June 2, 2021Print | PDF
Written by Samantha Tai
MU472: Cross-Cultural Intersections, Dr. Kirsten Yri
Since the first explorers set foot on the shores of Turtle Island, the land now called Canada has been under the influence of settler colonialism; an ongoing system of displacement and repression of Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Through systems of cultural genocide and assimilation, Indigenous people were forcibly removed from their homelands and banned from participating in cultural ceremonies and events. Many Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools where they were punished for speaking their language and subject to forms of physical and sexual abuse; others were placed in non-Indigenous foster homes where they were raised disconnected from their culture. Many Indigenous people continue to live with the ongoing trauma created by these systems. Although these colonial tools are no longer enforced today as they once were, their legacy remains, resulting in educational, financial, and health-related disparities between Indigenous people in Canada and other Canadians. On a cultural level, many of the Indigenous languages still spoken in Canada today are in serious threat of disappearing completely, and numerous cultural practices, ceremonies, and songs have been lost. In response to this, many Indigenous artists have chosen to use their art as a tool for cultural reclamation and colonial resistance. While some of these artists may engage in more overt, political forms of resistance, most engage in this work in more subtle ways through the active refusal of complete assimilation into settler culture. In this paper I will examine the music of three prominent Indigenous artists in Canada who have chosen to use their music in one or both of these ways; Wolastoqey composer Jeremy Dutcher, Cree/Métis singer iskwē, and Cree rock band nêhiyawak.
Jeremy Dutcher’s ground-breaking debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was the result of a 5-year process that began when his elder, Maggie Paul, told him about hundred-year-old wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqey music housed in the National Museum of History. For two weeks, Dutcher listened to the voices and songs of his ancestors, transcribing what he heard along the way. Later, he would sit at his piano creating lush arrangements to compliment the archived pieces. Although the album draws from Dutcher’s Euro-American classical music training as well as pop and electronic musical influences, it is firmly rooted in his Wolastoqey heritage. Clips from the original wax cylinder recordings and conversations between Dutcher and Paul are interspersed throughout the album, grounding the work in a Wolastoqey worldview, and it’s Paul’s recorded words that provide the motivation behind the album: “When you bring the songs back, you’re going to bring the dances back. You’re going to bring the people back. You’re going to bring everything back.”
Dutcher has spoken openly about the political implications of the album and the impact that he hopes it will have on language revitalization and challenging settler understandings of Indigeneity. He was determined that the album be done entirely in the Wolastoqey language, as there are fewer than 100 fluent speakers remaining today. By singing in his language Dutcher is resisting the colonial institutions that have suppressed his language and culture through systems of assimilation and genocide. Singing in Wolastoqey also gives Dutcher the opportunity to honour his ancestors and elders who were not permitted to speak their language or sing their songs.
However, for Dutcher language revitalization is about more than saving words – it is about saving the Indigenous perspectives and experiences that are embedded in the language itself. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist, explains that “Indigenous languages carry rich meanings, theory and philosophies within their structures. Our languages house our teachings and bring the practice of those teaching to life in our daily existence.” In this way, the songs act as a gateway into Wolastoqey culture, and so singing in Wolastoqey allows Dutcher to fulfill Paul’s prophesy – when he brings the song back, he is bringing everything back.
Although Dutcher chose not to share direct translations of the songs, resisting the colonial urge “to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit,” he has spoken more generally about their meanings. The album’s opening track “Mehcinut” is a death chant and was chosen specifically as a way to challenge the “death narratives” that are prevalent in discourses about Indigenous languages and culture. Dutcher explains, “In the period around the time these songs were collected there were a lot of what I call death narratives or the idea of Indigenous people as fading people. I wanted to challenge that stereotype and say, ‘No, we’re here, we’ve been here. We’re still doing it’ …and challenge that idea of death.”
This simple assertion has profound impact in a culture that often chooses to ignore modern expressions of Indigeneity. In the midst of assimilation and cultural genocide, settler anthropologists in the early twentieth century sought to preserve the “weaker” Indigenous cultures in order to protect them from extinction. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa challenges this salvage paradigm. The album’s artwork is a reimagining of a famous photograph from 1916 of a white ethnographer collecting songs from Blackfoot Chief, Ninna-Stako. On the cover of Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher is depicted in both roles in front of Cree artist Kent Monkman’s painting Teaching the Lost. These images represent the repatriation of the songs and the return of agency to Dutcher and other Wolastoqey people. Their songs are no longer settler artifacts to be owned, analyzed, or archived, but pieces of a living culture, and it is now Dutcher (and other Indigenous people) who are in charge of their preservation and restoration.
