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‘Prey’ Actress Talks to Salish School Students about Life, Career and Stories from Her Heart

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‘Prey’ Actress Talks to Salish School Students about Life, Career and Stories from Her Heart

News Story by Matthew Kincanon | FāVS News

On Friday (Feb. 9), award-winning Cree actress and activist Michelle Thrush spoke to students at Salish School of Spokane, giving them an insight into her life, how she got into acting, her culture and how she wants to tell stories from a place of honesty.

At the beginning of the event, Thrush described her upbringing. She was raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her Cree name is Good Feathers Woman, which she received when she was young in a sun dance. While most of her family is fluent in her Tribe’s language, she is not. This was why she felt honored to be in the same room as the school’s students.

“That makes my heart feel so good to know that you put so much effort into speaking and knowing your language,” she said. “Because when you know your language, you know who you are.”

A rough beginning and finding her cultural values

She lived in the city within the Blackfoot Confederacy territory of Treaty 7. She said her parents were afflicted by alcoholism, which made her childhood tough. There was a lot of chaos, unpredictability and violence within her household.

“My mom and dad were not doing well because they were really damaged and they went through a lot of stuff in their childhood,” Thrush said.

When she grew up, she remembered thinking her mom and dad were not doing well. While they were not good parents, she said they raised her the best they knew how.

School life wasn’t easy either. During her younger years, she said she spent many of them at a non-Native school where she faced a lot of racism and was usually the only Indigenous kid at the school.

However, from grades 8-12, she attended the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School where she learned the Cree and Blackfoot languages, beadwork, powwow singing, Indigenous history and other aspects of Indigenous culture.

“When I was kid, nobody taught me my culture because my parents didn’t have the tools to do that,” Thrush said. “I felt like I didn’t have a really good hold on who I was. So going to this school was where I learned a lot of my cultural values.”

Getting her first role and Indigenous representation in the film industry

During her time at the school, Thrush said there was nobody who liked acting and there wasn’t a drama class. However, when she was 16 years old, her school’s principal got a call from a production company saying they were looking for a Native girl to play in a film.

She described how the principal told them that there was one girl in the school who loved acting. Her audition was held in the school’s math room and she got the role. 

Other than actors like Chief Dan George, August Schellenberg, Graham Greene, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal and Gordon Tootoosis, she said, as a kid, there weren’t many Indigenous actors on TV at the time. The ones who were casted got small roles and were portrayed as the losers of the stories. The shows also depicted white savior narratives.

“That’s how I grew up is watching our people be the losers all the time, and I never ever thought I could be an actor because I didn’t see that. I didn’t see people on television that looked like me,” Thrush said.

As she got more roles, she considered becoming an actor, ultimately deciding to pursue it when she was 18 years old.

“Even though there weren’t many scripts, there weren’t many films out there, I still had this really incredible need to tell our stories from a place of honesty,” Thrush said. “Because if we don’t tell our own stories then they’re gonna have other people telling them.”

Her work today and the changing landscape for Indigenous people

Since then, she has appeared in shows like “Blackstone,” for which she received the Gemini Award for Best Actress, as well as movies like “Skins,” “Bones of Crows,” “Red Snow” and Hulu’s “Prey.” She added that today, there are many more Indigenous actors including Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone, along with many others who now work in the film industry. Also, she mentioned there are now acting schools, such as the Center for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto.

“Our kids can watch us telling our stories on television and theaters, wherever it is, but that to me is what’s really important; is making sure that our children have role models to look up to and people making sure that we’ve got people in the film industry as producers and directors,” Thrush said. “We’ve got writers, actors, all kinds of Native people now that are doing really big jobs, and that’s amazing.”

Throughout the event, Thrush talked about how her passion for acting came from her DNA and described how it is something Indigenous people have been doing for thousands of years through storytelling.

She also answered questions the participants had about the movie “Prey,” her work as the character Aruka, how the Indigenous school was different from her first school and other aspects of her life and work.  

At one point, she spoke to some young students who wore their hair in braids and told them that their hair is their power.

“My nephews all have braids too and it makes them feel very proud to walk down the street as a strong Native person,” she said, before telling them how Indigenous traditions and practices were outlawed in the past.

A story of her elder

Near the end of the event, Thrush shared a story she was told by elder Maggie Black Kettle. The story told how they were connected to everything around them, from the mountains to the trees and the animals, and what ceremonies hunters would perform when they took the life of an animal. The animal’s life would be acknowledged and they would thank it for giving them its meat and hide.

She talked about what would happen to the animal’s spirit as well. She compared these practices to Europeans who hunted buffalo and how they would not honor their spirits. Nothing was regarded as sacred to them.

All Indigenous experiences can transfer to the arts

After the event, Mireya Parkin-Pineda, the first student of the school and granddaughter of the school’s founders Chris Parkin and LaRae Wiley, said she felt she could become an actor after hearing Thrush’s story. She currently works as a teacher at the school.

“It’s really amazing to see someone that comes from stuff that my family’s been through and is continuing to live through and just see them rise above it all,” she said.

Parkin-Pineda said it was cool to see Thrush talk about her experience in acting and feels it can be transferred to all the performing arts.

“We need more Indigenous people in all art, especially performing arts,” she said.

Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon is a former Digital Content Producer with a journalism and political science degree from Gonzaga University. His journalism experience includes the Gonzaga Bulletin, The Spokesman-Review, Art Chowder magazine and SpokaneFāVS. He said he is excited to be a freelancer at SpokaneFāVS because, as a Spokane native, he wants to learn more about the various religious communities and cultures in his hometown.

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