Cover of Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa | Image source: jeremydutcher.com
After winning last year’s Polaris Prize for his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Jeremy Dutcher has been nominated for this year’s Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. Growing up in the Wolastoq community of Tobique First Nation, he learned his language from his mother, who is a fluent speaker, and culture from Elder, Maggie Paul. Armed with traditional knowledge and language, Dutcher composed his stunning debut album in Wolastoq as a way to honour and preserve his language and culture. During his own busy touring schedule, Dutcher was able to catch up with MUSKRAT Magazine’s Erica Commanda to talk about where he wants to go next with his music and his Polaris Prize winning moment.
MM: When you won the Polaris Prize this year, you told the crowd that Canada was in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. What was that moment like for you?
JD: It was a big moment. It felt like the closing of a circle and the opening of another; this whole process of the album was a five year process, from the research, to the creation and the writing, to the recording. It was such a long journey to get there, then to be surrounded by my family and friends and the people I love, particularly my Elder, Maggie Paul. She was the one who initially told me about this archive, what this album is totally based on. To have her in the room that night, I was really just speaking to her this whole time. She’s the inspiration for my work and why I do what I do.
When I said those words, it wasn’t creating anything out of nothing. It was naming something that has been going on for a long time. Our artists and our thinkers are at the centre of how things are going to change. Louis Riel has this very famous quote that most people are probably familiar with: My people will sleep for 100 years, when they wake up it will be the artists that wake them up. Nothing could be truer. Look at people like Buffy Sainte Marie, Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red.
I’m weary to take any sort of credit for naming this renaissance, when it’s just a continuation of everything that has been going on for a very long time – I don’t think it’s the beginning. That’s why I used the word “midst”, this is not something new. Non-Indigenous Canadians are listening in a different way now, which is very exciting. We have been doing this for a very long time, even before colonization. It was just calling into existence something that has been here for a very long time.
MM: Your last album was a huge project for you, it took you five years to complete. How do you see yourself expanding from what you have already created?
JD: In terms of where I think I’m going. This project was really a story about archive and about taking back what’s ours. There was a richness to that archive and story that happened that I wanted to put into music and share. There are so many narratives that have not been heard in this country for a very long time. There are so many stories in our community that need to come out and be witnessed by everyone, especially when we are talking about things in our languages. There’s so many beautiful lessons and teachings in our language that can benefit everyone.
Did you read that UN Report about where we are at with Climate Change? It’s scary shit, for me there is no more time. We don’t have time to be divisive. We need to come together and work on this very important issue. What I’ve realised while doing this work is that when we talk about music, and when we come at these issues from an artistic standpoint, it’s so much easier for people who aren’t from our community and don’t have an entry point to start thinking about these issues. It allows them to connect with the stories and their meanings more than if I wrote a book. There’s just something about music and its sonic nature that cuts to peoples’ spirit. I just want to keep telling stories through music in order to create social change.
My Elder Maggie once told me, “My son, I’m so proud of you for this work, but there is so much to be done still. You got to teach the people how to love, they have forgotten how to love.” It’s her directive, as artists and young people there is so much knowledge within our older generation. They see the world in an expansive and inclusive way. It’s just about taking those ideas and messages from around me and letting that guide my work.
MM: As a classically trained tenor and composer you Indigenized classical music for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. What does cultural sharing look like to you?
JD: There’s an important power dynamic between this conversation. When I take the form of Euro-Western classical music and apply them to my Indigenous lens, I’m not putting into threat their classical music. I’m not taking space in a Euro-classical setting at the expense of Europeans, which is a fundamental difference when we start taking about non -Indigenous people taking up Indigenous narratives. For so long these stories and songs have been kept even from our own people. I was very intentional with this record, it’s totally in a Wolastoq – another language.
It’s exciting that these songs and this language can speak across cultural boundaries, that’s the beautiful thing about music. It connects into something very fundamental to humanity. I didn’t create this album for everyone, I made this for my people. Non-Indigenous folks are welcome to come and witness that. I’m weary to deny people that experience, people are always invited in to come witness, but I hope folks understand that given the history of what has happened in this country. This album is based on archival recordings from the early 1900’s. These songs were collected at a time when it was illegal for Indigenous people to share our songs and culture in public during the potlatch ban. In that context that we understand that we need to take these songs back and that they are for us, but please come and witness.
MM: You are a two-spirited Indigenous artist. Many nations have different variations of two-spirit teachings, can you talk about any two-spirit teachings that are specific to your community?
JD: At the baseline of that we need to acknowledge that pre-contact, two-spirit people were always a part of our community. They were not just accepted or tolerated, but given places of honour in our communities because they can see both ways at once. I have lots of amazing two-spirit friends across Turtle Island. On the east coast, I’ve realised because we’ve had contact with Europeans and the church for so long, we’ve lost a lot of those teachings around acceptance of gender or sexuality diversity that people on the west coast or in Anishinaabe territory have been able to maintain. It’s such a beautiful teaching and the more I understand the power of that duality perspective, the more I understand the importance of starting to dismantle the ideas that the church has pushed into our community.
It’s an important part of what I do and who I am. Certainly I’m not hiding it at all, so for me it’s about showing apologetically that two-spirit brilliance, that balance of spirit. I hate to be so idyllic about it. We can talk about our teachings and its importance for us to be honoured and actualized as queer people in our communities, but it negates the experience that a lot of Indigenous people have- those who are still in communities that are still Christianized and often not safe for our two-spirited people.
I was talking with a two-spirit Anishinaabe Elder in Northern Ontario, who was raised by her grandmother, so this was a long time ago. She said that when she was growing up and when travellers would come through their communities, one of the first questions they would ask is: Do you have a two-spirit person here? If your community was not blessed enough to have a two-spirit person among them, that person would keep travelling. That is where we need to be. These are lessons that need to come back because it’s a very old way. We think that gender acceptance and that acceptance of other sexualities other than hetero is a new thing. No! Are you kidding me? It’s something that has been a part of this land since the beginning. There is a lot of unlearning that needs to happen in our own communities. There’s a radical acceptance that we need to bring.
MM: What does, “music is changing this land” mean to you?
JD: I did not prepare any of that speech, it was a stream of consciousness. I think about what my spirit was saying at that time. I do think that the music that Indigenous people are making right now are speaking to a relationship with place and land, that it’s different than anything that has come before.
For example, picture going down the street with a non-Indigenous person and we see a tree. They just see a tree but I see my tree relative over there. I’m not going to cut down my cousin, it changes how I move through the world. Coming to understand the ethos and meaning behind music and words in our language changes how we think of the land and how we move through the world. Referring back to the UN report, we don’t have anymore time. There’s no other way than to honour this place that we call home.
I just hope that people come understand that the conversation that I’m trying to start right now is for everyone, even though it’s rooted in my language and my culture, this turning that needs to happen in our society right now is not only for the benefit of Indigenous people, it’s for the benefit of all. We are all sharing this experience on this earth. We need to do a little better at taking care of her.
For tour dates go to: https://jeremydutcher.com/tour/