Growing up, I was raised on the powwow trail with my mother (and later on, my step-father) who were both singers in a drum group called Whitetail Cree. I grew up dancing, while my mother was the back-up singer for Whitetail Cree. Our ancestral style of singing that continues to be practiced in contemporary powwow songs, played a huge role in my upbringing. On the powwow trail, there was a sense of community, belonging and a collective experience on what it means to be First Nations both within Canada and across Turtle Island (formally known as North America). Singing and songs, hold various stories, meanings and connections within them.
I was thrilled when The High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom approached me to write a piece about the Honour Song series. It is a modern pathway to bring light to grassroots First Nation, Inuit and Métis perspectives and the way Indigenous peoples connect to ancestral cultural practices while also expressing contemporary realities. Not to mention it features some of my own personal favourite Indigenous musicians.
The various First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists who worked in collaboration throughout this Honour Song series, describe the vast complexities Indigenous peoples encounter in every day Canadian society. This series is also an opportunity to reconnect to Indigenous grassroots realities, ancestral traditions, advocacy on climate change and challenges, new possibilities and expanding on creating safe spaces for Indigenous peoples to express their truths when reconciling relationships with Canada’s colonial history. While continuing to adapt to modern realities and bringing hope for pathways forward.
But what is an honour song? An honour song goes beyond a singular song, there was a time when each song held knowledge to different life stages, guidance to First Nations and Inuit relationship(s) to the land and connection to belonging throughout creation. There are songs that hold healing, and invitations to connect to different elements of creation. Honour songs are oral transmissions and integrations of collective histories passed down from generation to generation.
Canada and the First Peoples have a complex relationship with colonial power dynamics that is based on suppression and exclusion since the foundation of governing systems. In Canada, from 1884 to 1951, the Banning of Ceremonies act prohibited the potlach — an ancestral traditional gathering of the Pacific Northwest First Nations people where songs and dance celebrations were performed. This legislation spread across Canada, impacting various First Nations who practiced Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, and other ancestral rites of passage ceremonies where songs with oral teachings were legally banned. These legislative prohibitions impacted various First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultural connections to ancestral traditions.
Seven decades later, in 2021, The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was established by the Canadian Government in close collaboration with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in response to the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. On this day, we honour the children who never returned home and survivors of residential school, which is one of the darkest recognized parts of Canadian history. Officially, there were 140 federally run residential schools in Canada that operated between 1867 and 1996. This Honour Song series is a reflection on the ancestral and artistic traditions that shaped the participating musicians, that nurtured communities and that some would tragically never get to experience.
In the series, Inuit singer Susan Aglukark explains “we are never going to write, not honestly… we are going to go to the stories that need to be told, it makes us that much more vulnerable… you are working from the heart”. To be Indigenous goes beyond connecting to songs, First Nations (Cree) singer Fawn Wood describes “we are so in tune, we believe everything is connected. Our language, our spirituality, our medicines, our practices, it’s all connected to the earth and it all ties back to grassroots it is a part of the earth.”
Métis artists Iskwē and Kinnie Starr, discussed the perspective(s) of how Indigenous people are represented within the global public today. Iskwē describes “the relationship with Indigenous peoples was to remove our bodies,…we don’t have a word that unifies our collective experience…” songs are a means to reconnect, reimagine and recreate modern Indigenous art to speak to the realities of Indigenous people today.
Where there are no words to describe what Indigenous Peoples continue to go through songs are a form of creating safe spaces of expression. So, on this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I invite you all to listen to the Honour Song series. Listen to the lived experiences and stories of Indigenous Peoples.
Suppression and Banning of Traditional Customs – Assembly of First Nations
Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition – Glenn Coulthard
Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal life – James Daschuk
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – The Department of Canadian Heritage
Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws. Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws – Wendy Moss and Elaine Gardner-O’Toole
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action – Government of Canada