Arts·Group Chat

Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day with 4 artists from across the country

Multidisciplinary artist Santee Smith, Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, musician Raven Kanatakta, and Cree author and playwright Tomson Highway help Commotion celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Santee Smith, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Raven Kanatakta and Tomson Highway reflect on their artistic lives

Musician Raven Kanatakta, Cree author, musician and playwright Tomson Highway, Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and multidisciplinary artist Santee Smith.
Musician Raven Kanatakta, Cree author, musician and playwright Tomson Highway, Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and multidisciplinary artist Santee Smith. (Ratul Debnath, CBC, Chickweed Arts/Jamie Griffiths, CBC Arts)

On National Indigenous Peoples Day, Indigenous artists from across the country stopped by Commotion to help us celebrate the power of Indigenous art and artists to transform, heal, inspire and challenge the world around us.

Joining host Elamin Abdelmahmoud for the panel today was multidisciplinary artist Santee Smith from the Kahnyen'kehàka (Mohawk) Nation and Turtle Clan from Ohswé:ken (Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont.), Kalaaleq (Greenlandic Inuk) artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Anishinabe and Mohawk musician Raven Kanatakta from Winneway, Que., (also know as Long Point First Nation), and Cree author, playwright and musician Tomson Highway of the Barren Lands First Nation, located in northern Manitoba near the borders of Saskatchewan and Nunavut.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Elamin: I want to begin with a very personal question, I guess, for each of you. Maybe Raven, this has to do with your discipline. How fundamental is music to who you are?

Raven: We say … "music is medicine." And I also consider it, for myself, spiritual food. But I also used it as a tool of survival. I grew up in my small community of Winneway, and there were about 350 people there. And there's a lot of oppression, a lot of fallout from genocide, a lot of survival. Everybody around me was sniffing gas and getting high, and trying to numb out the oppression, I guess. And early on, I found some music through my grandfather and through my family's music collection. And that sort of really kept me occupied and excited about life. And I sort of saw this window of opportunity to be able to dream. For me, music became a doorway that I could walk through and create a reality for myself. It means everything.

WATCH | Official music video for Digging Roots' SKODEN:

Elamin: That's a really beautiful way to put it. Laakkuluk, what about you? How important is creating to you?

Laakkuluk: Creating is an essential part of who I am as a human being. My father, who was a very erudite storyteller, would talk about how when you first wake up in the morning, you have to think of a poem and you go outside and you have to think of how to describe it out there. And when you look at your savings, you see ways of making people listen to you and have your ears open to listening. So creativity is a part of everyday life for me, that's for sure.

Elamin: Tomson, you taught yourself to play the accordion when you were a boy listening to these, you know, battery-operated transistor radios at night. Who would you be, would you say, without making music, without writing, without creating?

Tomson: Quite frankly? I think I would have killed myself a long time ago. Really, I cannot live without music. I don't think anybody can. I don't think the planet can live without music. Imagine the planet without music. That's why I make music. It makes people happy. And over the years I've come to the conclusion that the Great Spirit put us on this planet not to suffer, not to apologize for something we did not do. We're not here to cry. We're here to laugh. We have a deity in our midst called the Trickster. The first being that the Great Spirit put on this planet was a clown. And the essential, fundamental lesson that that clown taught us was that God or the Great Spirit, whoever you want to call him or her, put us on this planet to laugh. We are here to laugh. We are here to have a good time. And music is the way for me to do it. Without music, I say, I wouldn't be here. That's why I write, to make people laugh.

Elamin: I'm going to come back to that laughter question in just a moment, but first Santee let me get you into this conversation. For you, your instrument is movement. What can you do through dance, through embodied storytelling that you can't do in any other way?

Santee: Well, I think embodied storytelling really is one of the oldest forms of communication, because it goes beyond the intellect of language. And it is the very first way that we experience the world as babies. We start rolling. We were moving inside the womb. So it's fundamental to everybody, and it crosses language barriers because with gesture and movement, you can tell a story with people understanding it or receiving energy from what you're doing. And as Tomson said, it is fundamental to being a human being. And in our culture, song and dance and storytelling, it's how we celebrate our life. And it is a part of being a human being.

Elamin: I wanted to sort of set up where each of your perspectives is kind of coming from. Raven, you talked about the power of music as medicine. Can you explain that to me a little bit more and how that ends up showing up in Anishinaabe traditions?

