ENLG 332 Playlist: Indigenous Music and Literature

Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. For Indigenous communities in Canada, music can be a healing balm and it is essential to cultural, spiritual, and communal beliefs and daily practices. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist and my ENGL 125 playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 332 course focused on Indigenous literature and media with a particular focus on artists living on Turtle Island. Indigenous music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. I hope you enjoy the music and please do let me know if you have any musical recommendations to add.


Week 1: Willie Dunn, “I Pity the Country” (1973) and Native North America
Week 2: Three Songs from Buffy-Sainte Marie
Week 3: Bebe Buckskin, “Muddy Tracks” and “Muskeg Blues” (2020)
Week 4: A Tribe Called Red/ The Halluci Nation, Four Songs
Week 5: Jeremy Dutcher, “Mehcinut” and “Ultestakon”
Week 7: Kinnie Starr feat Ja$e ElNino, “Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters”

Week 1: Willie Dunn, “I Pity the Country” (1973) and Native North America

“I pity the country / I pity the state / And the mind of a man / Who thrives on hate”

—Willie Dunn

There is so much fantastic Indigenous music in Canada and we are in the midst of an Indigenous resurgence and renaissance in music, art, literature, and film. That said, Indigenous creators have been part of popular music since its early days even though much of the music has been forgotten by mainstream Canadians. A good example of this is the remarkable collection, Native North America (vol. 1) by Light in the Attic. The collections features music from the Indigenous peoples of Canada, recorded in the turbulent period between 1966 to 1985. The genres are far ranging, and the compilation showcases Indigenous folk, rock, and country. It is criminal that much of this music remained unheard to modern audiences and the music deserves more than preservation—it merits many repeated close listenings and appreciation. Given the current climate crises, and the need for social revolution around Indigenous issues in Canada, the music is essential and urgent. 

I’ve added a number of songs from the collection to the Spotify playlist, and I want to draw your attention to “I Pity the Country” by Mi’kmaq/Scottish/Irish Canadian artist Willie Dunn, which opens the collection. Writing for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner describes the politics and personal verve of Dunn’s song: “The impression is one of forced isolation, as though society has stripped away every refuge that might comfort the singer – except music, that is. It’s a startling opener to the comp, especially since Dunn’s steadfast voice conveys resignation more than anger. He’s not fighting the system, but pitying the sad men who perpetuate their own unhappiness.” Have a listen to this song and the few others I’ve posted to the playlist, but I can’t recommend the entire collection enough. 

Week 2: Three Songs from Buffy-Sainte Marie

We are circling
Circling together
We are singing
Singing our heart song
This is family, this is unity
This is celebration, this is sacred.

—We Are Circling 

I’ve added three songs to the Spotify playlist from Indigenous folk trailblazer, Buffy Sainte-Marie. Sainte-Marie was a major part of the 1960’s Canadian folk and rock scene along with artists like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Her 1964 anti-war song “Universal Solider” gained her attention beyond the folk circuit. The other songs I’ve included are from her 2015 album, Power in the Blood. Sainte-Marie continues to reinvent herself and push her music in new directions, as evidenced on the anthemic title track, “Power in the Blood.” In the song, she tackles everything from the environmental crisis, biotechnology, and the perpetual drums of war. The other song, “We Are Circling,” is Sainte-Marie’s riffing on an “old hippy campfire song. It encapsulates [her] philosophy of Life: that we’re all ripening, all the time everywhere, and that’s good” (from her website). I had the chance to see Buffy-Sainte Marie in Nanaimo back in 2016 and urge you to do the same if you ever get the chance. Check out the video for “Power in the Blood” and head over to the playlist to hear the other two songs. 

Week 3: Bebe Buckskin, “Muddy Tracks” and “Muskeg Blues”

Given that Green Grass, Running Water takes place in the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta, I thought it makes sense to feature an up-and-coming Indigenous artist from Alberta. I’ve chosen two songs from Nêhiyaw singer, songwriter, and matriarch, Bebe Buckskin. Given that the “interfusional”—the mixing of writing and orality—is a big part of King’s approach, Buckskin’s music also feels appropriate as she fuses rhythm & blues, classic rock, and soulful roots. Check out videos below for “Muddy Tracks” and “Muskeg Blues.” Both songs have also been added to the Spotify playlist.

