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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Healing residential school heartbreak through song

BY Patrick Quinn Dec 7, 2021

Cree rock band Miigwin has been enjoying a resurgence this year. After a triumphant performance at Nomad Entertainment’s Empowwowment Festival in Whapmagoostui on October 28, they won the $10,000 first prize at the Nikamuusuu/Niimuusuu Kaschihuwin music competition in Mistissini on November 20. 

While the Nemaska group is known for their energetic live shows, frontman Reuben Wapachee has recently been attracting a new fan base for a more sombre song that addresses his feelings of anger and sadness upon hearing about the unmarked graves of 215 children found this past summer on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

“The title of the song was what I’d visualized when I was writing it,” Wapachee told the Nation. “I saw the grandma or mother standing by the shoreline just whispering Anjobweh Indwaseem, an expression of how you feel towards your child. I’m expressing for the mother of the child taken away, the father who didn’t know what was happening, the grandfather too, tears in his eyes, heartbroken and confused.”

Since the song was shared on social media in early November, it’s attracted more than a thousand views and has been shared over 80 times. The response has been immediate, with comments flooding in from listeners to share tearful reflections about their loved ones who are residential school survivors. 

Wapachee said the song came together gradually over a month earlier this year, helping him to process the difficult emotions that recent revelations have brought to so many. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. Wapachee was sent to the Mistassini Hostels for four years at a young age, which accommodated students attending a day school and are part of the federal residential school settlement agreement. 

“The part that I think hits most people in the song is when I sing about the people who never made it home,” said Wapachee. “Some people will cry but there’s healing in that. I’ll be honest – I haven’t been able to hold back my tears every time we do that song. I shed a few tears when doing it on Facebook on my own, but when we do it live, I have a hard time keeping my composure.”

Despite its painful subject matter, Wapachee has been getting booking requests ever since releasing Anjobweh Indwaseem, with people saying they’re coming to the show just to hear that song. When a non-acoustic version appears on the next Miigwin album, the band could be poised for its biggest hit since Bej Dabwetu back in 1996.

“That’s still being cranked up today, even by the younger generation,” said Wapachee. “In 1994, we went to a studio in Montreal and recorded two songs for a James Bay Cree compilation album which was released in 1996. One of them is still a hit today. It’s pretty amazing. Sometimes people listening to it are surprised when I’m there – ‘Hey, that’s that singer from 1996.’”

As the other original band members – Dominic Swallow, Ronnie Neeposh and David Wapachee – were only 14 or 15 in the early days of Miigwin, they required chaperones for that first recording session. Like many bands, they began in the early 1990s as teenagers rocking out in their homes, soon solidifying their lineup with Michel Cheezo on bass. 

“It started with three boys in a basement,” Wapachee recalled. “One day, I just happened to visit (Swallow’s) older brother and heard them. I went downstairs to go check, grabbed the mic and we went from there.”

Named after the Cree word for feather, “floating around everywhere” as their music aspires towards, Miigwin was inspired by local bands like the Northern Eagles, Chiistin, Blue Thunder and Kashtin. When they record their album in the new year, they plan to include covers from three influential Cree artists – Morley Loon, the late William Matthew and Kenny Mianscum. 

“The ones we want to put on the album are the ones that really inspired us,” Wapachee shared. “Back when we started, Kenny was basically the only one doing Cree songs. To hear Kenny and the older guys singing in Cree was what pushed us (to sing in Cree) – we have to hold on to this.”

After a good run in the 1990s, Miigwin went silent around the turn of the millennium for about 13 years. When Innu folksinger David Hart came to Nemaska, the guys dusted off their instruments to perform as his backing band and slowly started getting back into the swing of things.   

“We thought we should do this more often,” said Wapachee. “We realized we could still rock it. We basically started where we left off, with a lot of unfinished material. Now we’re making music all the time, basically sleeping with our guitars sometimes. It feels good to be back out there.”

While replacing original drummer David Wapachee was a challenge, James Wapachee Jr has become a natural fit. With future shows in the works back in Whapmagoostui, Eastmain and even out west, Miigwin try not to dwell on opportunities lost by their long hiatus. Considering their recent successes, it’s hard to argue that they’re exactly where they need to be at this moment. 

Miigwin’s performance of Anjobweh Indwaseem in Mistissini was made even more emotional when a young boy came right up to the stage. While this was a highlight for many in attendance, the moment had particular resonance for lead guitarist Dominic Swallow, who happens to be the boy’s cousin.

“I made so many mistakes with my children,” Swallow told the Nation. “The kid reminded me that my children and grandchildren are still here, and I can still give them the best I have left in me. I took it as the kid telling me, and everyone in the Cree Nation, that on behalf of all children and grandchildren of residential school survivors: ‘No one will take us away from you now. Don’t forget us. Live life with us – We Are Here.’”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.