With vulnerability and bravery, Jordan Abel mines his past in relation to Canada’s legacy of colonialism and residential schools to ask difficult questions about Indigeneity and Canada that don’t always have clear answers. Framing his project (the book grew out of his doctoral thesis) in relation to “research creation”—an innovative form of cultural analysis that troubles the book or thesis—Abel takes an innovative approach to addressing what it means to be dispossessed and disenfranchised as an Indigenous person. Abel is known for his concrete and conceptual poetry—The Place of Scraps won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Injun won the Griffin Poetry Prize—and NISHGA applies his same creative skill to rework the memoir into something wholly unique, mixing and remixing art, legal documents, personal narrative, photography, transcriptions of talks, and concrete poetry. The book opens and closes with “An Open Letter to All My Relations.” These letters invite readers into a space of healing and prepare them for the painful subjects of “intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession, and the afterlife of Residential schools.” While these are difficult subjects to write about, especially from Abel’s subjectivity as an intergenerational survivor of residential schools, as well as his dislocation from his Nishga’a community, he does so with a level of deftness and care that makes the book essential reading for everyone living on Turtle Island.
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 coursefocused 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
“I pity the country / I pity the state / And the mind of a man / Who thrives on hate”
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 Spotifyplaylist.
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 Spotifyplaylist 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.
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.
Week 8: Hip-Hop Rez Life: War Party and Snotty Nose Rez Kids
I want to focus on two Indigenous hip-hop groups this week. The first is War Party whose first album, The Reign, put Indigenous rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song “Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major Indigenous Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the then de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing life on the reserve: it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization. By transforming the reserve into a place of power that yields activism and opportunity, War Party spotlights reserve life to raise awareness for an area that has been marginalized from mainstream society.
There are now so many important Indigenous artists making politically charged music in Canada, but it’s been incredible to watch the rise of Haisla Nation duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Given we are now reading Monkey Beach, it makes sense to feature a group from Eden Robinson’s hometown. Their latest, Trapline, is full of deft lyricism, unique beats that mix classic hip-hop with trap, and raw truths. They have so many excellent songs and videos and so I’ve featured a number of their videos below and on the Spotifyplaylist. Skoden!
Week 9: Mob Bounce, “Vision Quest”
I wanted to include another Indigenous hip-hop group from BC, and decided to focus on the group, Mob Bounce. Mob Bounce is Craig Frank Edes, aka The Northwest Kid (Gitxsan), and Travis Hebert, aka EarthChild (Cree/Metis). They deliver passionate and soulful hip hop music that blends acoustics and electronics with elements of Indigenous cultures. Since 2015, Mob Bounce has focused heavily on creating social and environmental awareness through the arts by leading workshops and youth dances to help youth explore their cultural identity. I’ve included a short video about the group and have chosen their song, “Vision Quest,” which fits well with some of the themes around spiritual awakening and the quest for social justice and truth that we see in Monkey Beach.
Week 10: Leanne Simpson, Selected Music and Poetry
This week in class we are listening to and reading the poetry and theory of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Simpson is a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, who has been widely recognized as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation. Her work breaks open the intersections between politics, story, and song—bringing audiences into a rich and layered world of sound, light, and sovereign creativity. Her poetry collection Islands of Decolonial Love features collaborative recordings of a number of the poems, and I urge you to download them and give them a listen. Also, you can listen to a narrated version (read by Tantoo Cardinal on Spotify). The collection of poems is largely a balm for colonial wounds and the title—adapted from the words of writer Junot Díaz—speaks to the radical capacity of love and justice in relation to Indigenous sovereignty and relationships. I am reminded of a quote from the scholar bell hooks, “Without justice there can be no love” (All About Love 30). Simpson confronts colonial violence throughout her text, stating in “buffalo on,” “let’s admit we’re both from places that have been fucked up through no fault of our own in a thousand different ways for seven different generations and that takes a toll on how we treat each other. it just does” (85). On the next page she reminds us that what people are looking for is “acceptance, intimacy, connection and love.” Her poetics are endued with a sense of urgency and she speaks of Indigenous resilience and resurgence with the hope of finding healing.
