoption.
Yet this despairing young woman saved herself with an 11th-hour reserve of spirit and an obstinate talent for dance she had refused to let die. It was, she says, “the only thing I knew I could do.”
And do it she did, literally dancing herself away from the demons of drugs and drink into an internationally acclaimed career as a storyteller, singer, animator, choreographer, video and installation artist, director, producer , writer and dancer.
In Grade Seven before her father told her she was Indian, she had already figured it out. When Indian students were bused into her school from a residential school, she recalled: “We just stared at each other like cows in the field. Just looking wide-eyed, wondering who was going to make the first move.”
“I had borne the brunt of enough prejudice as a young girl to really empathize with other native students I met in high school,” Kane said. “But it wasn’t until graduation from high school that I really had an inferiority complex.”
“I fell apart. I was suicidal. There was a mechanism in me that wanted to destroy myself.”
Although Kane was never in government foster care, her early years were pocked with great gaps in parenting.
“When I was a baby,” she said, “I was adopted by my aunt and her husband, a white man. We lived in Edmonton. About a year later, my aunt was killed in a car accident and my step-father married a Metis woman. After a while, he got married again, to a non-native. She had children and she died. She was in my life for nine years. Then, my step-father married again, to another woman with children. So, although I didn’t grow up in foster care, it felt like it. It has taken a long time to overcome my low self-esteem. All my life I’ve feared that I wouldn’t make it, that I wasn’t worthy enough to realize my dreams. I was always in the trauma mode… my step-father was a laborer and a heavy machine operator. I know he loved me; he was a good man, he just didn’t know what to do.”
With the help of some astute psychological counseling, Kane got off the booze, got off the drugs, got off the skids. She enrolled in Edmonton’s Grant McEwan College for Performing Arts. Here she excelled in dance, acting and singing. She won scholarships to the Banff School of Fine Arts and Circle in the Square theatre school in New York City.
Yet her journey towards self-worth was an uphill struggle over a shale-slide of self-doubt. Often she felt inadequate with only her Grade 12 diploma. “It’s been a continuing frustration to me that I’ve never taken creative writing or English literature courses, because I’m always working with people who have and they automatically assume I have, too,” she said. Kane qualifies this remark: “All the education in the world doesn’t mean you’ll be able to speak from the heart and that you’re really going to be able to move people. Ultimately, to me, that’s most important.
Dance. The core that Kane’s life revives around is dance.
“I’ve had some very profound dancing experiences. When I asked myself what in my life was really worth living for, the only answer I came up with was this incredible feeling I experienced when I danced. I was bound and determined to be happy, live well and figure out what I needed to figure out. If there are problems, I need to deal with them. I’m tenacious, I just don’t give up.”
Taking charge of her life has given Margo Kane focus and led her on a spiritual path. “I realized there was something beyond my life that I needed to understand and touch again, and my spiritual path came at the forefront of who I was. When I trained as a dancer, an image came to mind of what it was that I was seeking, to be a whole person, physically well and intellectually developed. Emotionally, I needed to be well and spiritually I wanted to be connected to that incredible power.”
The woman who is the dancer has succeeded in making that connection. 48-year-old Margo Kane is, indeed, a strikingly handsome woman. Yet, in performance, she exudes a spiritual strength and beauty that far outshines the mundane allure of merely structural good looks.
At certain points in performance, she will erupt with an uncanny, eerie cry/moan/singing noise that is another-dimensioned touch point. The timbre and resonance of her voice vibrate within the listener. One can sense an almost tangible presence of spirit around her and coming through her.
And this sound brings to mind the Irish Banshee, the female faerie whose wail is a harbringer of a death in the house. Or, as in the poem Kubla Khan by Coleridge, of a sudden the stage becomes:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
ACTING AND TEACHING
Kane first came to national attention with George Ryga’s play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, in which she performed at the Citadel Theatre in her native Edmonton in the late 70s and later, in 1982, on a national tour with Prairie Theatre Exchange. She has also appeared in films and on television. For much of the 1980s she was involved with community work with the National Native Role Model Program – going to prisons, recovery centres and group homes.
She has toured with a national youth caravan, bringing theatre to small native communities across the country. When she mentions the children in some of the northern Ontario reserves, her eyes fill with tears. “I hated to leave them there. But you hoped, somehow, you know that when they reached 18, maybe they’d think, they might remember our theatre caravan and remember Margo and the others and maybe see some way out, instead of becoming suicides.”
Kane (Cree-Saulteaux) was the first Native artistic director of Spirit Song Native Theatre School in the 1980s.
“After a while, I realized I was teaching performance, and I realized I wasn’t really practicing it as much as I’d like. This was what I was trained for, but I wasn’t doing it. I realized there weren’t a whole lot of roles for me out there – particularly since I was too old to be an ingenue and too young to be an interesting old lady,” she said.
“So I decided to create my own parts, and I used the experience I’ve had as a cultural worker in my performances. There were things I needed to share. I had to speak out and speak up. I found, as I went through a lot of the healing I had to go through in my own life, that I have a voice that wants to say something, and I have to honour that voice.”
Much of Kane’s work is autobiographical, and always about reconnecting herself to her native past.
Since 1992, Kane has been artistic director of her own company, Full Circle: First Nations Performance, which is an attempt to embody First Nations traditions in a way of working together, creatively and artistically. She strives to be a successful interdisciplinary artist. It has taken her years of research and training, and it reflects her desire to be a whole person and to express that to the world.
“I am integrating everything I know about becoming more available as a human being, freeing yourself up to create. Its thrilling to work with people who don’t believe themselves to be creative.”
The ensemble members are dancers, singers, actors, clowns, writers and musicians. Kane employs a collaborative approach through workshops and studio performances that become research and training projects for all involved. Integral to Full Circle’s mandate is networking and collaborating with performing artists and arts organizations within Canada and internationally.
Margo Kane would like to see more collaboration between native and non-native groups. “People are not aware of Canada’s complex history. I want to honour that history. We have many cultural streams running through our blood, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. As artists, we have the opportunity to create inspiring works that celebrate diversity. Collaborations have always happened when people come together. It’s time to celebrate that.”