It brings back a lot of emotions and feelings to look at the pictures from the Native North America workshop at the 2016 Winnipeg Folk Festival: Old friends, new friends, and a diverse audience sharing and learning from each other w/ open ears, eyes, and hearts. I'd like to thank the WFF's artistic director Chris Frayer for believing in this project as well as providing a stage for this historic gathering of trailblazing Indigenous singer-songwriters and to Amanda Leigh Smith Photography for helping to document it all. Below are a selection of Amanda's 35mm photos (*more here!) and a story that I wrote to accompany them. As we know, life is fragile. The time is most certainly now to celebrate life and to show people that we will not stand for ignorance, intolerance, oppression, and hatred. Music does save and it unifies and informs us like nothing else. Let it play on!!! PEACE
Native North America at the Winnipeg Folk Festival
Words by Kevin “Sipreano” Howes
Photography by Amanda Leigh Smith
In the 1960s, 70s, and into the 80s, Indigenous musicians from across North America made their voices heard like never before. Inspired, informed, and contributing to the global explosion of youth culture, they combined words, poetry, art, film, and music to reflect a wide range of Native issues and experience: the balance and transition of traditional and modern life, language preservation, views on the land, family, spirituality, and the effects of colonialism. Drumming, chanting, and dancing was an integral part of community life for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people throughout Canada, the United States, and Greenland while country and fiddle music was common in homes and meeting places. Shawnee rebel rouser Link Wray invented the modern rock guitar sound with his genre-defining 1958 instrumental “Rumble,” and further rock and roll roots can be traced back to an Indigenous beat. Even in the face of adversity, songs of love and laughter were always close to the heart.
As the American War in Vietnam blazed on and the black power and women’s rights movements built momentum, there was also a resurgence in Native Pride led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) amongst many others. Red Power. The disturbing events that unfolded at Wounded Knee in 1973 was yet another unfortunate catalyst for awareness, identity, protest, and change, but now there was a new soundtrack coming from within the Indigenous communities, provided by singer-songwriters like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Alanis Obomsawin, and Willie Dunn. These artists didn’t mince their words. They made their voices heard loud and clear: We are Native! We are Proud! These are our truths! The time is now! Their inspiration was monumental to those both inside and outside of the various Indigenous communities of Turtle Island.
Still, without industry or mass media support to help transmit these messages, a determined artist would have to work hard to have their songs recorded to tape (as was the case for the majority of independent musicians from the era). Fewer would have these recordings pressed to vinyl and distributed. Either self-released or with the assistance of an established label, cultural organization, or national broadcaster like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), a number of long playing albums and seven inch singles did hit the marketplace. They were mostly sold off of the stage at gigs, in convenience stores or at Native friendship centers, and occasionally at the odd mom and pop record shop. Whether the artists were aware at the time, their music began to travel. Over the years, they provided an essential document of this decisive era to listeners lucky enough to hear them. Though initially marginalized through mainstream exclusion, regional focus, geographic isolation, racism, and music industry short-sightedness, these artists are now being heard by an expanded global audience in 2016.
Native North America(Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 is a 3-LP/2-CD/digital compilation of 34 landmark Indigenous recordings. Accompanied by an extensive liner notes book featuring biographies, archival images, and lyric transcriptions and translations, the box set was released by Seattle/Los Angeles-based Light in the Attic Records in November of 2014 after five years of production.
Over the last 20 years, I have been collecting regional vinyl recordings in my travels across Canada, looking for songs and stories brushed aside by time to learn more about the country that I call home. In school, I had learnt about colonialism, the residential school system, and the birth of my country from the British and French viewpoint, but now I was hearing accounts from the Indigenous perspective: Theft, genocide, abuse, intergenerational trauma, but also transcendence, hope, beauty, and tradition despite the oppression. Needless to say, my soul was significantly touched and my mind, truly blown. Conceiving and assembling Native North America was an organic extension of my research into Canadian music history and a labour of love in the truest sense. My initial goal was to bridge generations, cultures, and eras of technology, to thank the artists whose music had affected me in a positive way, and to ask for much needed context. Needless to say, the process was deeply affecting and stretched my emotional capacity to the max.