Teaching a text like this reminds me as an educator to embrace pedagogies rooted in the practices of decolonization. When possible, this involves using sharing circles in class, having assignments that function as critical interventions, and allowing space for divergent viewpoints, provided they are not harmful. This also means allowing space for Indigenous theories of interpretation. The hope is to foster classroom spaces that challenge the colonization that affects us all, whether we are aware of it or not. I think it is paramount to make space in the classroom for the kind of theory that “isn’t just an intellectual pursuit,” but is, as Leanne Simpson describes in her essay, “Land as Pedagogy,” “woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational” (7). The challenge is to find alternatives to the Settler society model in place. Such a truly multicultural space must involve cocreative and interrelational ethics with others.
Beyond the link to the poems, I want to share a few of her music videos as well.
First up are two songs from her album, F(l)ight (2016).
“How to Steal A Canoe” tells the story of a young Nishnaabeg woman and an old Nishnaabeg man rescuing a canoe from a museum and returning it to the lake it was meant to be with.
“Under Your Always Light” is directed by Elle Máijá Tailfeathers and is filmed at The Nanaimo Boxing Club (how cool is that!?). The video features Ivy Richardson (Gusgimukw and Nuxalk Nation) who is the founder of Red Girl Rising.
Simpson’s latest book is Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (2020), and I thought it worth sharing an immersive reading from the work. The video is really cool, and her reading takes place over a wintery soundscape of drone and vocal composed by her sister Ansley Simpson, brought to life with visuals from Sammy Chien of Chimerik似不像, an interdisciplinary collective of performance, art & technology.
Lastly, on her latest album she covers Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country,” which is the first song on this semester’s playlist.
I hope you enjoy her music and poetry.
Week 11: Selected Poems
This week we are working our way through the selected poems in the Indigenous Poetry Reader. Last week we looked at the poetry and theory of Leanne Simpson and this week we go back to earlier works such as Chief Dan George’s 1967 Centennial Speech, “A Lament for Confederation” (1967). We also look at contemporary award-winning poets like Katherena Vermette, Jordan Abel, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Joshua Whitehead. Indigenous poets are producing some of the most innovative and exciting poetry in Canada, and the recordings below demonstrate this.
Firstly, it makes sense to begin with Chief Dan George’s 1967 Centennial Speech. This was delivered nearly 54 years ago. Has anything changed?
Case in point, Métis poet Gregory Scofield details the violence Indigenous women face— his aunt was murdered in 1998—in his powerful poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars.” See the video for the poem, here.
In terms of innovative poetry, there are few poets taking the kinds of risks that Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel is taking with his conceptual poetry. Injun is built from a single Word document that is comprised of ninety-one Western novels in the public domain that were published between 1840 and 1950. Using his computer’s find function (CTRL+F), Jordan describes how he searched the source text for the word “injun”: “a query that returned 509 results. After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 23 print pages. I then cut up each page into three-to-five-word clusters.” His work combines digital and analogue processes), as he describes how he sometimes would “cut up a page without looking,” while at other times he would “rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Rather than a standardized reading of Injun—if such could even be possible—Jordan manipulates and remixes his own vocal recordings of the poem through an Akai APC mini, a laptop, and Ableton Live. For a typical DJ, the APC pads would trigger drums and other samples, but Jordan uses it to trigger his recorded voice in real time in a way that speaks to how the poem functions on the page, bending, elongating, and echoing words in a polyphonic mashup that, at times, breaks down words into phonemes and pure sound. The experience of listening to the work—with the volume level way up—is often described by listeners as deeply uncomfortable, but one that speaks to the experience of Indigeneity and the textured layers of racism in the Western genre.
The last poem, “Love and Heartbreak are Fuck Buddies,” is from Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation) whose 2018 collection, This Wound is a World won the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, which is Canada’s top poetry prize (Abel won it also in 2017). The work of Belcourt (and Joshua Whitehead who is also included in the collection) open up more space for grief, queer sexuality, and decolonial love.
I hope you enjoy these poems and the ones in the reader.
