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Folk musician and Indigenous rights activist Curtis Jonnie, known as performer Shingoose, left, and Duke Redbird, perform in this undated handout photo.

Courtesy of Duke Redbird / Light In The Attic Records via The Canadian Press

Manitoba-born singer-songwriter Shingoose, who died in Winnipeg on Jan. 12 after contracting COVID-19, was a strong native voice in a Canada that had barely listened, and a creative, charismatic man who strode through barriers to leave an important legacy. After being taken away from his Ojibwe community as a young child, Shingoose later reconnected with his culture through music and drew inspiration from the American Indian Movement. He played and worked with top musicians – from Bruce Cockburn to Glen Campbell – and saw one of his songs included in a Grammy-nominated compilation album. Later in his career, he helped create groundbreaking television that showcased Indigenous artists.

Warm and dedicated, “he had a way about him,” said his close friend, poet Duke Redbird, “a real presence.”

Born Curtis Jonnie on Oct. 26, 1946, he was adopted from the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in southeast Manitoba at the age of 4, at the start of a wave of Indigenous child apprehensions later called the Sixties Scoop.

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An evangelical Christian woman took young Curtis home to the largely Mennonite community of Steinbach, Man., 85 kilometres and a world away. Poet/playwright Patrick Friesen remembers him as a classmate. “I sensed a drive in him, something adventurous, creative, that I couldn’t really have named,” Mr. Friesen said. “Then, in the late fifties, he just disappeared from town.”

Curtis spent time at Winnipeg’s Knowles School for Boys, then went to Fargo, N.D., where he reunited with his biological mother and met two half-siblings. A caring musician there, Tom Conovoy, helped him return to school in Omaha, Neb., at the Catholic-run institution portrayed in the Spencer Tracy film Boys Town. He joined the school choir and ignited his musical gift. Thanks to the film, the choir was a touring attraction and the Manitoba teenager loved the travel.

He left Boys Town for a chance to play bass with a band in Virginia, then moved to Washington, where he joined a group called Puzzle. They won a Battle of the Bands and a chance to record in New York at Electric Lady Studios with producer Eddie Kramer, who had worked with the Beatles.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono often dropped by, as did Jimi Hendrix, who had commissioned the state-of-the-art facility. One day, Mr. Lennon looked at the Manitoba-born musician and said, “You must be an American Indian.” During this period, Curtis Jonnie adopted his grandfather’s name and “Shingoose” was born.

Increasing tension over the emergence of the American Indian Movement drove him back north in the 1970s.

“We met at the Mariposa Folk Festival,” said Mr. Redbird, who was invited to perform on its “Native Stage” along with Willie Dunn, Alanis Obomsawin and Shingoose.

“I was impressed with [Shingoose] and his songs. We started to write together. He asked me if I wanted to go on the road with him. At coffee houses and folk festivals he’d do a song, I’d do a poem. He was excellent company, a great performer, quick-witted, really good with an audience. He was a glass-half-full guy. We were both Ojibwe, raised in non-Indigenous homes. He called me Dukester; I called him Goose.”

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Indigenous performers were rarely heard at the time; these two were breaking new ground, but the music industry was indifferent. “There was no way we could ever get signed to a label,” Mr. Redbird said, “so we did our own.” Their album Native Country was recorded in Ottawa with help on guitar from Bruce Cockburn. Decades later, the haunting Silver River from that record would be included in a nomination for a 2016 Grammy Award.

By the later-seventies, Shingoose was working solo and returned to Winnipeg, where he was welcomed by a vibrant music community.

He bonded with singer/songwriter Rick Neufeld (Moody Manitoba Morning). “We’d both been raised Mennonite,” Mr. Neufeld said. A bootleg tape has the two friends kibitzing in Plattdeutsch onstage. “We travelled some miles. He was like a brother.”

