The successful actor, writer and producer speaks about the challenges she faced growing up, and how her past has influenced her present
If there is a woman who exemplifies the resiliency of the Indigenous spirit in Canada, it’s filmmaker Georgina Lightning. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta in a Mushwatchees Cree family that struggled from the lingering effects brought on by the residential school system and a legacy of colonization. In 1990, after a few courses in theatre at the University of Alberta, she felt the pull toward filmmaking as a way to express her creativity. She packed her three children up and moved to Los Angeles to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was the first North American Aboriginal woman to direct a full-length feature film. Through her company, Tribal Alliance Productions, she directed and produced Older Than America in 2008, a feature which followed a woman’s discovery of her mother’s time at a residential school. Currently, Lightning lives in Santa Fe where she teaches at the Santa Fe University Film School, and is editing her next feature, Fantasies of Flying, a drama about healing and trauma.
Danielle Paradis: Can you tell us about your experience growing up as a young Aboriginal in Edmonton?
Georgina Lightning: Well it was a harsh environment. I grew up in the west end and I went to a school called Youngstown and I experienced a lot of racism. At the time, it was a predominately white school – Caucasian school – and all the native kids went to the Catholic schools. We were never allowed to go to church or anywhere near those schools because of my dad’s residential school experience. That’s why he wanted us to go to public school, but we were by ourselves there. There was a lot of mean, severe racism and bullying.
DP: That must have affected you over the long term while living here.
GL: Yes it did. Not only that, but I came back to Edmonton in 2012 because I was on suicide watch [for] the second time. When I was 18, I was on suicide watch. I was rushed to the Misericordia Hospital and I kind of recovered from that, but I just put a Band-Aid on it. I didn’t understand trauma. I didn’t know anything about transgenerational trauma or anything like that. There was really no knowledge about it then. But 30 years later, I was in Los Angeles in my condo in Santa Monica and I ended up on suicide watch again and so I went back to Edmonton to go on a healing journey because that’s where my trauma lives. It’s just like it all finally exploded. What I had been living with all my life [was] complex PTSD. Now I understand what I have. I learned how to regulate myself and did a complete 180.
DP: I’m Mtis and my own family has been affected by the legacy of violence through colonization. Do you have similar experiences?
GL: I didn’t know about my father’s residential experiences until after he committed suicide. Then, when I started investigating [for] Older Than America, that’s when I discovered the reality of my father’s childhood. And I went: “Oh, that’s what I have inherited.” My grandmother, she died in her early thirties from being raped and beaten and my father experienced violence as well. It’s all passed on.
I’m making this film now called Fantasies of Flying to share my experiences with all that. I mean the country of Canada – the Native American populace – is filled with PTSD. So now that we know that, I have so much hope. We rank higher in suicide rates than veterans. When our kids are nine, 10, 12 and committing suicide, that’s pretty severe. If we go to the prison it’s filled with First Nations people [that is] a direct result of transgenerational trauma and PTSD. The community around doesn’t understand this or how to provide services.
If we heal as women, we’re going to raise our sons in a way that teaches them to respect women.
DP: Is healing and spreading information some of the reasons why you chose film as your creative medium?
GL: Again, we inherit the paths of our ancestors. I really, truly believe it is just a part of who I am. I don’t know why when I was six I decided I wanted to be an actor. I have an experience that I can pinpoint when I saw someone respond emotionally to something on TV and I thought that was very powerful, but I didn’t know that as a child. It’s as if a seed was planted in me – the spirit of my great, great grandmother, I believe, her name was Iron Voice – and I believe that is part of my heritage, just like our trauma is. We also inherit our strength. I’m just living that legacy and following who she stood for.
When I played Beth in A Lie of the Mind, that was about domestic violence. I loved that role because it showcased domestic violence and started a conversation about that, so that’s when I knew this was my path. It’s not being an actor that makes me happy; it’s the story. Media that matters – that’s my journey and what my purpose is.
DP: In your lifetime working in the arts have things changed for Aboriginal women?
GL: Yes, actually. In Canada, not in the U.S. In the U.S. it’s still a very rare thing to see a woman being a filmmaker but in Canada, yes. When I came back to Canada and began on my healing journey I went home and was watching APTN to see who was doing what, and there’s women on there developing incredible muscles with hours and hours of programming. There are a lot of women controlling the content on APTN. That is an incredible change. And because of social media – even though film is a male dominated industry, we all know that – but because of social media, nobody can stop us from putting a post on Facebook. Nobody can stop us from putting a picture on Instagram. I get to see a female leading a campaign on domestic violence. I get to support missing and murdered Indigenous women. Through social media we get to create collectives. Idle No More is a movement started by four women [that] would never [have] existed without social media.
DP: What First Nation or Aboriginal issues are you particularly interested in?
GL: Well suicide and missing and murdered women are my two priorities. And I think if we deal with suicide – suicide is PTSD too. So if we do healing ceremonies as a way to prevent suicide, we’re dealing with a lot of issues at once. We’ll also be addressing poverty and imprisonment.
If we heal as women, we’re going to raise our sons in a way that teaches them to respect women. They’ll have self-respect and witness a woman who has self-respect and dignity. We’ll raise our daughters to demand respect from every human they encounter – nothing less. If we address murdered and missing women and we heal our women, we’ll heal the community. We’re the primary caregivers.
If we address murdered and missing women and we heal our women, we’ll heal the community. We’re the primary caregivers.
DP: Do you feel like you tell stories from the First Nations perspective?
GL: I do because that’s the instinct I have. Like any human being, you write what you know, even if you try not to. I write from my past experiences and that’s where my strength lies. I’m affected deeply and constantly by what’s going on in our community.
DP: What will you be discussing at ECF Speaker Series on October 7?
GL: I would love to share my discoveries about PTSD and the healing that can happen and how we can change policy to address these issues. I’d also like to speak about healing and reconciliation, which is a commitment that Don Iveson made to the city.