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Aboriginal achievement honored at gala show

Debora Steel, Raven's Eye Writer, Saskatoon

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There was a mighty clap of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning over Saskatoon on March 31 when the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation flew into town on the wings of a thunderbird to host its 12th annual achievement awards gala.

The gala celebrates the lives of 14 recipients from the Aboriginal community with a lavish stage show complete with performances by some of the hottest talent on the Aboriginal musical and artistic scenes today.

This year's show featured a set inspired by the thunderbird, protector of the people of Turtle Island. Set designer Stephane Roy of Cirque de Soleil fame chose two pair of massive wings suspended over centre stage to demonstrate the presence of the thunderbird in the theatre. The wings were constructed in stained-glass window style in the boldest hues of green, red, purple, yellow and turquoise, and ascended, descended and even flapped for different performances.

To pay tribute to the host region and the people there, executive producer Roman Bittman invited the Great Plains Dance Troupe to perform. And the dancers did the Prairie powwow scene proud, dressed in the finest of regalia and demonstrating with aplomb the dance styles of men's traditional, ladies fancy shawl, grass, chicken, men's fancy, jingle and hoop, among others.

The performance ended with a round dance that encircled a colorful centre disk representing the turtle's back-Turtle Island, our home, North America.

Opening the show with a spine-tingling performance was Saskatchewan's Metis daughter, singer Andrea Menard with an old-world bluesy spiritual about life as a mixed-blood person denying her Aboriginal roots to walk in a white world. And just when the audience thought that things couldn't get better, in came Dave Boulanger, lead singer of Burnt Project 1, with a hand drum and a hauntingly beautiful Indian chant providing harmony.

Boulanger, joined by the other members of Burnt, closed the show with an energetic intertribal. Other performers included Kinnie Starr, and Eagle and Hawk with a rendition of their wildly popular song Sundancer.

The theme of the show was the Power of Dreams, but the only real nod to the theme came with a two-part performance entitled Dreamcatcher Dance by Santee Smith and company.

Remarkable as the show's performances were, the reason for the gathering was to pay tribute to 14 people whose lives and life's work were chosen this year for honoring. As in years past, the stories of the recipients were detailed in video biographies, many of which were immensely moving and prompted spontaneous applause from the more than 2,000 members of the audience.

The recipients were presented with their achievement awards from the usual cast of political figures and achievement award sponsors, and stood, centre stage, for a few moments for the standing ovation that came from the crowd after each presentation.

This year's recipients are Bertha Allen (lifetime achievement), Lolly Annahatak (social services), Andy Carpenter Sr. (environment); Sharon Anne Firth (sports), Dr. Thomas Dignan, (medicine), Brenda Chambers (media and communications), Dr. Eber Hampton (education), Judy Gingell (community development), Douglas Golosky (business and commerce), Joe Jacobs (arts & culture), Fauna Kingdon (youth), Dr. Emma LaRocque (education), Dr. Gerald McMaster (arts and culture) and John Joe Sark (heritage and spirituality).

A nice balance this year was struck between thanking the sponsors for their support, and allowing the recipients to have their moment in the sun. The overall atmosphere of the night was warm, sincere and respectful.

As with any show trying to serve more than one master-the show was not just live, but taped for television audiences for CBC and APTN-the production was not without its difficulties. Technical problems with microphones and cues caused some headaches, and the much ballyhooed rapport between hosts Menard and the elegant Michael Greyeys didn't transpire thanks to a painfully bad script of so-called friendly banter.

Still, the 58 performers and 172 crew members that contributed to the evening should be proud of the results of their efforts. The show was done in a good way, with all the protocols of the Plains people met. The theatre was smudged, the dancers were given tobacco, the eagle staffs were presented during grand entry and remained on stage throughout the show, Aboriginal veterans were given their place of honor during opening ceremonies, a prayer was offered, and an invitation was extended to attend next year's show in Winnipeg.

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