Taran Kootenhayoo left Alberta for Vancouver to pursue his dreams – and he was catching them, one after the other. Consider even just the past two years for the Indigenous artist and activist, who was Denesuliné from Cold Lake First Nation and a member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. In 2018, Mr. Kootenhayoo was named a “Star to Watch” by the Whistler Film Festival. In 2019, he received the Sam Payne Award for Most Promising Newcomer at Vancouver’s Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards. He also landed a recurring role in the animated PBS/CBC TV series Molly of Denali, which went on to win a Peabody Award.
But 2020 was to mark a particularly meaningful achievement: the world premiere of his play White Noise. In the political comedy, an Indigenous family strikes it rich – thanks to an app the son sells to Microsoft – and moves into Vancouver’s tony West Point Grey. Their next-door neighbours – a life coach, yoga instructor and Instagram star – are bathed in white privilege but consider themselves woke. The two families come together for a dinner party during Truth and Reconciliation Week and sparks fly.
The play was to open at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. But the spring run was postponed indefinitely because of COVID-19.
To mark what would have been opening night, Mr. Kootenhayoo conducted a reading on Facebook Live, followed by a Q&A.
“I know for a lot of people it’s a sad time for an artist, but I’m not like depressed or sad or anything, just kind of taking it as it comes,” he said during the April 22 event.
When asked by a viewer for tips on coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, he responded with his trademark wisdom and kindness: “Stay safe … stay positive, just be patient, look out for yourselves and one another and take this time to really consider what wasn’t working in the past,” he said.
“Support other artists doing work,” he added. “Go outside. Maybe take up something you haven’t really looked at that you really want to do. … Maybe just rest if you need rest.”
On the last day of the year, Mr. Kootenhayoo died at his home in Vancouver. He was 27.
“He was a star from the moment he was born. He shone like an immense light came from him,” his mother, Sheryl Kootenhayoo, said. “And he was consistently getting brighter and brighter as he grew older.”
Taran Jerry (Standing Sunrise) Kootenhayoo was born on Sept. 18, 1993, in Cold Lake, Alta.
“When he was seven months old, he didn’t start walking, he started running,” his mother recounted at a memorial held this week.
In an interview, she explained that his upbringing sometimes lacked stability. She was a busy single mother and at times he lived with his grandmother, with whom he was very close, or an aunt. He also spent some time at a group home.
Art and his culture would help steady him. He was a grass dancer, wore his hair in braids. In high school, he became involved with Dreamspeakers on Tour, a filmmaking program for Indigenous youth where he wrote and directed two short films.
He started keeping a journal at 18, which developed into writing poetry. When he shared a poem at a performance workshop, he was stunned by its impact. “At that moment I realized whatever it is I’ve been able to craft and share has an effect on people,” he said years later, many slam poetry performances under his belt by then.
He graduated from Victoria School of Visual and Performing Arts in Edmonton in 2011 and then attended the Acting for Stage and Screen program at Capilano University in North Vancouver.
There, he became a fixture at Kéxwusm-áyakn Student Centre. Capilano’s Indigenous faculty adviser David Kirk said Mr. Kootenhayoo would go there to socialize, to spend time with the centre’s in-residence Elders and would sometimes rehearse a scene, to everyone’s delight. “He was … always entertaining us. He was a true storyteller at heart and he liked to be the centre of attention – and he would be the first person to admit it,” Mr. Kirk said.
He was an in-demand actor for other students’ films. “He was mercurial. Everyone wanted him. Because he had a real spark,” said David Geary, faculty member with Capilano’s School of Motion Picture Arts and the Indigenous Independent Digital Film program. “People lit up when he was around.”
He graduated in 2015 – with more than acting skills. “I always say that my theatre training was just human training,” Mr. Kootenhayoo said in 2018. “I continue to just chip away at myself.”
He was, by all accounts, an excellent human: a social magnet and hilarious companion who loved to goof around with family and friends. His partner, Jade Baxter, spoke of his “sacred Trickster energy.”
He became involved in the Savage Society, travelling in summers with a group to founder and artistic director Kevin Loring’s hometown of Lytton, B.C., to create contemporary musicals based on traditional Indigenous creation stories. Mr. Kootenhayoo starred in productions such as 2016′s The Boy Who Was Abandoned – despite not being the best singer. “He was scared to do it, but he gave it his all. And he did a great job,” said Mr. Loring, who is also artistic director for Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre.
Mr. Kootenhayoo was an ensemble member at Full Circle: First Nations Performance, which produces Vancouver’s beloved Talking Stick Festival. “Whenever Taran performed, you wanted more,” said Margo Kane, founder and artistic director.
There he met Michael Springate, who wrote the film Bella Ciao!, which his wife, Carolyn Combs, would direct. He suggested she consider Mr. Kootenhayoo for the character of Niki, a young Indigenous man who travels to East Vancouver looking for his missing sister.
Mr. Kootenhayoo got hopelessly lost on the way to the audition – but he got the part. “He gave everything he had to that performance and that character,” Ms. Combs said.
The film’s star Carmen Aguirre recalled their first day together, doing their first scene. “He said: ‘Hey you’re an elder so it’s your responsibility to mentor us, the young ones. So just do it.’ It was like he was giving me not only permission, but making a demand in the best way possible that I just do it and not wait to be asked,” Ms. Aguirre said.
He sometimes arrived on set on his skateboard – a favourite mode of transportation; friends recall seeing him bombing down the streets of Vancouver with a coffee in one hand.
In his early teens, Mr. Kootenhayoo petitioned Cold Lake to improve the local skatepark – gathering signatures door-to-door, and attending meetings with the mayor and city council to ensure the skaters had a voice. The new skate park had its grand opening in September, 2015. “This is one of the happiest days of my life,” Mr. Kootenhayoo told the Cold Lake Sun, noting that his grandmother flew him home for the occasion. “I wish I had this when I was a kid.”
A passionate political activist, Mr. Kootenhayoo pulled no punches when it came to his opposition to pipelines or his support for land-claim issues and he participated in the Wet’suwet’en protests.
White Noise cleverly drew from his strong political beliefs and his laser-sharp observations of humanity.
“It’s a comedy about racism, so funny,” he said in 2018, at Whistler, looking stylish in long braids and eyelashes. (Mr. Kootenhayoo did some modelling; you can also see him in the music video for Dan Mangan’s Whistleblower.)
While the postponement last spring was disappointing, Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer said White Noise will definitely be mounted once theatres reopen. “The play is going to be relevant for a long time,” she said.
Mr. Kootenhayoo was busy during the pandemic shutdown, writing, among other projects, an Indigenous musical inspired by Cabaret.
In November, he co-created and starred in a short piece for Upintheair Theatre’s online festival, playing a doomscrolling Indigenous corporate type who has lost touch with his roots and connects with nature by plugging his phone into a tree.
In December, he participated in table reads for Women in Film and Television Vancouver’s Tricksters and Writers, a feature film writing program for Indigenous women.
“He was so generous in those table reads, helping the writers bring those characters to life and then sharing his thoughts; always very positive,” said Ms. Combs, who co-founded the program.
Back in the spring, he indicated that he planned to update White Noise to reflect the influences of the pandemic.
The play – co-produced by the Firehall and Savage Society – was workshopped in 2018 at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster and at the Talking Stick Festival, where it was received with huge enthusiasm. “People were jumping out of their seats laughing,” Mr. Loring recalled. “A lot of promise, that kid had.”
Mr. Kootenhayoo’s death has been devastating for his Indigenous and artistic communities and there has been an outpouring of support. A crowdfunding campaign to help pay for memorial costs and to transport his body back home to Alberta – and support the family – has raised more than $66,000, which speaks to the impact he made in his short time in this world.
“The real blow is he really was somebody that was a connector,” Mr. Loring said. “What the country has lost is a real articulate voice, a real passionate artist who spoke from an authentic place. About what it means to be a young Indigenous person in this country and the pressures of colonization and trying to find an authentically Indigenous path. … It’s just so tragic that he left us so soon. I feel like he was just getting started. … He could have done anything, that guy.”
The driving rain did not stop mourners from gathering for the outdoor memorial on Monday evening in Vancouver.
“Look around you and see all the faces that he’s touched. This is one person who united people. Wherever he went – danced into every room; he attacked life with such grace and care. Always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt; always gave everyone the time,” his friend Dylan Jacknife said.
Mr. Jacknife recounted how Mr. Kootenhayoo, at a candlelight vigil for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, spontaneously walked to the centre of the crowd to share his poem The Day the Eagles Die, bringing everyone at the vigil to tears.
An audio recording of the poem was played at the memorial. “The only thing I fear in this world is the day the eagles die,” Mr. Kootenhayoo’s voice rang out in the darkness.
“When I gaze into a sky of eagles soaring high, I then know that there is still hope for another chance of serenity.”
Taran Kootenhayoo leaves his mother, Sheryl; grandmother, Agnes Gendron; sister, Cheyanna; brother E’then; and his partner, Ms. Baxter.