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A dialogue on Indigenous law, song and opera

Queen’s professor leads conversation on the mis-use of Indigenous songs in contemporary classical music.

If the production of contemporary Canadian opera is a rare occurrence, it is even rarer that such work leads to dialogue about the relationship between Indigenous law and song.

Dylan Robinson (Languages, Literatures and Cultures, cross appointed in six departments/programs including Music & Drama and Cultural Studies) played a leading role in a dialogue on the misuse of Indigenous songs in contemporary performances. The dialogue was spurred by the remounting of the opera Louis Riel, which features a Nisga'a mouring song performed in a manner that conflicts with its significance to Nisga'a culture and law.

For Queen’s professor Dylan Robinson (Languages, Literatures and Cultures), the Canadian Opera Company’s remounting of the opera Louis Riel, based on the life of the Métis political leader, was an opportunity not only to address issues of song appropriation, but also the ways in which music organizations across the country might play a role in redressing the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“This dialogue is part of a longer conversation that has been going on for quite a number of years between myself and a number of Indigenous colleagues regarding the many uses of our songs within musical compositions,” says Dr. Robinson, a scholar of Stó:lō descent who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts. “I felt it was important that Indigenous musicians, performers, and knowledge-keepers come together to share our views with music organizations on the functions that Indigenous song serves as law, history and medicine. Our songs are much more than simply songs.”

The day before the Louis Riel’s opening, Dr. Robinson led a dialogue to discuss First Nations song protocol and the mis-use of Indigenous songs in Canadian compositions. Represented in the dialogue were Nisga’a and Métis performers and artists, representatives of the Canadian Opera Company, National Arts Centre, Canadian Music Centre, and the executors and advisors to the estates of the composer and librettist, and members of Louis Riel’s cast and stage director.

Spurring the dialogue was the opera’s use of a Nisga’a mourning song, the “Song of Skateen,” in an aria sung in Cree by the character Marguerite Riel. Under Nisga’a tradition and law, the song is only to be sung when a community member or chief passes away, or with the appropriate permission of the family who holds the hereditary rights to sing it. Dr. Robinson explains that, in the context of the performance, the song is being utilized in a way that conflicts with its significance for Nisga’a peoples.

“I believe our ancestors shared these songs for safe keeping for our future generations,” explains Dr. Robinson. “Instead, once the songs were recorded, they were then simply ‘filed away’ in museum collections, in the words of the ethnographer Marius Barbeau who recorded “Song of Skateen”. This is where thousands of Indigenous songs remain, often disconnected from Indigenous communities to whom they belong. In some cases, particular songs were also transcribed into western music notation. This made it very easy for contemporary Canadian composers to use them without the knowledge of the families and individuals who still hold the hereditary rights to their use.”

The community consultation, led by Dr. Robinson on April 19, was one of a number of initiatives the Canadian Opera Company committed to in order to address the issue. Another was to host two presentations by the Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a Traditional Dancers led by Wal'aks Keane Tait and the Git Hayetsk Dancers led by G̱oothl Ts'imilx Mike Dangeli and Sm Łoodm ’Nüüsm- Mique'l Dangeli  who explained the true history of the song to the opera’s audience.

Dr. Robinson says a second dialogue is planned in conjunction with the opera’s Ottawa performance, scheduled for June 15 and 17. He says that, while this is the first step in a much larger conversation on how music organizations might address the various issues, the response by the Canadian Opera Company’s director Alexander Neef and Heather Moore of the National Arts Centre’s upcoming Canada Scene gives him reason to be optimistic.

“I feel hopeful, and that’s kind of a new thing for me to say,” he explains. “I have had similar conversations over the years with non-Indigenous composers and music organizations that have fallen on deaf ears. This time, however, the Canadian Opera Company and National Arts Centre moved with agility to address the issue as the serious infraction of Nisga’a law that it is. That has not happened before, and so even though we’re at the beginning, I think that there is some institutional will to bring about meaningful action.”