Week 12: Gord Downie, The Secret Path
The Secret Path is the fifth studio album by Gord Downie (The Tragically Hip) and the final album released during his lifetime. Released on October 18, 2016, the project is a concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from an Indian residential school. All proceeds from the album and book (the album goes along with a graphic novel and video from illustrator Jeff Lemire) being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for the Truth and Reconciliation project. There is also a Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund. I think it’s a powerful and sensitive reflection on the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack and Jeff Lemire’s illustrations work well with the music. While it is a powerful work, it is important to acknowledge that it is a work created by two white men.
I’ve included one of the videos from the album, “The Stranger,” as well as the full album that details the genesis of the project and includes an all-Indigenous panel discussing the album in relation to reconciliation. If you have time, it is worth viewing the entire video. The panel discussion begins at 59:45.
Week 13: Week 13: Tanya Tagaq’s Innovative Music
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer, a cappella artist, songwriter, novelist, and visual artist, from Cambridge Bay (Ikaluktuutiak), Nunavut, Canada, on the south coast of Victoria Island. While studying visual arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design she developed her unique solo form of Inuit throat singing, which is normally done by two women. Tanya Tagaq might be the only “pop” artist to combine free improvisation with Inuit throat singing. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times describes, “[Tagaq] made it (Inuit throat singing) sound fiercely contemporary, futuristic even. Recalling animal noises and various other nature sounds, she was a dynamo, delivering a sort of gothic sound art while she stalked the small basement stage with feral energy.” Her album Animism won the prestigious Polaris Prize and her first novel, Split Tooth, was longlisted for the Giller Prize. If you want to learn how to throat sing, Tagaq, in jest, suggests you spend one year trying to sound like your dog. Her live Polaris performance from 2014 is very intense and addresses the issues of missing and murdered women with their names going across a screen in the background. She shows incredible range, reworking alternative songs like The Pixies “Caribou” (on the Spotifyplaylist) or making mesmerizing songs like “Snowblind” (below). I hope you enjoy her music and seek out more of it.
Week 14: Cris Derksen: Two Songs and a Performance
I am closing out the Spotifyplaylist with the powerful music of Cris Derksen. Derksen is a two-spirit Cree cellist whose music is described as “electronic cello” and it fuses traditional Indigenous music with fusion and classical music. “Round Dance” is composed in relation to traditional powwow music forms and features the powwow group, Northern Voice. I’ve also added the beautiful “We Danced Movement I” to the playlist. Her music makes for great music to write to as you finish up your papers for this class. I’ve also enjoyed watching her live performances from her living room and I’ve included her performance from the virtual cabaret Queer Pride Inside below. I hope you enjoyed the music from the playlist for this course and discovered some new artists in the process.
Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a devastatingly beautiful novel that depicts the bonds between the women of an extended Indigenous family. With warp and weft, Vermette weaves together the voices of numerous intergenerational women to tell their personal stories as they deal with the enduring after-effects of trauma. The prose is sparse, yet dense (“Stella blinks a tear”), as the narrative takes a bare-knuckles approach to cut a jagged truth. Like her stunning poetic debut, North End Love Songs (2012), The Break deftly crafts Vermette’s complex relationship to Winnipeg’s North End. A surface reading concerns the mystery surrounding the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old Métis girl vis-à-vis the police procedural that unfolds as a result of the crime: “Aboriginal female. Blood loss. Signs of sexual assault.” But the novel is far more complex than this, using numerous viewpoints to reveal the complicated sociopolitical conditions that produce violence and racism, and that cause harm to people, especially women, in Indigenous communities.
Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.
I was fortunate to take part in recording and mixing the audio portion of Marlene Rice’s (Hwiem’) “The Gathering of Nations” Anthem at VIU’s Cowichan campus. The video work is done by my colleague Jay Ruzesky in the Creative Writing department. It is a song that welcomes students to learn and it is performed in the Hul’qumi’num language. As Marlene Rice puts it:
This song teaches us respect for our family and our friends. It says “speak your mind, and keep your mind strong.” Our communities want to bring our generations together. We need to always think about the elders of the past and the teachings they provide and bring to the present day that will give strength to our youth. We can take a look at our young people and look at the elders of the past and form a vision of bringing them together so they can survive in this world.