Indigenous songwriters illuminating ancestral languages

These two artists create ethereal songs centring Indigenous languages

Elisapie: a freckled woman with black braids that wrap together at the base of her neck. Bubble-like letters surround her and sweep over her face.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Leeor Wild

By: Petra Chase, Editor-in-Chief

Content warning: mentions of colonialism. 


Elisapie: a freckled woman with black braids that wrap together at the base of her neck. Bubble-like letters surround her and sweep over her face.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Leeor Wild

Prolific Inuk singer-songwriter Elisapie’s latest album, Inuktitut, covers ten pop and rock classics translated into ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ (Inuktitut). She grew up around this language in ᓴᓪᓗᐃᑦ (Salluit), a snowy Inuit village in Nunavik, Quebec. Elisapie’s gentle voice is like sunbeams over familiar melodies, making her tracks feel serene. Each song is tied to an intimate memory of a loved one. “Uummati Attanarsimat (Heart of Glass)” compiles grainy footage of Inuit children playing in the snow. In addition to this Blondie rendition, Inuktitut includes acoustic covers of other iconic ‘70s and ‘80s songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Sinnatuumait(“Dreams”) and Cyndi Lauper’s “Taimangalimaaq(“Time after Time”)

In the album description, Elisapie said these songs acted as “an escape.” When they were at the height of their popularity, these songs “once took over the community radio airwaves,” and also made Inuit communities feel like “we were being heard.

“They were our songs too,” she told CBC, also speaking about the painful and bittersweet memories associated with them. Finding their meaning in Inuktitut gave her a deeper understanding as to why the songs have such emotional reactions for her community. “It’s so beautiful to say that Metallica was there for us,” she said. “When we weren’t able to express a lot of things, they expressed it for us.” 

The songs were all translated intimately by Elisapie, a process which she calls “cultural reappropriation” as she “tells her story, offers these songs as a gift to her community, and makes her language and culture resonate beyond the Inuit territory.”

See Elisapie perform live on September 28 at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts.

“They were our songs too.” —Elisapie 

Jeremy Dutcher

a man sitting at a wooden dining chair while facing a device that looks like a phonograph. Painted on the wall in the background is an image of humanoid shapes and colours interacting with a person wearing an Indigenous headdress.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Matt Barners

I came across Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) “two-spirit song carrier” Jeremy Dutcher with his goosebump-inducing Tiny Desk concert. In the opening song “Mehcinut” (“death chant”) from his debut 2018 album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (“Our Maliseets Songs”), Dutcher’s angelic, classically-trained voice is explosive yet controlled, touching high notes and deep emotion as he pours himself into the piano. Halfway through, a wax cylinder recording of an ancestor cuts through, with their long-held notes creating a moving duet across centuries. “Mehcinut” is a traditional song to celebrate life. 

Dutcher is an ethnomusicologist who is dedicated to making music in his ancestral language and traditions of Wolastoqiyik (“wool-las-two-wi-ig”), meaning “people of the beautiful river.” The Wolastoqiyik are also referred to as Maliseet. This language has existed for many generations near the Saint John River and now has less than 100 “fluent, life-long language speakers” left. Working with Elders in his community of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick and using archival recordings, Dutcher challenges “death narratives or the idea of Indigenous people as fading people.” He’s brought beautiful songs in his language to international ears, winning the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for his first album and bringing his Elders in the audience pride. In an interview with CBC, he stressed the importance of “frontloading [Indigenous] languages and making sure that they are centred.” 

Dutcher recently released his second album, Motewolouwok, of which my favourite track is “ᐯᒪᐧᓱᐧᐃᓄᐧᐁᒃᐧᐊᓇᑭᔭᐧᐁᓓᑐᐧᐁᒃ” or “pomawsuwinuwok wonakiyawolotuwok.”It’s a “resistance song” where the meandering instrumentation and vocals build up in volume like I’ve never heard before. The lyrics include an English translation of the song’s title: “People are rising all over the world so we stand up.” He shared that he “wanted to write a song that flowed between Wolastoqiyik language and English, in hopes of calling as many to the table as possible to witness the rising.

“Stories and music are what move our culture forward,” he expressed in his Tiny Desk performance before getting the audience to hum a backing acapella note for his final song. Meaningful connections like these are commonplace in Dutcher’s live performances. 

Catch his performance at Vancouver Folk Festival at Jericho Beach on July 19.

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