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Indigenous Day ceremonies see a summer solstice cultural rebirth

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 1, 2021

After a long winter of curfews and quarantines, this year’s Indigenous Day celebrations felt particularly well deserved. It was also a bittersweet day, as many events across Canada took time to honour the recent discovery of unmarked graves at a Kamloops residential school. 

In Montreal, the summer solstice was an occasion to celebrate newfound freedom from pandemic restrictions with the annual Cabot Square concert. Thunderstorm warnings moved the proceedings to the nearby St. Jax church, an irony not lost on organizers on a day when two BC churches located on reserves were burned to the ground.

“There was a very long time when Indigenous people could definitely not perform in a space like this,” said co-presenter Sylvia Cloutier. “Just singing here in a church like this is reclaiming spaces that are ours too now.”

This year, the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) collaborated with Pop Montreal to present Jeremy Dutcher, Moe Clark, Shauit, Buffalo Hat Singers and others. Mohawk Elder Kevin Deer’s opening speech declaring this an era of “Indigenous spiritual resurrection” set the stage for a stream of talented performers proving exactly that.

“I’ve been smiling all day,” NWSM director Nakuset told the Nation. “That was better than I could have ever imagined. It was so nice having the hoop dancers [Scott Sinquah] from Arizona – it’s amazing to showcase that with all the powwows being cancelled.” 

Several performers expressed their joy to finally be playing for live audiences again. An especially emotional moment occurred during Moe Clark’s show, when throat singer Nina Segalowitz shared that she had been diagnosed with cancer in December.

“For Moe to share a song from my territory is very healing for me,” said Segalowitz. “Being on stage is seeing I’m winning the battle. For all of us going through a hard time, we will rise and be stronger every single day.”

As the sun overpowered the clouds, the audience was led outside for the day’s final performance. Most people removed their masks and sprawled on the churchyard’s long grass, squinting into sunlight like groggy polar bears emerging from extended hibernation. 

Accompanied only by his hand drum and the birds overhead, Jeremy Dutcher sang moving Wolastoqiyik traditional songs in the intimate setting. The operatically trained, Polaris- and Juno-award-winning musician considered it less a real performance than a return to his roots singing unplugged at ceremonies at his Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.

“I’ve never performed like that before,” admitted Dutcher. “Our Wolastoqiyik songs don’t always get to be expressed because I’m doing shows in big theatres. They give me a red piano and I have a band there. Sitting and making a simple performance felt powerful.”

It also served as a humble introduction to the city’s Indigenous community for Dutcher, who moved to Montreal just before the pandemic started, looking forward to immersing himself in its vibrant music scene. Instead, he’s been learning how to make sense of solitude, living alone for the first time while writing a book in his Nation’s language, studying French and walking the mountain. 

“It’s too bad we haven’t been able to gather,” Dutcher said. “Especially for Indigenous people, our gatherings are so important to community health, passing on those traditions and songs. We have a teaching among our people – ceremony is life itself.”

While outdoor shows sporadically occurred during last summer’s lull in Covid cases, live music certainly hasn’t been a priority for politicians and public-health experts navigating the pandemic’s unpredictable ebbs and flows. Perhaps its return will be greeted with renewed appreciation for its unique power to nurture spirits. 

“It’s so absurd we considered music non-essential in this time,” asserted Dutcher. “I might be a bit biased but for me music is one of the most essential things in life. It’s been relegated as an add-on we get if things are going well. No, that’s ridiculous – music is for all times.”

At the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s Indigenous Day Live broadcast the day before, many of Canada’s hottest Indigenous musicians were similarly preparing to relaunch their performing careers. If an artist’s role is speaker of truth and beacon of hope, it can be expected that society’s surreal turns will seep into their future music.  

“One of the things we had to deal with during the pandemic is isolation,” said Mattmac, a blind Oji-Cree songwriter, rapper and producer. “I talk a little about that in my music. A lot of time has been making beats on my computer, building up my catalogue. I would love to get on stage and do more live shows.”

Mattmac’s debut 20/20 took home the rap/electronica album of the year at the recent Summer Solstice Indigenous Music Awards. Another big winner was Silla & Rise, who won best Inuit group and best artistic video ahead of the release of their third album’s first single, “Pandemonium”.

“The song reflects every emotion that 2020 encapsulates,” said Charlotte Carleton, the band’s newest throat singer. “There’s been tears and so much energy put into this. Every element influences what we do – 2020 was a crazy year. ‘Pandemonium’ is the tip of the iceberg.”

Silla & Rise have called the chaotic track, which layers geese and seagull throat songs together, a “sonic comment on the state of the world at the time.” Isolation and injustice also influenced the new album from Snotty Nose Rez Kids, who released the “Something Else” video on Indigenous Peoples Day.

“At the beginning, we definitely took a dip creatively because we usually get our inspiration from going out and experiencing things, not being locked in the house for months,” shared Darren “Young D” Metz. “We’ve both been through so much this last year, whether it’s in our career or personal lives. Like everybody else, we’re not the same people coming out of the pandemic.”

Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce added that they’re channelling energy provoked by recent issues back into their music and are coming out of the pandemic firing. While they’ve adjusted to the new normal of playing for cameras in empty venues, they can’t wait for tour life to come back.

“It’s an understatement to say we’re excited,” said Metz. “We’re not going to take any of that for granted anymore. We’re going to enjoy every show like it’s our last and make the most of it.”

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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.