Natalie Sappier never thought she would call herself a storyteller.
Born in Tobique First Nation, New Brunswick, she always felt the need to express her feelings through art—which led her to study design at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design.
While studying at NBCCD, her paintings often played with colour and abstract imagery as she attempted to express her emotions. Whenever she hit a creative block, though, her instructors would encourage her—the only Indigenous student in the group—to draw something from her culture. However, growing up, Sappier didn’t participate in ceremonies or sweat lodges, nor had she chanted or played a drum. She knew she was Wolastoqiyik, but had never been in contact with the culture or its traditional teachings.
As she planned for her post-graduation life, she figured she would move to New York City, live in a studio and continue being an abstract painter—but those plans were not meant to be.
I met with Natalie Sappier downtown on a warm Wednesday afternoon. She asked me to go next to the river, as it calms her down and is where she’s most herself; we sat on a bench a few meters from the lighthouse overlooking the river—far enough away from the city centre that we escaped the noise of passing cars.
“In my last year at NBCCD I was asked to work at a culture camp in Marysville, New Brunswick,” she explained to me. “This was the first time I was introduced to a sweat lodge, fasting, drum making and all these traditional art forms.” While working there, Sappier began experiencing incredibly intense dreams. “That’s when the roots grabbed hold of me and said ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re not going to New York.’ And it changed my life.”
After graduating from craft school, Sappier went back to Tobique First Nation and began exploring more of the Wolastoqiyik culture through painting; although it had always felt like the right way for her to express herself, she started to feel something pulsating within her, telling her there was something deeper she was meant to be doing. One teacher from the community encouraged her to learn more about her own stories.
“You have stories within yourself right now, but they’re sleeping,” the teacher said. “They’ll come out when they need to come out.”
So Sappier embarked on a journey of self-discovery and learning. Tagging along with the leaders of various New Brunswick Indigenous communities and attending meetings and ceremonies, she began feeling anger and grief as she discovered stories from the (not-so-distant) past she was not previously aware of. Stories like those of residential school survivors, of deforestation, of water contamination and salmon disappearing from the rivers—stories that still had an effect on her community, close friends, family members and herself.
But Sappier did not feel that the emotions these stories were raising should be reflected on a canvas. “I think that visually we already see so much that makes us angry,” she explained. “I don’t need to make more.”
Instead, she began exploring other art forms. At first, she was so overwhelmed by her emotions that she couldn’t put them into words; so she began to chant, allowing her to project the “many levels of emotions, anger and rumbling thunder” she couldn’t express in her paintings.
“The more I would sing, the happier I would become,” Sappier noted. She continued to explore the art form, and as it helped her heal, she discovered that performing helped others abandon their anger and begin to heal too.
This led her to write her first play, Finding Wolastoq Voice, which will feature dance, chants and original music. Premiering in March, the Theatre New Brunswick-presented play, which will kick off in Fredericton before touring the province, is about the journey of a young Indigenous woman who is awakened by her ancestors and encouraged to share the stories that have been sleeping inside her; by doing so, she gets a better sense of understanding who she is.
As a result of writing this play, Sappier “started to call [herself] a storyteller,” for, as she said, “I didn’t know how else to describe all the many hats that I wear.”
This will be the first time a Wolastoq play will be presented on-stage in this way. Sappier feels it’s about time Wolastoqiyik stories start surfacing in theatres.
“We [Indigenous peoples] grew up as storytellers, so there are thousands of stories, but because they are oral stories they usually stay within communities.” However, Sappier hopes this play will inspire others to share stories of their own.
“I think we’re going to have a wave of Indigenous playwrights coming on stages,” she predicts. “I already know it’s coming.”
Even though Sappier doesn’t speak the Wolastoqiyik language, her mission is to be a language carrier; she is determined to learn to speak it, and is trying to spend as much time as possible with language carriers like Elder Imelda Perley.
“I know my songs are waiting for the language,” she admitted.
Sappier feels that language preserves identity, and so it has become a priority for her to save the first language of this land and water.
“If we lose our language … I am heartbroken even by thinking about it. I cannot speak it. It’s within me, though, I know; I can feel it.”
Five years ago, Sappier came to the exact same spot I sat with her to prepare for a fasting ceremony, at which Elder Imelda Perley would be assigning Wolastoqiyik names.
The day before the ceremony, Sappier felt drawn to the water and began imagining her feet being wrapped by the very bottom of the river floor; her upper body, meanwhile, still felt the calm of the surface. She drew a sketch of herself surrounded by water, and realized: “I am water.”
With that thought kept to herself, Sappier went to the next day’s naming ceremony. When it was her turn to be given a name, Elder Imelda Perley got very emotional and said “Samaqani Cocahq,” which means “The Water Spirit.” Sappier was surprised, for she had not told anyone about her riverside reflections—nor had she shown anyone the picture she had drawn of herself the day before.
“That’s how powerful our spirituality and our connection to the land is. That name was with me since the day I was born, I just didn’t know it,” she explained.
Sappier said that the name opened a lot of her past and inspired her to both write the play and share her stories. She has found her voice through art and is experiencing a total transformation, becoming, at last, what she described as the “person I always dreamt of becoming.”
Natalie Sappier is serving a master apprenticeship with UNB’s elder-in-residence, Imelda Perley, shadowing Perley while she teaches at UNB and while she engages with other community endeavours and ceremonies. To stay up to date with Sappier and her many projects, visit her website at Thewaterspirit.wixsite.com/thewaterspirit.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the misspelling of ‘Samaqani Cocahq’ and ‘Wolastoq’. We’re very sorry.