A nominee’s allegations of cultural appropriation have rocked the production of this year’s Indigenous Music Awards. Several Inuit artists have withdrawn their music from the awards gala in protest over the inclusion of an album by an Alberta Plains Cree artist in which the singer allegedly performs a version of Inuit throat singing.
Nehiyaw singer Connie LeGrande – aka Cikwes – is nominated in the best folk album category for her album Isko, but the Inuit artists says she appropriated their cultural expression in her music.
A collective of Inuit performers and fellow nominees, including throat singers Tanya Tagaq, Kelly Fraser, Iva and duo Piqsiq, announced on Twitter that they were withdrawing their music from the ceremony in protest. This was after two months of private conversations between them, LeGrande and the Manito Ahbee Festival – which organizes the IMA – ended in an impasse.
Some non-Inuk artists, such as Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red, also pulled their music from the awards in solidarity.
“Due to issues surrounding cultural appropriation,” Tagaq tweeted on March 31, “I will not be performing at, attending, nor submitting my work to the @IMAs unless they revise their policies or have Inuit representation on the board for consultation.”
Other artists followed suit in the following days, and the group took on the name of The Arnaqquasaaq Collective. Arnaqquasaaq means “the unabiding woman” in Inuktitut.
The collective takes issue with what they say is LeGrande’s failure to acknowledge the history and importance of throat-singing in Inuit culture.
Traditional throat singing, or katajjaq in Inuktitut, is a musical performance and competition originally practiced by Inuk women while the men were away on hunting trips. It consists of two women singing in a close face-to-face formation. One singer leads by breathing in and out, and setting a short rhythmic pattern of sounds. She repeats the pattern, leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition, and the other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. The first to run out of breath or to lose the pace of the other singer is eliminated from the game.
The sounds used include both voiced and unvoiced sounds, and are made up of words or fragments of words, names of places or people, or imitations of sounds from nature.
Montreal-based throat-singer Nina Segalowitz describes the practice as a way of reconnecting to her Inuit roots after she was taken from her birth family as part of the Sixties Scoop.
“It’s a way to heal and a way to reconnect with where I come from,” Segalowitz said. “And it’s a way to reaffirm myself as an Inuit woman.”
Segalowitz, who is half-Dene and half-Inuvialuit, says the present controversy stems from a lack of understanding of the differences between First Nations and Inuit traditions.
“Within the First Nations community and the Métis community, we’ve had time to develop a language to help protect, and to help stop the cultural appropriation of our ceremonies and our songs and our artifacts and our traditions,” she explained.
With the Inuit, it’s quite different, she added. “As of yet, we do not have language like ‘protocol’, or ‘sacred’, as a way to explain or relay that importance of keeping a tradition within the community.”
The art of throat-singing is traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, or from aunt to niece. In her case, Segalowitz and fellow throat-singer Taqralik Partridge travelled to the Northwest Territories to learn from Elder Evie Mark.
About the possibility of non-Inuk artists performing traditional Inuit throat-singing, she said, “It’s not on the table, because the Elders who have taught us say that it’s not on the table. And whatever our Elders say should be respected.”
In an interview with the Toronto Star, LeGrande defended her use of throat singing in her music.
“What I do is not Inuit throat singing,” she told the paper. “I have put my own expression and my own sounds because I don’t know their sounds.”
In response to that claim, members of the Arnaqquasaaq Collective pointed to earlier posts on social media by LeGrande in which she claims to have taught herself throat-singing techniques by listening to recordings by Tagaq.
LeGrande’s profile for Cikwes on the IMA website cites her musical background as “rooted in Woodland Cree traditions, with creative influences ranging from throat singing, jazz, soul, R&B and reggae.”
Then the description adds, “Her style of throat singing and chanting celebrates the Matriarch, with a raw powerful and sexual presence.”
In addition to the claims of cultural appropriation, the Arnaqquasaaq Collective also take issue with the lack of Inuit representation on the board of governors for the Manito Ahbee Festival, which they believe would have helped prevent the controversy.
“In issues concerning Inuit, Inuit voices must be heard,” Kayley Mackay, of the throat-singing duo Piqsiq, tweeted. “No decisions about us without us, please.”
In an April 2 statement, the Manito Ahbee Festival said its nomination of Cikwes in the Best Folk category would stand based on the IMA’s current rules and regulations.
“The Manito Ahbee Festival and the Indigenous Music Awards welcome open dialogue and perspectives from all communities and artists regarding our programming and procedures,” the festival stated.
“We have been presented with a very difficult task, to decide if an individual artist is overstepping creative boundaries that some feel is not her right. We don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way, to ensure that we as Indigenous people uphold our teachings, and do not provide a platform for negativity and separation.”
Organizers have also promised to add an Inuit member to the board at its next annual general meeting, and to develop a policy on cultural appropriation for all artists submitting to the IMA.
For throat-singers like Segalowitz, however, these actions offer little comfort.
“It shouldn’t be an afterthought, or a kneejerk reaction to this controversy,” she said. “It speaks a lot to how they see Inuit people – as an afterthought.”
Despite the controversy, Segalowitz is optimistic, however. “I think that when there’s an event where a lot of people are talking, and having discussions over an issue, it is a catalyst for change within the Inuit community,” she said.