Raven: Music is medicine, and it's a bit like a spiritual blood. Like, we need blood to flow in our veins, and we need music to wake us up just like the sun feeds a flower. Music is this thing that's intangible, yet it's so amazingly creative. You know, you can say so many things in music that are so beautiful and truthful. You can say things that a politician can't say, but you can also say things that a lover can't say.

I guess one of the cool things that we've been doing for a long time now and is an Anishinabek tradition is songlines. We've been integrating that in our music by traveling around to all these different places that we've been touring and taking pictures of skylines. And we've been basically inspired by the land, and allowing the land to be this window of creativity for us. So songlines, for instance, you follow the contour of the land … and be inspired by the land. And we've been doing that with our music in this way that is integrated with modern grooves and music that's made today because we're also people that are in the present. But I think that being in touch with the land in that way is really beautiful because it helps us stay grounded and it kind of grounds our creativity in a tradition that's always been happening in our communities.

WATCH | Santee Smith reflects on her dance career:

Choreographer Santee Smith takes us back to Six Nations where her dance career began

3 years ago
Duration 3:35
Smith re-visits her first original choreography on her family land.

Elamin: Santee, you've described dance as a form of embodied storytelling and energetic exchange between the performance of the audiences and how it connects to the land. How urgent does that feel for you right now?

Santee: Oh, well it's always been urgent for people — and not like it's a necessity; it's our natural way. So for us Onkwehonwe people and many nations, nature was the main source — so teacher, guide, kin. Everything revolved around aligning with natural forces and energy. And creatively, for me, that's what I work through. Some people would now call that Indigenous science or Indigenous horticulture, but because we had all these really important ideas about how to live sustainably and how to access creativity — and one of the repeated phrases in a lot of our ceremonies is we would say it translates to "so be it in our minds and hearts." So that mind-heart connection is really important, and I think about it as consciousness and near-body consciousness coming in together and not separate it out. It's so important for people to recognize and honor our embodied connections.

Elamin: That's a really beautiful way to put it. Laakkuluk, a lot of your work is about the idea that there's this fire inside of you and your people, that you need to stoke it for it to glow. Where does that conviction come from for you?

Laakkuluk: It comes, I mean, even with the first question that you asked me: where does creativity come from? It comes from the moment that you open your eyes. As all of us will tell you over and over again in this conversation, none of us would exist as human beings, as Indigenous people, as representatives of our own cultures, unless it had been for us making art and for us being on the land and hunting. So I know that every single institution has done much work to eradicate us, to get rid of us. And yet here we are with our love and our laughter, and our great need to create. So it's a deep conviction that I have. I know we're here because of this.

Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and her daughter.
Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and her daughter. (White Pine Pictures)

Elamin: I do want to return to the laughter that you just mentioned, but also the laughter that Tomson mentioned earlier. Tomson, we've talked about the role of art, right, and creating in being so fundamental to who you are. How does that laughter weave its way into your art?

Tomson: My first language is not English or French, or any European language. It's Cree. I come from northern Manitoba, the Manitoba/Nunavut border. And when I was growing up, there were two Native languages up there back then — Cree and Dene, the neighboring nation. And so we grew up bilingual in Cree and Dene. I grew up with two Native languages, which is a huge privilege. And so somebody asked me one time, a great intellectual asked me one day, "How do you know that Cree is the funniest language in the world? How can you say that one of the 60 languages existent in the Congo is not the funniest language in the world if you don't speak it?" And I said, "I don't know the answer to that question. The only answer I have for you for sure is that whenever you speak Cree, you start laughing with the very first syllable. The second you switch to English, you stop laughing automatically." One language teaches us that we're here to suffer, to pay for a sin that we never committed and that we're bound for hell when we die. The other language teaches us to laugh with the very first syllable. And that's the fundamental truth.

Elamin: I love that description of the idea of the minute that you begin speaking in Cree, that's where the laughter begins. Laakkuluk, it's the day before your daughter's graduation from high school. When you think about the future that you're hoping for, what is the place of art in that world, would you say?

Laakkuluk: The place of art in the future is continuous. My daughter['s name] means "she's mixed," "she's a mix of us." And here she is, graduating in 2023 and she has a name that is old, old, old. And she's going to go forth into university, and into sports and writing stories. And I know that she's been given all of our stories, our history, and it's going to continue. I know I've done that. My family, my husband and I have done that for her. She has it. I'm not worried about art in the future.

Elamin: That's beautiful. That is really beautiful.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Jess Low.