Nearly extinct by the middle of the 20th century, the art of Inuit throat singing (or katajjaq) is enjoying a renaissance. At the vanguard is Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde vocalist who won the Polaris Music Prize in 2014 for Animism, judged to be the year’s best Canadian album in 2014. She’s not alone in the growing list of female musicians with a gift for the intense, performative growl. Others in the field include Kathleen Merritt, Nancy Mike of the Jerry Cans, sisters Tiffany Ayalik and Inuksuk Mackay of the duo Piqsiq and, a relative newcomer, the fast-rising electro-pop pixie known as Riit.
“The space for throat singers, and Indigenous artists in general, is there right now,” Riit says from Iqaluit. “It’s something to see.”
Something to see, and maybe to imitate. With the Arctic vocal art’s new popularity comes proprietorial issues. Recently, a non-Inuit throat singer (Connie LeGrande, a Canadian Cree who performs under the name Cikwes) earned a nomination in the folk-music category at the Indigenous Music Awards happening May 17 in Winnipeg.
In protest, a group of Inuit performers including Tagaq, Merritt, Piqsiq and pop singer Kelly Fraser accused LeGrande of cultural appropriation and announced their boycott of the annual awards.
“We respectfully asked the IMAs to remove Cikwes as a nominated artist,” Fraser told The Globe and Mail. “Until her album is taken off or there is an apology, we are adamant in not putting our music forward for the IMAs."
Subsequent to the protest, the IMAs put out a statement saying Cikwes’s nomination would stand.
Riit supports her fellow Inuit artists in their protest. “One hundred per cent,” says the 2018 IMA nominee, whose songs explore issues of, among other things, Inuit trauma and isolation. “Just because you’re part of another Indigenous group, it doesn’t give you the right to take traditions from other groups.”
Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside (often minority) culture, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context. When viewed as the act of a dominant culture exploiting the culture of a minor community, cultural appropriation is generally frowned upon. In the current throat-singing case, involving one Indigenous group appropriating the art of another’s, the thinking is less universal. For example, the executive director of the Manito Ahbee Festival, which oversees the IMAs, is of the belief that cultural appropriation among Indigenous peoples is not relevant. “Creator and spirit," Lisa Meeches told told CBC Manitoba in a radio interview, “don’t understand that kind of language and that kind of rhetoric.”
When the recent throat-singing controversy arose, at least two well-respected mainstream media outlets ran opinion pieces that sided with the IMAs. The London-based Guardian derided cultural gatekeepers as “self-appointed guardians licensing themselves as arbiters of the correct form of cultural borrowing.”
The Wall Street Journal ran a piece that laughed off the idea of a Canadian Cree being accused of cultural appropriation as “reductio ad absurdum.” In the piece, David Dandeneau, the Manito Ahbee Festival’s board chair, worried about putting “straight-jackets” on artists. “We’re a cultural organization, and we don’t want to be responsible for putting the brakes on artistic activity.”
Those famously associated with cultural appropriation recently include everyone from Joseph Boyden (the Giller Prize-winning novelist of cloudy ancestry accused of appropriating various Indigenous identities to further his writing career) to the American pop-star provocateur Miley Cyrus (whose twerking antics at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards outraged those who saw the performance as more minstrel show than genuine homage).
What complicates the throat-singing matter is the notion of pan-Indigenousness, and that a Cree musician emulating an Inuk musician is subcultural or even intracultural appropriation. That view is disputed by the Inuit throat singers, and by Drew Hayden Taylor. "We’re all very different people,” says the Ojibwa author, humorist and playwright. “As an artist trying to tell stories, we spend a lot of our time telling the dominant culture that there’s no one native anything.”
Indeed, there are more than 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands spread across Canada, and some 70 unique Indigenous languages.
In addition to her music career, Riit, who grew up in Panniqtuuq (a small town that translates to “the place of the bull caribou”), hosts Anaana’s Tent, a children’s television show that teaches kids the Inuit language Inuktitut through story and song. Recently signed to Toronto-based Six Shooter Records, Riit released a self-titled EP in 2017 and is currently working on her first full album. She has a single out: Qaumajuapik, a dreamy, melodic track fluent in Inuktitut. “My songs are a way of preserving the language, and to encourage people to speak it,” she says.
Unlike other art forms, heavy circumstances are involved with Inuit throat singing, traditionally done by two women as a partner song involving guttural sounds that soothed the babies on their back to sleep. The throat singing done by Riit and others leans to experimental, but is steeped with history. "Katajjaq is an art form nearly taken from Inuit women because of the forces of colonization,” says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an Iqaluit-based storyteller and Greenlandic mask dance performer. “People have worked extremely hard over the last 30 years to bring throat singing back to the forefront. It only makes sense that it belongs to those Inuit women now.”
Riit agrees. “Part of the reason we’re so defensive about throat singing is because other Indigenous groups have gone through the the same colonization process that we have. I would expect that the IMAs would completely understand and respect how we’re feeling about it. It’s just upsetting to me that they aren’t.”