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Art Is Our Language: Inside the Indigenous Renaissance with Jeremy Dutcher and Snotty Nose Rez Kids
Photo: Ashlea Wessel
"I don't know what renaissance means. But the thought that I had when [Jeremy Dutcher] said that was, 'We are here. We need to deliver a message to the people. That's how I feel. And the message is love, the message is music. The message is we have been here ever since time began and we were here when you came. We welcomed you and we're still here today, and we're singing for you.'"
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Maggie Paul, a Passamaquoddy Elder living in St. Mary's, NB, is speaking over the phone about Jeremy Dutcher's triumphant moment winning the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Paul is a beloved knowledge keeper in the Atlantic First Nations community, and she's known — and mentored — Dutcher since he was a child.
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"You can't talk about Indigenous music in the East coast without talking to Maggie Paul," Dutcher says. "It just doesn't make sense."
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Paul was present that night when Dutcher took to the stage and 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?"
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Also in attendance at the Polaris gala that were the short-listed Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a Vancouver-based hip-hop duo that proudly represent the Haisla Nation. Darren "Young D" Metz of the duo says that the Polaris experience was "a bit surreal. We released The Average Savage almost exactly a year before the Polaris happened. So it was almost like everything coming together full circle."
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Quinton "Yung Trybez" Nyce, the other half of the duo adds that "We always used to dream of being on stages like that, watching the BET awards, watching Kendrick Lamar do his thing and really seeing all these artists bringing everything to the table and put it all out on the stage. We were able to do that with the Polaris Prize by getting the Dakhká Khwáan dance group up there and really being able to showcase what we are as West coast artists."
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When asked what Dutcher's winning moment declaration of the "Indigenous Renaissance" was like for the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Metz shares that "it definitely made me feel like it's an unforgettable moment in Canadian music history. Because even though we came up short, like Trybez said, we still had that strong sense of pride. It kind of feels like when one of us win it, we all win it. Emotions were overflowing that night. Good emotions!" (The Polaris Music Prize was awarded to Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq in 2014; Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie won in 2015; Columbian-Canadian Lido Pimienta won in 2017; and Ottawa-based Indigenous collective A Tribe Called Red were shortlisted for the Prize in 2013 and 2017.)
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That sense of pride can be hard-won for Indigenous youth growing up experiencing the weight of Canada's colonial baggage. Nyce explains that Dutcher's win "made me feel super proud to be who we are. It wasn't until a few years ago that we were actually truly proud to be First Nations. Because growing up in Kitimat [BC], where we're from, there was a lot of racism thrown our way and them trying to make us hate ourselves. And so in that moment I felt so much pride and so much happiness for who I am and for who we are. That was really empowering to see Jeremy get up there and talk about that."
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Within Indigenous communities across Canada, visibility of Indigenous arts and positive representation can be a powerful antidote for Indigenous youth to process their experiences of racism. Dutcher talks about how his mother intentionally sought to provide her children with strong Indigenous role models, both within their own community and looking to Indigenous artists on a national scale.
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When asked to contextualize his coining of the "Indigenous Renaissance," Jeremy Dutcher clarifies that it was an impromptu phrase, not a prepared speech, and that "this is nothing new, but a continuum of artistic Indigenous excellence. This is something that I was immersed in growing up. My mother was very, very intentional in ensuring we had a lot of role models around. I think I probably wore out a Buffy Sainte-Marie CD, just because we listened to it every car ride. And so for me it was normal to see our people as artistic creators and having something to say."
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Responding to some critique following the Polaris Prize that the Renaissance is meant to refer to a specific period in European art history, Dutcher contextualizes that "Renaissance is a tough word, with colonial baggage. But what is at the centre of that word is that across every genre — whether it's writing or visual arts or music — our people, and I mean this inclusively, capital-I Indigenous people, are creating important pieces of work that are speaking to very important truths in this country. And I think that just to name it and say what it is, is important. And I think that the media is picking up on it, and covering something that hasn't been part of the discourse."
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Maggie Paul has seen generations of Indigenous people in the Wabanaki Confederacy on the East coast work diligently toward this moment of cultural restoration and Indigenous artistic excellence. This happened concurrently and collaboratively across Turtle Island as Indigenous nations across the continent worked to restore artistic, political, and cultural sovereignty, and this work continues today. In the 1970s, Paul's husband traveled to northern Ontario with a group of Wolastoq and Mi'kmaq men to learn from the late Anishinaabe elder Art Solomon-iban to re-learn how to make the large powwow drum.
