In Gentle Warrior, a brand new song created by the students and teachers of Allison Bernard Memorial High School, in Eskasoni First Nation, young Mi'kmaq musicians dance and sing about their determination to reclaim their culture.
These students are taking part in the National Arts Centre's Rita Joe Project, a nationwide challenge to aboriginal youth to make new music based on I Lost My Talk, a poem Joe wrote about her childhood pain of being forbidden to speak her own language in Residential school.
The children she knew lost their "talk" — forbidden to speak the language of their parents and grandparents in the residential schools they were forced to attend. Joe's poem is about the loss of identity, but also a call to regain the culture and share it:
I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.
The NAC arranged for guest artists to conduct songwriting workshops with students in Maniwaki, Que., Norway House in Manitoba, Edmonton, Iqaluit and Eskasoni, Nova Scotia.
Eskasoni is Rita Joe's hometown, so young musicians such as Kalolin Johnson, the featured singer in Gentle Warrior was already schooled in the poet's legacy.
Johnson says she learned about the courage to express herself from lessons about Joe.
The students are here in Ottawa to present their music in a live performance.
Rita Joe's youngest daughter Anne is here as well. She says her mother would have been overjoyed to see her work still resonates with young people.
"She loved children. She loved connecting with children. When she was well she would travel to schools and read her poems to them. She would love it that they are inspired by her work and making something new of it," said Joe.
Today, the students who attend Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni First Nation, Nova Scotia, are able to take courses in Mi'kmaq Language and Mi'kmaq Culture, and they say there is pride and hope for the future of their culture.