Debajehmujig Storytellers and
the Creation Centre
Legacy Story Overview
Debajehmujig Storytellers began in 1984 in West Bay, Ontario (M’Chigeeng First Nation), and they were founded by Cree actor, writer, and Director Shirley Cheechoo. Shirley Cheechoo had a vision of creating plays based on the lives of Indigenous community members, which would in turn educate settler Canadians on their experiences. At this time, there were very few public opportunities for Indigenous people to see their lives reflected in an artistic way. Debajehmujig grew into a touring group visiting various First Nations communities with this vision in mind.
A core piece of Debajehmujig’s beginnings was their Cultural Arts Animator Program, which started in 1999 as the National Arts Animator Program. The goal of this program was to train artists to learn multi-disciplinary arts skills. Today, the training program exists as a three-year Cultural Arts Animator Program. Students are taught Foundation Teachings of the Odawa Midewiwin Petroglyphs by Knowledge Keeper David “Sunny” Osawabine, and explore how to incorporate this knowledge with various artistic disciplines.
Following Shirley Cheechoo’s leadership, Debajehmujig’s Artistic Directors included Tomson Highway, Alanis King, Audrey Debassige Wemigwans, Larry Lewis, and Joe Osawabine. Bruce Naokwegijig is the current Artistic Director.
In their early years, Debajehmujig toured and operated out of many different spaces in Wiikwemkoong and Manitowaning, including in basements and churches. With the growth of their Cultural Arts Animator Program and a need for increased space for training students and productions, the organization sought a permanent space in Manitowaning in 2000.
The Creation Centre
In 2000, Debajehmujig began their process to apply for funding for a capital project, led by former Artistic Producer Ron Berti, to acquire and renovate what would become the Creation Centre. They received funding from the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund (CCSF), Federal Economic Development Initiatives of Northern Ontario (FedNor), and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC).
Originally a grocery/department store owned by the Mastin family in Manitowaning, the building was donated by the family who were long-time supporters of Debajehmujig and the Wiikwemkoong First Nations community. The capital campaign sought to fully renovate the space to suit the artistic needs of the company.
The donated Reynolds-Mastin grocery/department store was completely renovated to become a 15,000 square foot creative facility, with renovation designs completed by Architect Dennis Castellan. The Creation Centre opened to the public in 2009. Today, the facility features the:
Larry E. Lewis black box studio, KB Reynolds Mastin Gallery space, an audio production studio, a video/digital creation lab, a physical media production lab, Shirley Cheechoo Actors’ Lounge (green room), video and studio control booths, a costuming room/wardrobe, a library/board room, IT Department Suite, a Gift Shop, a meal space and kitchen, and various multipurpose spaces for art/administration/creation.
An image of the Creation Centre front. Art by Barry Beaver.
Debajehmujig Storytellers today
Debajehmujig operates both on and off reserve: the Headquarters are located in Wiikwemkoong, and the Creation Centre is in Manitowaning, Ontario. Debajehmujig is vital as one of the few Indigenous organizations in Ontario that trains and provides mentorship for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists through their Cultural Arts Animator Program. They also provide significant support to surrounding Indigenous communities in the arts by producing shows rooted in traditional teachings and knowledge, as well as community-oriented festivals such as the Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival and Six Foot Festival.
Legacy Story Circle
On Thursday, September 10, 2020, 17 individuals came together in circle to speak to the history and goals of Debajehmujig Storytellers at their Creation Centre in Manitowaning, Ontario. 14 members of this Legacy Story Circle included staff and alumni of Debajehmujig Storytellers.
The Legacy Story Circle spoke extensively to the process of developing the Creation Centre, and the challenges that came with it. The Creation Centre took eight years to fully complete. While Debajehmujig secured support from multiple funders, it remained challenging to raise the remaining 25% needed to complete the project, as there was little investment at the time in funding Indigenous creative spaces. FedNor provided additional bridge financing which helped to complete the build. In the final years of the capital campaign, Debajehmujig increased donor contributions from local organizations.
Current needs of Debajehmujig
Debajehmujig has undertaken the role of “educator” of Indigenous knowledge and culture to settler communities; but they want to align resources to support more programs for Indigenous artists and communities. The Circle expressed a need to engage with more communities in northern Ontario, as Debajehmujig faces challenges being in a northern community that is not easily accessible via public transit. Artists must travel by car to get to the Creation Centre from the Wiikwemkoong reserve.
The Circle spoke to a need for increased staffing as well as funding to better support students in the Cultural Arts Animator Program. As the program grows, there is a need for more artists at Debajehmujig to teach students.
Vision for the future
The Circle touched on Debajehmujig’s vision for future work, with a focus on virtual formats. Debajehmujig is currently engaging with a digital adoption strategy; this involves gathering, brainstorming, and creating digital solutions for continuing operations virtually during the pandemic. For example, staff brainstorm how certain components in a stage show could be live streamed. They have utilized this strategy when taking events virtual, such as their Six Foot Festival.
At the time of the Legacy Story conversation, Debajehmujig was engaged in developing a new Strategic Plan. The Circle found this opportunity to gather and share Debajehmujig’s story helpful in reminding everyone of their history and goals for the future. The strategic plan includes plans to renovate Debajehmujig’s Headquarters space located in a portable trailer on reserve in Wiikwemkoong.