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Paul emphasizes that "What I wanted was our ancestors needing to hear the music. Because a long time ago they thought they would never hear it again, when the boats started coming over, the white people. We weren't allowed to sing or do any of our ceremonies, so our songs went under too. Some of the songs, the Anishinaabe took them with them to save them. Some of the songs we now sing, have been rescued. Even if we didn't have any tapes, the ancestors would have come through anyways. Some songs are coming through our dreams, our ancestors are reminding us to sing." In Anishinaabeg and Wabanaki oral histories, the two confederacies once shared territories along the Atlantic seaboard but the Anishinaabeg moved inland to the Great Lakes region prior to European contact.
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In a moment of reciprocity between two Indigenous nations, Art Solomon-iban had been waiting for the opportunity to share drum-making teachings with Eastern nations. With the drum restored, the Wolastoq people continued a process of reclamation, hosting powwows, teaching songs to youth, and restoring ceremonial practices such as the sweat lodge ceremony.
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Two generations later, Dutcher continues the momentum of this work started by Paul and her elders, receiving her encouragement and direction to visit the archives and study his ancestors' songs recorded onto wax cylinder by an early anthropologist. Paul emphasizes that in her community "we've been asking for young folks! Somebody told me to go sing with those kids. They need to take over, let them sing themselves! I still sing you know. I think I'll never stop singing."
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As part of Dutcher's undergraduate music studies at Dalhousie University he began researching Wolastoq music, and returned to Paul to assist with his research. Paul was aware of the Wolastoq language wax cylinder recordings stored at the Museum of History in Ottawa, and urged Dutcher to go to the source.
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"[Maggie Paul] said if you're really interested in these songs, you can't stay around here. I came to realize later was that a lot of the song-making that was happening in our community at the time, was actually not in our music. It was music coming from elsewhere, from neighbouring communities, stuff that wasn't in our language, it was stuff that was proliferated through things like powwow culture. You know, stuff that isn't of us, but stood in as a placeholder. Because especially on the East coast, when you think about it, this is the first point of contact. We've had the longest point of contact and cultural friction. That is putting it delicately. So much to say that we lost a lot. What Maggie, in our conversation, was trying to signal to me, if you want to know what was happening here, in our language that comes from this land, you need to go to the museum."
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This trip to the museum archives became foundational for Dutcher's Polaris-winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, but Dutcher is adamant that "it was never part of my intention to go to the museum and write an album. It was simply to go and to witness, to sit down and see what there was. But of course, once I heard it and came in contact with it, it was sort of an immense sense of responsibility to go and share it with people, to get it back to the community."
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Having regional representation in the Indigenous music scene is important for Snotty Nose Rez Kids, who both grew up in Kitimat in northern British Columbia. Nyce acknowledges that "we always grew up watching A Tribe Called Red bringing out powwow dancers and stuff like that, and listening to their sound, which is all East coast-influenced. With that stuff all coming into place, we really wanted to put our peoples out on stage, and put West coast regalia on a stage like that."
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Moving forward, the duo are continuing the spirit of their collaboration with the Dakhká Khwáan dance group and have commissioned regalia from Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney and custom carved masks from Kwakwaka'wakw artist Edwin Neel that will be incorporated into their everyday sets.
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When asked about the Indigenous Renaissance, Nyce hesitates and shares the sentiment that there's a long history to this moment of mainstream recognition. "I dunno. Our people have always been artistic people, as you obviously know. First Nations people are people of oral traditions, so we create art whether that be totem poles, masks or paintings. Our art is our written language. It's a written language to us. It's always been there you know? Creating art has always been a way for us to tell our stories. So as far as the renaissance goes, for me I wouldn't technically call it a rebirth, it's more of a re-awakening, because our people were silenced and held back from our potential by the Canadian government and the society that we live in. And if you think about it, our album that was nominated for the Polaris Prize speaks exactly to that."
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The enthusiasm that Maggie Paul expresses for this current wave of Indigenous music is palpable.
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"'Renaissance' - Yes! We've always been like that! Since time began, we were always like that. And now it's, would you say it's a renaissance? Yeah, it's almost like an explosion, but an explosion of happiness. […] They're like fireworks! When you see them it's so beautiful, and it's so intense and it's beautiful."
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Melody McKiver is an Anishinaabe musician and writer who has performed with artists including Jeremy Dutcher, Lido Pimienta and Tanya Tagaq, and has an MA in Ethnomusicology.
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