Mr. Neufeld learned more about him: Over the years, Goose had played bass in the band of American guitar legend Roy Buchanan; he’d worked with Bill and Taffy Danoff (they wrote Afternoon Delight for their Starland Vocal Band); he had golfed (and signed a writing deal) with Glen Campbell; and formed a tight friendship with actor Max Gail of TV’s Barney Miller. He was also, Mr. Neufeld said, “a close friend of artist Norval Morrisseau, and did his best to help Norval overcome his demons.”

Shingoose was a man who made an impression. “The first time I saw him he blew my mind,” Winnipeg musician Lenny Chet Breau posted on Facebook. “Tall, dressed in native wear. And he was so kind. "

In the 1980s, Shingoose honed his television production skills. Working with his partner Don Ward, he created three hour-long network specials for Bravo TV called Indian Time featuring Indigenous performers including comic Charlie Hill and the regal Buffy Sainte-Marie – as well as Shingoose himself. There had been nothing like it. They showed music and laughter could break down barriers.

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Shingoose joined a further initiative, with Sainte-Marie and Elaine Bomberry, successfully campaigning for an annual Indigenous music award at Canada’s Junos. “I’m proud to know him as a friend,” Ms. Sainte-Marie once told music historian John Einarson. “Shingoose has been a constant light in aboriginal music for decades.”

“He was a humble guy,” his daughter, author and teacher Nahanni Shingoose-Cagalj, told CBC Radio Winnipeg. She grew up with her mother and three siblings in Ontario. “He would have an apartment, a few furnishings, his guitar … but he was always checking in as much as he could. And he gave us that sense of resilience, and that vision for our people working together – making our communities healthy and better through peace and love, music and art. My dad always found a way to make life enjoyable, [with] songs and laughter.”

At ease onstage, Shingoose sang, with a smile, “I’m a natural man, cause I’ve got a natural tan.” His strong, clear voice also carried songs of beauty and depth, such as Silver River and The Ballad of Norval Morrisseau, both of which he co-wrote with Mr. Redbird. In all, he recorded four albums, Native Country (1975), Ballad of Norval (1979), Natural Tan (1989), and T-Bird in the Lake (2007), but his music remains hard to find.

In 2012, he suffered a serious stroke that left one side paralyzed and his voice impaired. “[At] first, you could hardly understand him on the phone,” Mr. Redbird said, “but he worked really hard at rehab.”

In 2016, the two long-time friends were onstage together again when the Winnipeg Folk Festival honoured them for their contribution to the Grammy-nominated compilation album Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985.

Shingoose spoke from his wheelchair, accompanied by other Indigenous artists. Among them was fast-rising singer-songwriter William Prince, from Peguis First Nation. “He was an undeniable presence,” Mr. Prince said, “a trailblazer for Indigenous voices.”

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Shingoose remained, to the end, a modest man. Mr. Einarson recalls that when a two-page feature article he wrote about Shingoose appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, “I took copies to his nursing home. He was so proud. One of the front desk nurses said to me, ‘We never knew he was famous.’ ”

Mr. Redbird remembers their last conversation, “We had a joke that the elders were always ‘big-bellies,’ and we were elders now. We wanted to show those young whipper-snappers something.”

“There’s rapids in every river,” an emotional Mr. Redbird said. “Shingoose’s canoe has made it through.”

With gatherings discouraged because of COVID-19, only Shingoose’s close friends Terry Nelson, a councillor at Roseau River First Nation, and Sarah Peters were present at his cremation; they offered sweetgrass, tobacco and song.

Shingoose was predeceased by his biological mother, Grace Hage, and daughter Joelle Jonnie. He leaves his children Micha Jonnie (whom the family is trying to locate), Elliott Peatquoam Jonnie, Elijah Ahzbec Jonnie and Ms. Shingoose-Cagalj; seven grandchildren; and two infant great-granddaughters. He also leaves his siblings, Tanis Wichmann and Clay Hage.

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