Even without a high profile manager, booking agency or slick PR campaign behind us, I had high hopes that we would be able to launch Native North America with a live concert, a special chance to bring an exceptional breadth of talent and some longtime friends together. Having the records simply arrive the shop was not quite enough to pay tribute to these artists, their contributions to our collective cultural fabric, and what they were up to today. Far from a museum piece or relic, this was living and breathing history. Busy managing their label and its growing catalogue of music, Light in the Attic had no resources to promote or organize such an event. I quickly realized that I had to do it myself and started planning two grassroots gatherings with the artists: one in Toronto with Elder Dr. Duke Redbird and one in Vancouver with Willie Thrasher and his singing partner Linda Saddleback.
More gatherings followed and as the project continued to gain momentum and overwhelming support from media outlets such as APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), The Guardian, Rolling Stone, CBC, and NPR, there were actual bookings by the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Winnipeg’s Plug In ICA. These diversely attended events, enhanced by vintage films, slideshow presentations, vinyl DJ’ing, and open discussion gave us the strength to push forward in the face of apathy from the Canadian music business machine. Audiences were comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of varied ages and it was very encouraging to see people sharing and learning from each other in a display of unity and an appreciation of music and culture.
Last November, I reached out to Winnipeg Folk Festival Director Chris Frayer to pitch a workshop that would continue to raise awareness about Native North America and what its players were up to today. Inquiries to the legendary Mariposa Folk Festival (home to many of the featured Native North America artists in the 1960s and 70s) as well as the Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver folk fests came up blank, even despite the global success of the compilation which had garnered a 2016 Grammy nomination in the Best Historical Recording category along the way. Thankfully, Frayer understood the vision and the opportunity to assist in the process of reconciliation that is so imperative to Canada right now.
Chris Frayer: “I was already a fan of the box set and this was a really unique opportunity. We want to try and play a big role to make peace with what we’ve done [as Canadians] in the past. What better way to bring people together than through music and song?”
Unfortunately, time and money would only allow for five of the 23 artists and groups featured on Native North America to appear at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, but Duke Redbird, Eric Landry, Willy Mitchell, Shingoose (Curtis Jonnie), and Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback were up for the challenge and ventured to Manitoba’s Birds Hill Provincial Park on Treaty 1 land for the occasion. Frayer also brought local singer-songwriter William Prince into the mix to pay tribute to those who couldn’t be with us, a perfect choice to complement the lineup and to showcase the influence of the veteran musicians on a younger generation. We were also blessed to have film photographer Amanda Leigh Smith on hand to help document the proceedings.
Once everyone was on site, we were treated to a welcoming ceremony conducted by Elder Mae Louise Campbell. As a non-Indigenous person born in Canada, I felt genuinely humbled to take part in this gathering. The 30 or so people in attendance included Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, the first Aboriginal mayor in the city’s history. Hand in hand, we walked in a circle and listened to the sound of a voice and drum. Elder Campbell greeted the artists and asked us to engage in a quiet moment of peaceful introspection and thought. Next, Campbell and Duke Redbird took turns speaking, welcoming us to the region and sharing their reflections about our place in this fast-paced digital world in which we live. After a smudging, we were given leather pouches filled with sweet grass, tobacco, sage, and cedar, and adorned with a Métis sash, which paid respect to the history of the area. We wore them with pride.
The Native North America workshop started two hours later so we continued to prepare for the main event, which was by that point, a good seven months in the making. Eric Landry sat in the grass and prepared his fingernails and guitar in contemplation. Duke relaxed with his daughter Nazanni, also in town from Toronto for the weekend. Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback shared a laugh and a stroll around the grassy park while Willy Mitchell simply savoured the moment, enjoying conversation and smiles. Shingoose rolled over in his wheelchair along with road warrior guitarist and Buffy Sainte-Marie collaborator Jesse Green, who was there to accompany ‘Goose during his portion of the set.