Week 4: A Tribe Called Red/ The Halluci Nation 

“After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact that we are here today is a political statement. As First Nations peoples everything we do is political.”

(Liner notes, Nation II Nation). 

A Tribe Called Red consists of three Indigenous DJ-producers: DJ Shub (Cayuga, Six Nations), DJ NDN (Ojibway, Nipissing First Nation), and Bear Witness (Cayuga, Six Nations). The group’s music has been described as “powwow-step”, a style of contemporary powwow music for urban First Nations in the dance club scene; popularized by the media as a description of the band’s unique style, the term originated as the title of one of the band’s own earliest singles. Their music mixes electronic dance music, hip-hop, and traditional Indigenous singing and drumming. Given our current text, Green Grass, Running Water , focuses on the importance of the past within the present moment and what it means to be Indigenous now, the Sun Dance (and the importance of regalia and ceremony), I felt the group’s music was a good representation of cultural resurgence through music. Through traditional chant, we see how the past is incorporated into a modern medium: dance music. I’ve added a few songs that demonstrate their unique sound, as well as one song from DJ Shub who has since branched off on his own: “Electronic Pow Wow Drum,” Stadium Pow Wow,” “Sisters” and “Indomitable.” 

Below are videos for “Stadium Pow Wow” featuring Black Bear and DJ Shub’s “Indomitable,” which was shot at the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow in Haudenosaunee territory. Turn these ones up! 

Week 5: Jeremy Dutcher, “Mehcinut” and “Ultestakon”

There is such incredible Indigenous music coming out of Canada/ Turtle Island. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is the debut album by Jeremy Dutcher and it won the 2018 Polaris Prize. During his studies at Dalhousie University, Jeremy Dutcher, a classically trained opera singer and musicologist of Wolastoqiyik descent, began working with the wax cylinder recordings of traditional Wolastoqiyik songs. Dutcher reworked these songs and even sampled some of the original wax cylinder recordings. The cover art recalls the singer being recorded while the back cover shows the sitting position of the anthropologist. Like Thomas King, Dutcher reminds us about the importance of the past while finding a way to bring the stories into the present. It’s an absolutely stunning album. Listen to “Mehcinut” and “Ultestakon” on the Spotify playlist and see the beautiful video for “Mehcinut” below. I’ve also posted a video with and about Jeremy Dutcher’s Juno acceptance speech. In it, the Arkells demonstrate what being a good ally and holding space looks like. 

Week 7: Kinnie Starr feat Ja$e ElNino, “Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters”

This week we are looking at Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga, which in some ways is a prequel to Yahgulanaas’ critically revered Red.  Check out this very cool video (also below) that goes over the process of putting Red together with music from Cris Derksen (a two two-spirit Juno Award–nominated Cree cellist from Northern Alberta, Canada). Given the focus this week is on Haida Gwaii (in both our reading and viewing), I thought it makes sense to feature something about Haida Gwaii. The song, “Save Our Waters” features Mohawk (and French, German, and Irish) singer/rapper Kinnie Starr and Haida rapper, Ja$e ElNino. As stated by the director, Amanda Strong, on her YouTube page, “Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters tells the story of what happens when Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempts to take the Bitumen Valdez Super Tanker around Haida Gwaii and up the Douglas Channel. Watch Raven Hair and Moss Head as they confront the Prime Minister in this new anti-pipeline and anti-tanker Haidawood (Gwaai Edenshaw, Jaalen Edenshaw, Ken Raj Leslie) animation.” Given Carpe Fin deals with a fuel spill that has contaminated the marine foods the village was preparing to harvest, the song feels as pertinent as it did in 2014, even though we have a new Prime Minister at the helm. 

Cover Photo: A Tribe Called Red by Falling Tree Photograph