Photo by Vanessa Heins
Indigenous composer Jeremy Dutcher fuses contemporary influences with century-old Maliseet/Wolastoqiyik recordings to create an artistic and political conversation that invites listeners to imagine different possibilities for the future
This past March, outspoken composer Jeremy Dutcher caused a stir at the Junos, not by what he said but rather what he wasn’t allowed to.
Onstage at the non-televised portion of the gala in his traditional birch bark hat, Dutcher accepted the award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year for his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. “Psi-te npomawsuwinuwok, kiluwaw yut,” he began in his traditional language, thanking his family and highlighting the other nominees before shifting his tone. “I don’t know how many more times they’re gonna let me do this: So Justin, Mr. Trudeau: A nation-to-nation relationship does not look like pipelines. A nation-to-nation relationship does not look like sending a militarized police force into unceded territory. And a nation-to-nation relationship does not look like, in 2019, our communities still under boiled-water advisory. So, this means so much to me. I hope to continue to share and use this platform to tell truth. We can all do better. Reconciliation ...”
Cue the music that cut him off.
“Of course as soon as you get to the meat of the discussion the music starts,” he laughs, thinking back on the moment. “It was like a movie. It's so funny.”
Later that evening, the Arkells abdicated the majority of their acceptance time for him to finish his speech: “... Doesn’t happen in a year. It takes time. It takes stories. It takes shared experience. I have hope, I have to, ... that at least if we’re not on the same page, at least we’re in the same book.”
For the media, the incident proved fertile ground. But tellingly, for Dutcher, a far more important moment came the following night. On television. In front of the whole nation.
Jeremy Dutcher, winner of the Juno for Indigenous Music Album of the Year, recalls his unorthodox acceptance speech at the awards gala. Dutcher was cut-off while addressing Prime Minister Trudeau about reconciliation but was able to finish his remarks thanks to Rock Album of the Year winners, The Arkells.
VIDEOS by SEAN LILIANI
It was during the 28-year-old’s performance of Sakomawit (Chief’s Installation), a song fittingly addressed to those leading for the yet to be born as well as those who already exist, that he says he tuned into his raison-d'être. At the piano, surrounded by pictures and sounds of his ancestors, it appeared crystal clear. His mind flashed again: Psi-te npomawsuwinuwok, kiluwaw yut, this is for all my people. His “big Indigenous body on display,” he saw his younger self, loathing his weight, ashamed of his culture and his sexuality.
And just as the song kicked into its sonic climax, he peered into the audience and locked eyes with his date for the night: his 12-year-old niece. “I realized it’s the continuation, the unbroken song that has been resonating in this land for a very long time, a lot longer than 150 years,” he recalls. “I’m invested in that reverberation. For me that’s what this work is about. It is about creating a site of deep reverence and pride. And letting that be a ripple that goes out and what can it create.”
All of which is to say, Dutcher doesn’t want a seat at your table. He wants you to come to his.
“We’re in a different restaurant,” he laughs. “For a long time, we've been saying, 'Listen to us. We have something to tell you.' We’re starting to shift that power dynamic and say, ‘We’re here talking, you can come and witness it if you want. We’ve get lots of stuff to share with you but we're talking as we have always done.’”
A member of the Tobique First Nation, the largest of the Wolastoqiyik and Maliseet Nation reserves in New Brunswick, Dutcher, who was classically trained as an opera singer, refers to himself not as a musician, but as a song carrier; an educator and linguist who uses the lingua franca of the common people to get his point across. On Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, he composes "Indigenous future" music — evolving the tradition of his ancestors by grafting operatic, orchestral prog rock and pop elements around wax-cylinder recordings of traditional Maliseet songs made by anthropologist William H. Mechling between 1907 and 1914, about 30 years after the Indian Act banned “any public displays of native-ness.”
The album, which won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize, has made Dutcher both a willing torchbearer and lighting rod. A proud leader in what he describes as an Indigenous Renaissance.
“Louis Riel realized a long time ago that the artists are the ones that push conversations forward in a way that that political or even community members can’t,” he says. “I spent a large share of my time doing the protesting and the finger wagging thing and I just found it never really moved people. You know what moves people? Music moves people. And I think in a way that I don't even quite comprehend yet. As a song carrier, this is my life's work: to come to understand that movement and how sound affects change.”
PHOTO BY VANESSA HEINS
Likewise, Dutcher is not angry. He comes to “the visitors,” he says, with a message of positivity and resilience. And not just to them, but to his own people who are forgetting the lessons and languages. If we work together, if we listen and understand each other rather than seek revenge or work to sublimate, he argues, his language, his traditions, can bring forth a lot of positive change: “For me it's when we bring our most authentic selves to the table together we're able to come to a place of understanding.”
Wolastoq, he explains, has much to offer English or French speakers.
For instance, it refers to natural things as ancestors. “I'm not going to go cut down a patch of my relatives and if I did you better believe I'm gonna say thank you and offer something to them because I understand it's a sacrifice,” he explains. “We also don't have gender pronouns so everyone becomes they and we speak about each other in this way. And what does that do? Who does it create space for? What kinds of radically inclusive worlds could we create if we really came to understand those lessons? How could that fundamentally shift how our society works?”
Dutcher also rejects the common narrative that access to modern technology is causing the fading of something so intrinsic as language. “Our language is what makes us us,” he points out. “I struggle when our language gets called dead or dying. It's a point people constantly bring up: He's saving a dying language, he's resurrecting something. Because it betrays what I actually see happening on the ground, which is immersion schools, apps for language learning on my phone now. We have a dictionary. We have a really flushed out writing system.”
It’s this point of view, this resilience, that has allowed him to push forward with his work. To continue speaking his truth, as he puts it, “as Indigenous and as a queer person.”
“We're in a very precarious place right now and this is not by accident,” he says. “Our languages did not vanish into thin air. They vanished at the end of a strap, they vanished at the point of a fist. And they should have done a better job if they really wanted to get rid of us because we're still here and we're still sharing and singing and speaking in the face of it all. And that is something to be celebrated. That's what I want to celebrate with my work, to lift up that resilience.”
Dutcher plans to do this next by taking his shows to the concert halls of Canada, backed by a 10-piece orchestra. “Decolonize the concert hall,” he half-jokes. “There's something to be said about reclaiming those spaces. The concert hall, the orchestra hall, is definitely a site of auditory colonization.”
As for his plea to the Prime Minister, he’s still waiting on a call. And though he’s not holding his breath, he does see a future where an Indigenous politician could “run the show.”
In the meantime, he says, “I don’t think about seats at tables, I think about creating alternative structures; dreaming into existence different possibilities, different stories that we can start to tell ourselves about the history of this place and where we’re going together – that’s what I hope to bring.”
CREDITS: Writing by JONATHAN DEKEL; Editing by CHRISTINA VARGA; Videography by SEAN LILIANI; Art direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI; Design by JEANINE BRITO; Development by KYLE YOUNG