MODERN SOUNDS OF INDIGENOUS VOICES
by Brieanna Charlebois
It was known as Canada’s most notorious prison, but within its walls, a story of resilience and healing made its way out.
Once home to many Indigenous women, the Women’s Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario functioned as a maximum-security prison from 1934-2000. It has been nearly 17 years since the prison officially closed, but this tale lives on.
Music is said to have saved women from the horrors found inside the walls, allowing them to escape through art. A traditional Indigenous song, titled, Strong Women’s Song was taught to inmates as a form of emotional and spiritual healing. As they practiced the song, a prison riot broke out around them. “They kept playing throughout the riot,” says performer, Moe Clark. “They kept singing and so, they were protected and they remained unharmed.”
Clark is a Métis performer, spoken word poet and activist based in Montreal. She traveled to Atlin to perform at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival this year. She explains that the Strong Woman Song is traditional, but has been adapted by many different nations, played in a variety of dialects and has taken many forms. “Different women sing different versions,” she explains.
Yesterday, Clark collaborated with Cree singer, Iskwé to perform their version of the song.
Clark is no stranger to collaborations. In Montreal, she plays with artists from a variety of backgrounds, musicians from different Indigenous Nations, and artists from places like the Middle East and North Africa.
“We’re finding things to mix our lineages and mix our traditional songs and keep them alive through contemporary improvisations and dialogues that happen musically,” she says. “As we say, music is the universal language so we don’t need any other language to communicate. We’ve got rhythm, we’ve got melody and we’ve got breath.”
Clark isn’t alone in adding modern adaptations of traditional Indigenous culture. Atlin is bursting with it.
“If you watched us perform, you probably witnessed a kind of departure from the traditional style that we generally do,” says Marilyn Jensen, founder and leader of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, a national award-winning Tlingit dance, song and storytelling group.
“We’re experimenting and utilizing our creative passion to extend out and include a real modern flare to what we do, but we also have that part of us that remains true the foundation of our identity.”
Indigenous culture art is very much alive and well. Adapting. Changing. A reminder of consistent and unwavering resistance. Resilience.
“The repeated recognition throughout the festival that we are here on the land of the Taku Khwáan nation and the programming that they have incorporated —there’s Moe Clark and Iskwé and the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers and all these groups provide an opportunity for audiences to witness the richness and the cultural depth and the diversity is part of the fabric of Canada,” says Canadian musician, Ben Caplan, who also performed this weekend.
He says that reconciliation is a process. “A big part of residential schools was about teaching a sense of shame about Indigenous identities. And through festivals like this, it’s teaching Canadians of settler background and of Indigenous background, a sense of pride in Indigenous culture.”
The modern sound of Indigenous voices heard in Atlin is a reminder of the past and of progress, the sound of a culture demanding to be heard.