Jeremy Dutcher, The Newest Light In Canada's Indigenous Renaissance

Sep 24, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 6:48 pm

Read Catalina Maria Johnson's profile of Jeremy Dutcher, originally published in September 2018, below — and listen at the audio link for the year-end version, adapted for radio.

"You are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. Are you ready to hear the truth that needs to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?" exclaimed musicologist, vocalist and composer Jeremy Dutcher as he received the Polaris Music Prize for his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. The Polaris is one of Canada's most prestigious music prizes, awarded through a unique process of deliberation by members of the media and music industry, charged with basing their decision solely on artistic merit.

More importantly, however, as a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, one of six Wolastoqiyik reserves in New Brunswick, Dutcher delivered these words in English only after first addressing the audience in his traditional Wolastoq language with the phrase: "Psiw-te npomawsuwinuwok, kiluwaw yut!" Translated: "All of my people, this is for you!"


Indeed, Dutcher is now at the forefront of an Indigenous renaissance. The last four out of five Polaris Prize winners have Indigenous roots, following Afro-Colombian/Wayuu artist Lido Pimienta in 2017, Cree singer-songwriter and cultural icon Buffy Sainte-Marie in 2015 and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq in 2014. (In 2016, the Haitian-born, Montreal-reared producer Kaytranada took the prize.)

A classically trained operatic tenor and ethnomusicologist, Dutcher apprenticed with Maggie Paul, one of his nation's song-carriers, who use ancient music to heal and to mentor young people. Dutcher's always, intentionally and obviously, prioritizes and centers his people, the Wolastoqiyik — the People of the Beautiful River — in Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa.

The Polaris Prize, which comes with a $50,000 award, is the capstone to a five-year journey for Dutcher, who had been alerted by Paul to the existence of 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of his ancestors' songs, stored in an archive in the Canadian Museum of History. Dutcher then created breathtakingly beautiful arias and ballads in dialogue incorporating electronic samples of those recordings, and named the award-winning album after the title of the archive.

Dutcher is one of the only approximately 100 individuals who speak Wolastoq, he says, which is classified as a "severely endangered language." Speaking on the phone from Toronto, Dutcher says composing the songs of the album also became a way of developing a closer relationship with his own ancestors, as well a vehicle for sharing and elevating the value of their art.

This work, Dutcher says, he undertakes in order to counteract a history, in Canada as well as the USA, that is woefully familiar: "Indigenous people have been systematically dispossessed of their culture and their languages, through boarding school, through reservation schools, through education systems that did not value who we were as indigenous people."

His own mother, he adds, has seen Wolastoq become nearly extinct over the course of her life, after growing up in a community in her reserve in New Brunswick, Canada, where it had been the language of everyday interactions. However, Dutcher is convinced that this loss can be just as quickly reversed, with efforts like his album foregrounding the value of the language and the culture of the Wolastoqiyik.

Above all, he explains, his art emerges from the perspective of "Indigenous futurism," a viewpoint that differs vastly from that of Western colonial powers that sought to subjugate and effectively erase Indigenous cultures.

One of the cornerstones of Indigenous futurism as a philosophy is recovering the use of traditional languages, given that their grammatical structures signal, among other things, a profound connection to the land. Dutcher describes how the Wolastoq term for "multiple trees" is basically equivalent to calling a group of trees "tree people, our relatives," which indicates an understanding of the world around us as family and reflects a fundamentally respectful relationship with nature.

Another example of the worldview contained within the Wolastoq language: It has no gendered pronouns. For Dutcher, as someone who is "two-spirit, queer," this is crucial. "This is where we are going, as I see it, as I sit in the middle of this silly colonial gender binary that seems to have washed up on the shore of this land."

Dutcher's art is also centered on telling his people's story on his own terms, in order to rebut the narrow interpretations that media, movies and music often present of what indigenous people can be and the kinds of art they can create. This includes offering string quartets, piano ballads, and choral pieces in his people's language — subverting Western musical structures and allowing his people's music to exist in parity with colonial traditions.

Matt Barnes /

Such efforts will allow the correct context, Dutcher believes, for a proper relationship with indigenous people, one where there will be "a reconciling, something that needs to be made right." He sees his own work as a subtle and personal way of moving people in that direction, but clarifies that these are lessons best learned not in antagonism but "through beauty and through love."

Along the way, Dutcher is fulfilling the promise proclaimed by his elder Maggie Paul in the third song of the album: "When you bring the songs back, you will bring the dances back, you are going to bring the people back, you are going to bring everything back."

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This year, Canada's top music award, the Polaris Prize, went to 27-year-old Jeremy Dutcher for his debut album. It combines his operatic tenor with 110-year-old recordings of songs in the language of his indigenous people. Dutcher hopes the Polaris win will help bring attention to the issues of culture and identity his people face. Catalina Maria Johnson reports.

CATALINA MARIA JOHNSON, BYLINE: Jeremy Dutcher is a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, and his album is called "Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa," the songs of the people of the beautiful river.


JEREMY DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: Dutcher studied music and anthropology at Dalhousie University. He also apprenticed with a song carrier and elder who told him about the century-old songs housed at the Canadian Museum of History.

DUTCHER: And so I made my way to Ottawa and went down into the basement archives there and threw on some headphones and started a journey.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

To get to hear these voices and to not just hear the songs but also to, you know, hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes and - it was a real snapshot of life at that time. I heard what they heard, you know? There was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. That was something that changed my life.

JOHNSON: Dutcher decided he had a responsibility to share these recordings, so he collaborated with his mentor Passamaquoddy elder Maggie Paul to recover the melodies and lyrics from between the scratches.

MAGGIE PAUL: It took many, many months in order to get whatever we could out of that scratchy cylinders or whatever you call it.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: Jeremy Dutcher was trying to learn the songs, and one day while singing along, he heard a dialogue between his voice and those of the elders and began to compose.

DUTCHER: I was fresh out of my classical music degree, and, you know, I could have created these obscure, atonal string pieces or something. But for me, it was about making accessible music that people could engage with.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: It was about crafting a narrative that ran through these songs and to try to relay the beauty that's within this archive to the people that are listening to this record. And so it was this confluence of taking the training that I had in sort of Euro-Western classical tradition and also the traditional indigenous elements that are so much a part of the source material and trying to put them in conversation with each other.

JOHNSON: It's a conversation that's in danger of being silenced.

DUTCHER: Because even just within one generation, we went from my mother growing up in the community, and everyone spoke the language. It was the language of every day. And now we're at a point where there's less than a hundred fluent speakers left.

JOHNSON: As important as preserving the language is, Maggie Paul says you don't have to know it to feel the music's power.

PAUL: We're all getting connected all in that one space. Whatever language the music puts out, we feel it. We don't have to understand it. We feel it in our heart. We feel it in our spirit. And the vibrations that come from it - it's really awesome.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: In addition to sharing these songs with audiences, Dutcher wants to share something about himself. He identifies as queer or two-spirit.

DUTCHER: I got to chat with an elder who is two-spirit and was raised in the two-spirit way. And she told me that her grandmother told her a story when she was growing up. And she said long ago, long ago, if people were traveling on the road and they came to a community, they would ask, do you have a two-spirit person here? And if they said no, that person would keep traveling because these people were spiritual leaders. Because they had that duality of perspective, they could see both ways at once. And so for me, it's just about being a light and showing the way for young, indigenous two-spirit people that never see that representation.

JOHNSON: Jeremy Dutcher points out that in the Wolastoqiyik language that he is trying to preserve, there is no gender, and he hopes his ancestors appreciate the journey he's undertaken. For NPR News, I'm Catalina Maria Johnson.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.