(too-loo-gak): Inuktitut (the language of Inuit) word meaning raven

Mary Bryant

Yellowknife, NT

I actually got involved first because of a play that was happening in town. I’m trying to remember who wrote the play, but it was called Two Hands in Forever and it was staged at St. Pat’s. It was about the discovery of gold in Yellowknife and the whole history of Yellowknife. They decided they needed a scene of ravens dancing around garbage cans because that’s what ravens do, but they of course choreographed the whole thing. They had ten women and ten men. It was quite a big dance number. They wanted a costume and I had done a few costumes of other kinds of animals before that. They asked me to do one and they wanted it very simple. Cost was a factor. We made heads out of carpet underlay. When you turned it inside out and painted it black, it was perfect. It was light and easy to put on. We were able to design it so you could see not too badly either. The body itself was just out of garbage bags. It was a really cheap costume. Initially, the scene was supposed to be quite a bit larger and in the end, it was just this one itty bitty little scene after all that. It was maybe five minutes. One woman was quite disgusted, after all of that work. Anyway, that’s just the way it is in theatre, isn’t it? My friend Doreen Redshaw was teaching Kindergarten at the time. She would go through the colours and gather up everything that was that colour. For some reason she decided to do black. Of course, she thought raven, why not? I think Doreen had always had a special affinity for ravens anyhow. She liked to talk to them. She’d be out there on her porch returning calls to ravens. She heard that I had made this costume and she said she’d like me to visit the classroom. The kids had no idea this raven was coming. What she wanted me to do first was, because they were right on the ground floor, walk up to a window and do a few antics. The kids when they saw this were quite taken. The thing that kind of amazed me was that I didn’t have my full costume on that day. I had the head and black leotards, top and bottom, and that was it. That was all the kids needed somehow. I’m hopping around and then I was invited into the classroom. Doreen had a radio show at the time called Let’s Listen with CBC. She did it every Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. She made up all her own songs and gathered a lot of stories. She was very interested in different legends and that sort of thing. She started to gather raven stories and had a number of stories from different cultures, whether they were Inuit or Dene. She gave me a few of them. She decided Ramona the Raven should make an appearance on her show. Her idea of a raven and why they would appeal to kids is because they were so rascally. They were precocious, or she saw them that way. Kids could feel at home with that. It appealed to her because it was inquisitive, precocious, child-like in a lot of ways, and she thought it would be a good vehicle as an entity that was inquisitive and wanted to learn things, and also something that had knowledge about the North. The raven had been around and seen it all and could actually be considered a resource for knowledge about the North. She would have me on the radio show. Depending on what message she wanted to get across, she would be a school teacher, she could be Mother Hubbard with a cupboard full of books, she could be a little green Martian who landed and was appalled at the state of the earth and was having these conversations with the raven. That’s how we started off. We realized we needed a better costume because we decided we should make appearances. What also happened as the radio show went along, when it came to the end of the fiscal year at CBC, they had a little bit of cash and they asked if we wanted to make a record. We said of course. So we holed up in this studio for days and days and made a record. It was gruelling. Then we decided we should hit the road. Right about that time, there was some money available and we applied and got a grant to go around the lake. So we did Yellowknife and Rae and Hay River and Fort Smith, Fort Resolution. It was Mother Hubbard and her cupboard full of books and I dressed up as the raven. I had now made a real costume. We developed all these little puppets. The first gig that we had, we went to the Yellowknife Play School. It was spring and we decided there should be a little bird hatching out of an egg. We had a little puppet made. We had posters and postcards and puppets. We got very enterprising. The name Ramona the Raven was sort of out of a hat because afterwards, after I was leaving the classroom that first day, they asked me my name and I just sort of thought on the spot. I had a cousin named Ramona so she became Ramona the Raven. In 1981, my husband took a job in Winnipeg. Doreen was heartbroken because we were doing well and having fun with it. We had dreams of Sesame Street and we were going to take on Big Bird and all of that. What was going to happen to Ramona the Raven? I said I’m leaving the costume, there’s no point in me taking Ramona to Winnipeg. Doreen kept it and did it for another three years. She worked it. She did some stuff for Yellowknife and did some tours, different kinds of educational things. It was always educational. We never did birthday parties. We refused to do stuff like that. When the Book Cellar did things, we went and promoted books of other people. When Ted Harrison came to town and Ernie Lyall and Mimi Freeman were there, we always showed up. That’s really our Ramona thing. I came back in 1989. Doreen had had it with Ramona by then. I did it for a little while, mostly volunteer stuff with the Cubs or Celebrity Auction. I did that for a few years. Now, I lend out the costume. One person wore it and played golf on the ice with Peter Gzowsky.