Continually, Dutcher demonstrates that the revival of these songs does not have to mean recreating them exactly as he found them. In the settler imagination, Indigenous culture is often frozen at the moment of contact, but Dutcher proves this to be untrue. His thoughtful arrangements reflect both past and current realities and introduce the songs to new generations of listeners while preserving their traditional meanings. Through Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher “simultaneously harnesses and disrupts settler power structures,” and in doing so, stretches the colonial limitations of what traditional Indigenous music can be. To put it in Dutcher’s own words, “The only things gone from this world are the old limitations placed on Indigenous peoples.”
The next artist I will discuss is Cree/Métis songwriter and performance artist, iskwē, whose most recent album, acākosīk, is a genre-blending exploration of her identity as an Indigenous woman living in Canada. Over the years, iskwē has become an outspoken advocate for reconciliation and Indigenous rights, and one of the aims of acākosīk is to raise awareness for the systemic inequalities experienced by Indigenous people in Canada.
The album’s title (which translates to “The Stars”) is inspired by the teaching that Cree people are descended from the stars. This imagery is especially poignant in the album’s lead single, “Little Star” which candidly addresses the murders of two Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Despite strong evidence against them, both of the people suspected of murdering Boushine and Fontaine were eventually acquitted by non-Indigenous juries. It was Fontaine’s murder in 2014 that led to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The song was accompanied by a powerful stop-motion video that addressed the racist media coverage of the two murders while also offering a glimmer of hope. The video, which is set in a cityscape plastered with racist newspaper headlines from Boushie and Fontaine’s trials, depicts a group of diverse young activists that come together to tear the headlines down, symbolically pushing back against systems of oppression and the racism and prejudice they perpetuate.
The second track on the album, “Breaking Down” is equally political and describes the abusive relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government. The song reaches its climax during the bridge when iskwē sings,
As iskwē proudly asserts herself, a sample of a traditional drumming group can be heard looping in the background. The pairing of these two elements reinforces iskwē’s words and proves that despite colonialism’s attempts to silence Indigenous cultures, they are still alive and can flourish in new contexts. The album also features a rousing collaboration with Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq called “The Unforgotten,” which calls for reconciliation, unity, and respect.
acākosīk also practices resistance in more subtle ways through iskwē’s refusal to cater to settler expectations for so-called “Indigenous music.” Samples of traditional drumming groups and singers are seamlessly incorporated into the pop-influenced arrangements, and traditional drums are showcased on almost every track. The careful placement of these elements makes it clear that their inclusion is not a tokenistic gesture – rather, the songs are built around the traditional instruments and samples. Other songs on the album innovate upon traditional song forms, drawing attention to the fact that in an Indigenous worldview, “tradition” is allowed to be inventive and fluid. “Little Star,” which is a based on the drum beat of an Anishinaabe honour song flows into an interlude featuring that same honour song, juxtaposing traditional and modern iterations of the same piece. “The Unforgotten” roughly follows the form of a round dance, a popular intertribal event at many powwows. Round dances are one of the few dances that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous attendees are welcome to participate in, and dancers join hands to form a circle, demonstrating the equality and interconnectedness of all members. The meaning associated with the round dance song form reinforces the theme of the song, which calls for people from all walks of life to come together to fight against racism and colonialism.
Finally, while the album does incorporate political themes, it is more generally a celebration of Indigenous culture and teachings, and of iskwē’s identity as an Indigenous woman. The final track on the album, “Night Danger,” explores sensuality and passion, reminding listeners that not all music created by Indigenous artists needs to have political aims.
The final artist I will discuss in this paper is the Cree indie-rock band, nêhiyawak (pronounced neh-HEE-oh-wuk). The band is named after a common endonym for the Cree people from which all three members trace their ancestry. Their debut album, nipiy (“Water”), is a thoughtful and flowing ode to the kisiskâciwanisîpiy, or the North Saskatchewan River, which runs through the band’s home on Treaty 6 territory. The album’s opening and closing tracks “kisiskâciwanisîpiy pêyak” and “kisiskâciwanisîpiy nîso” “flow to the rhythm of water” and are timed to 90 beats-per-minute which is the average speed that the river flows. The band’s lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Kris Harper, explains, “in nehiyawewin [Cree], the word kisiskaciwanisipiy refers to [the river] flowing at a pace that you walk. And so, we wanted to find out what that pace was and to create songs that were at that pace for someone to listen to and consider where they're at.”
In addition to encouraging listeners to consider where they are in a contemplative sense, starting and ending the album with tracks inspired by a specific place situates the music on the land and invites listeners to reflect on the histories that land carries. For Indigenous people, land is a source of knowledge and identity that is central to every aspect of life, but settler-colonialism disrupted this relationship. Today, many Indigenous people continue to live disconnected from their traditional territories. By sonically establishing nipiy on their traditional territory, nêhiyawak is asserting that “they’ve been here, they are here, and they will always be here.”