With a large audience waiting in anticipation, I walked onstage to introduce the program. Both APTN and Shaw TV were on hand to film the concert and to conduct post-show interviews with the artists. You could already feel a warm energy spreading amongst the crowd. Seated in a row across the width of the outdoor stage, the artists took their turn one by one, reciting poetry, singing songs, and telling stories. Duke Redbird was the first to share his gift and received an immediate standing ovation for his compelling words on the legacy of the residential school system and colonialism. Tears fell like rain from many in the audience and those on stage. The tone was set.
With a clear and powerful voice, William Prince sang songs by the sorely missed Willie Dunn (whose presence was felt throughout the day, his image adorning the Native North America stage banner draped over the back of the stage), Vancouver-based/Guyana-born David Campbell, as well as a strong original composition, “The Carny.” Eric Landry, who had ventured from Sudbury, Ontario, played next, singing, chanting, and making his vintage Larrivée guitar express a full range of emotion and feeling.
Shingoose and Green performed a musical version of Duke Redbird’s “Silver River” poem, originally recorded in 1975 and featured on Native North America. Kitigan Zibi rocker Willy Mitchell followed, performing from his extensive songbook. He also threw in a funny story about meeting Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from the window of their limousine back in the day to much laughter. With the clock ticking, Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback kicked out their jams with a 12-string guitar, harmonica, bass drum, and percussion attack which involved the crowd in a righteous call-and-response chant on “Odiak.” Bookended by another standing ovation, Native North America: A Selection of Musical Trailblazers wrapped up to a mighty wave of applause and with plenty of heartfelt emotion.
Willie Thrasher: “Performing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival was one of the biggest moments of our career. We got people from the Native North America compilation together so it was a historical moment to see each other perform again. I wanted to share the history of our life, where we came from, how we lived, how we used to be a long time ago and try to make it understandable to people. We brought back a message from a long time ago, but it’s a message for today.”
Duke Redbird: “I felt so good that the people in the audience understood that our children need to be recognized and to be helped and we can’t marginalize them anymore. We can’t have the suicides [that are happening in Indigenous communities]. It has to stop. If some words that I wrote affect that [situation], I’m really pleased.”
Willy Mitchell: “It was just so overwhelming. To be sitting with Dr. Duke Redbird, his poetry brought me to tears, touching a few nerves there. It was hard to keep it back. Then listening to Curtis [Shingoose] after, I start fighting it again. It was just too touching for me.”
Eric Landry: “A lot of people came out to hear what we’re all about and to learn. It was surprising actually, to see all those people there, especially from the non-Native community because they wanna learn what’s going on. Everybody joined together to make this thing work.”
Shingoose: “When I first started in the early 1970s, there weren’t many Indian folk singers, just a couple of people, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Westerman, and that was about it. There was a wide open door for more performers and I snuck in that door. I see this [event as something that] makes what we did credible. Today, we’re in a different mindset. There was a huge audience [on hand] for a portion of the music community that hasn’t been looked at that much over the years, but now we’re starting to get some young voices [out there] again and they are honouring some of us who have been there since the beginning. Our work has caused this to happen.”
Still active and extremely relevant in 2016, these trailblazing veterans celebrated their individual and collective past while once again creating crucial history for us to appreciate. Today, they are joined by new generations of Indigenous artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, actors, and photographers who are also out there travelling across the land, sharing their messages, and making them count. Once criminally silenced voices are being heard and we need such commentators now more than ever, especially during such challenging times. As we are witnessing at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and with the formation of the Idle No More movement, the struggle for Indigenous rights against corporate and colonial greed continues. Give thanks to the creative people who help us process these harsh realities, offering much needed understanding and dutiful assistance in the course of healing and reconciliation, with love.
More information can be found at http://lightintheattic.net/releases/1332-native-north-america-vol-1-aboriginal-folk-rock-and-country-1966-1985