Thematically, nipiy was inspired by the “Idle No More Movement” and tackles a wide range of topics including identity, addiction, and the residential school system. The song “Open Window” addresses the impact that the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop had on the erosion of Indigenous language and culture and begins with clips of the band member’s parents speaking in Cree. There was no agenda when recording these voice notes – rather, the band just wanted to provide their parents with the opportunity to say whatever they felt needed to be said. Their words fade away as Harper’s begin. His question, “And I often wondered what had happened / To those mother tongues that were all kept inside” is seemingly answered by his elders. Although the languages were kept inside for some time, they are now free to express whatever needs to be said.
nêhiyawak also engages in more subtle forms of colonial resistance. For all three members, the band is a deliberate attempt to challenge the bounds of what is considered “Indigenous music.” The trio defines their sound as “moccasingaze,” a playful take on the British post-punk genre, shoegaze. The label originally started as a way to poke fun at genre classification systems which categorize all music created by Indigenous artists under the umbrella term of “Indigenous music,” but it has since grown into something more. The band’s approach to music-making is rooted in their Cree worldview and draws from Indigenous influences and protocols. The band’s drummer, Marek Tyler, was able to seamlessly incorporate traditional drums into their punk arrangements and learning to care for and use the drums in a good way helped to inform the recording process.
The band is also careful to centre the Indigenous community in all that they do. For example, before playing in another town the band will reach out to local Indigenous groups and ask permission to perform as guests on their land. The band’s frontman, Harper, also opted to forgo attending the 2020 Juno Awards where the group was nominated for Indigenous Artist/Album of the year, and instead donated his allocated travel funds in support of the ongoing land disputes on Wetʼsuwetʼen territory.
Although the artists discussed in this paper do, for the most part, use their music for political purposes, it should be noted that music created by Indigenous artists is not inherently political. While white musicians are permitted the opportunity to transcend their culture in order to address whatever topics interests them, it is expected that Indigenous artists will always use their music for political or cultural ends. This colonial assumption places an unfair burden on Indigenous musicians and denies them the agency to define their own art. The music discussed in this paper was discussed through the lens of resistance and cultural reclamation only because the artists intended for it to have these goals.
It would also be inappropriate for me to conclude this paper without acknowledging how my positionality as a settler affects the way that I engage with this music. In December of 2018 I had the opportunity to attend one of Jeremy Dutcher’s performances in Guelph, Ontario. At the beginning of the show, he took a moment to acknowledge and address the Indigenous people in the crowd. In that moment I realized that while I was welcome in this space, it was not for me. This music was not for me. Garneau discusses the importance of these “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality” explaining that “while decolonization and Indigenization is collective work, it sometimes requires occasions of separation – moments where Indigenous people take space and time to work things out among themselves, and parallel moments when allies ought to do the same.”
In his book “Hungry Listening”, Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson writes that it is often easier for settlers to, “believe in the transformative power of such work [and] to allow the feelings of being transformed to satisfy, rather than to unsettle and engage with the enormous amount of work that must still be done.” While I can admit the emotional impact these works have had on me, my work cannot stop there. Reconciliation cannot be achieved through “transformative listening experiences,” land acknowledgements, or admissions of settler guilt. It is a lifelong process of unlearning, unsettling, and disrupting systems that were created to oppress. It is about entering into right relationships with Indigenous people and listening to what they have to say.
When accepting the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Jeremy Dutcher declared, “Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. Are you ready to hear the truth that needs to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?” Through their music, Dutcher, iskwē, and nêhiyawak are inviting us to come and witness their stories and to engage in their acts of resistance. All we have to do is listen.
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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).
 David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” in Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, ed. Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016).
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 Jeremy Dutcher, Eqpahak, Spotify, on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, 2018, 3:05, https://open.spotify.com/track/3uCKlvzqTRDefFXhmcQKZ3?si=NsZznNatT1ycbNtTD-cDkQ.
 Zaretski, “Jeremy Dutcher”.
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 Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011), 49.
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 Jordan Darville, “Jeremy Dutcher: ‘The Days of Internalised Colonialism Are Done!’” The Guardian, March 26, 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/mar/26/jeremy-dutcher-interview-canada-first-nation-indigenous-arias.
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 iskwē, “Breaking Down,” Spotify, on acācosīk, 2019, 3:17, https://open.spotify.com/track/3WRFAsvqjKQQGSRN8j3igk?si=7si8PFVzT4KglFsaZUuMQQ.
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 nêhiyawak, “Open Window,” Spotify, on nipiy, 2019, 3:30, https://open.spotify.com/track/1pgcdqWwSFBAvgl9hbgASx?si=ctoPqVUmR_C0pHEc9Ewi0g.
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 Timothy Taylor, “Some Versions of Difference: Discourses of Hybridity in Transnational Musics,” in Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, (Duke University Press, 2007), https://books.scholarsportal.info/en/read?id=/ ebooks/ebooks0/ duke/2012-10-25/1/9780822389972.
 Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces”.
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 CBC Music, “2018 Polaris Music Prize Winner! [SPOILERS],” September 18, 2018, video, 8:53, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIEHxNGJApA.