An oral history of the Indigenous music Juno Award category

Almost 25 years ago, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Elaine Bomberry, and Shingoose helped prove that Indigenous artists deserved more, and ended up changing the national music scene forever.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Elaine Bomberry, Quantum Tangle, more on the award that changed Indigenous music forever

Quantum Tangle won the 2017 Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. (Courtesy of the artist)

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Indigenous music album of the year category at the Juno Awards. In that time, the Indigenous music community's incredible artistry and innovation has sparked breakthroughs and breakouts. There are countless bands and artists, established and emerging, Indigenizing "mainstream" music coast to coast, north and south, one city at a time.

All of this success is not thanks just to the creation of the award — as category co-creator and winner Buffy Sainte-Marie jokes, "It's not as though the Junos invented us!" — but it helped amplify Indigenous artists, getting their music out to a bigger audience.

Ahead of the category's quarter-centennial, CBC Music spoke with Sainte-Marie and Elaine Bomberry, two of the category's co-creators, in addition to Lawrence Martin, the first-ever recipient of the award, and a selection of winners and nominees past and present, including DJ Shub, Leela Gilday, Vince Fontaine, Murray Porter, Crystal Shawanda and Quantum Tangle's Grey Gritt and Tiffany Ayalik.

From the first pitch and the first win, through countless milestones, life-changing moments and inspiring stories, to the divided opinions about its very existence and its future, this is the oral history of the Juno Award category for Indigenous music album of the year.

The storytellers

  • Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree): multi-award-winning singer-songwriter, activist, artist, educator and philanthropist.

  • Elaine Bomberry (Ojibway and Cayuga from Six Nations): broadcaster/manager of Murray Porter.

  • Lawrence Martin (Cree): musician and politician. Records as Wapistan; won the Juno in 1994 (the category's first recipient) for Wapistan is Lawrence Martin. Nominated again in 1996 for Message.

  • DJ Shub (Mohawk from Six Nations): solo artist. Formerly of A Tribe Called Red. Nominated for the 2018 Juno for his debut EP, PowWowStep.

  • Leela Gilday (Dene): solo artist. Won the Juno in 2007 for Sedzé. Nominated in 2003 for Spirit World, Solid Wood and in 2015 for Heart of the People.

  • Vince Fontaine (Ojibway): Previously of Eagle & Hawk, which won the Juno in 2002 for On and On, and was nominated in 2004 (Mother Earth), 2006 (Life Is…) and 2011 (The Great Unknown). Currently the founder and guitarist of Indian City, nominated for the 2018 Juno for Here & Now.

  • Murray Porter (Mohawk): blues singer-songwriter and pianist. Nominated for the Juno with Pappy Johns Band in 2005 (Full Circle) and won in 2012 (Songs Lived and Life Played).

  • Grey Gritt (Ojibway-Métis): singer and guitarist for the duo Quantum Tangle, which won the Juno last year for the EP Tiny Hands.  

  • Tiffany Ayalik (Inuk): singer for Quantum Tangle, also an actor.

Elaine Bomberry co-founded the Indigenous Music category at the Juno Awards in 1994. (Courtesy of Elaine Bomberry)

Elaine Bomberry: I was doing rez radio [in the early '90s] and started my own show called Aboriginal Airways. I was asked to be a judge for what was then called the world beat category I believe. It included so much! Native Canadian was listed, but it was, like, typewritten at the last minute. I kind of went off. I said, "Our music doesn't fit here. It doesn't fit in any of the categories," and the president of CARAS [Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences], Daisy Falle, says, "Well, why don't you start a category?" and I just laughed, "Yeah, right, start a category!" They said maybe you can explore if there's enough music out there, and I said of course, there's tons of music out there. I had to document at least 15 Indigenous recordings in the previous year, and 15 in the coming year. I ended up documenting 25 in the previous year and 40 in the coming year. My fax machine was just pumping.

My friend Shingoose [a musician whose real name is Curtis Johnnie] was one of the early folk guys. Both of us were getting the documentation and everything and it was a few days before our presentation [to CARAS] and I suddenly get a phone call from Buffy. I let out a little scream. [Laughs]

Buffy Sainte-Marie: People had been talking about [the category] for a long time but it hadn't come together and then all of a sudden it did. I was so grateful to Elaine and Shingoose for having carried it as far as they did. I was just thrilled to be a guest. They did all the work, I just offered to help.

​Bomberry: I told Buffy what we had worked on so far and her and Goose were friends, of course. They knew each other and worked with each other over the years. She goes, "Why don't you guys come down to my hotel for dinner and we'll talk about this stuff." We went to her hotel room, I brought my letters and I had one or two albums of hers to sign [laughs]. The next day was the presentation, and we had 20 minutes to it. She goes, "Let's talk strategy," and I went, "Strategy or not, you're the first person to walk in that door!"

She was like the flag bearer and we went travelling behind her. Buffy starts and she'd written an essay, which she had read to us the night before. So, she made this amazing speech and then Shingoose gave his info, and then I gave just the numbers and talked about the different musicians. After our presentation, we felt good. About 20-25 minutes later, they brought us back in and they said, "You have the category but you can't tell anyone for three weeks until our media conference." We're just like, "Oh my God, we're gonna sit on this for three weeks?" The next night, Buffy was going on a national talk show and she's talking about what she's touring now and stuff, and then she mentioned, "Oh, yeah, the Junos are coming up, wouldn't it be nice to have a Native category?" [Laughs] That was her way of dropping a hint so that was kind of cool.

In 1994, the category for best music of Aboriginal Canada recording was born. In 2003, the category was renamed the Aboriginal recording of the year, and in 2010, it became the Aboriginal album of the year. In 2017, it changed again, this time to the Indigenous music album of the year.

Sainte-Marie: You don't get that category because someone feels sorry for you or because they respect your ancestors. It was not a cultural mandate. You have to prove that you have the numbers. It's really kind of a business thing. There have to be producers and studios, songwriters and artists and musicians and genres, and there have to be fans and performances. There actually has to be an Indigenous music community [and that's what we proved].

I knew that across Canada there were Indigenous musicians, a lot of them, and they already had a career but nobody was kind of throwing a little net around that for the public, a little sparkly net of realization. I thought the general category would give opportunity to Indigenous artists who were already playing and so, you know, let's celebrate it and get it recorded. I thought it would be an opportunity for Indigenous musicians to have a stage but I also thought that audiences worldwide were missing a good thing. I had been there, I knew we had the numbers, and that we really did exist — it's not as though the Junos invented us! [Laughter]

Lawrence Martin: I had just turned 36 years old, my first grandson was born, and I had a whole bunch of songs in my briefcase that I'd never recorded because my dream was to record in Nashville. So, I drove down to Nashville that summer before the Junos and my friend says to take this sweetgrass with you to this guy named John Stewart [a songwriter and producer] in Nashville. He wanted to learn about Native history and Native people, so I met John in Nashville. He listened to my songs and he says, "Those country songs are a dime a dozen and we have much better singers than you down here in Nashville so forget about that, but those Native songs — nobody is doing that. Garth Brooks is not doing that. Why don't you go home and write some more songs that talk about your Native culture that you can sing in your language and incorporate some of that weird chanting that you do?" So I did, and a couple months later I go back down and meet up with him, and I have saved up a little bit of money and we did a demo. That demo became my album.

We submitted the album as is to the Junos and next thing you know if we get a notice that it's been nominated! I was able to play one of my songs called "Elders"' [at the ceremony], and as soon as I finished the song, I was told to just go stand off to the side of the stage behind the curtain and to listen to the announcement. I hear, "The winner is Wapistan is Lawrence Martin!" Oh shit! I go out there and then I see the crowd and I just freeze. I didn't know what to say so I started speaking in Cree just to give myself a little bit of breathing space and finally start getting my thoughts together and I spoke in English and my children were just screaming their heads off. That's all I could hear, I recognized their screams. [Laughs]  

Murray Porter: There was a point where I couldn't get accepted into blues festivals because they were under the assumption that I was going to be wearing a headdress and banging a drum but that's not the truth. They didn't understand that we have musicians in every genre. When Elaine and Buffy and Shingoose started this category, it just opened up a whole new avenue for all of us for real.

MartinBeing the first winner — I definitely benefited from that and I think it sent a lot of messages to a lot of young people. I was mayor of Sioux Lookout, and I remember coming back after [winning] and being met by a lot of Sioux Lookout people at the airport and then having hundreds and hundreds of letters coming in from children from First Nations communities everywhere. That was the highlight.

We did something great as a First Nations people. We entered into this mainstream society; all of a sudden we're all over the news and I was being interviewed by CBC and I did a tour of Canada and a tour of Australia. I went to Europe a couple times. Like, wow, this is really cool: being able to sing my songs that are in Cree and English, a way for me to promote my language and culture. Then seeing other musicians, Native musician coming on and doing the same thing, that was really cool. It was a political movement and a musical triumph for us.

Porter: Originally, we had no chance of winning any kind of award, it just wasn't going to happen. When the category started is when every Native person thought, "Wow, I have a chance to win a Juno. I'm going to get busy ready-ing my songs. I'm going to get busy recording," and that's what really happened. It was a big giant avalanche of people starting their recordings just because they had a chance to win and they could be on a national stage. It just changed the whole outlook of our Native artists.

Vince FontaineA new generation of artists began jumping on board. I started the band Eagle & Hawk. I didn't even actually think that the Junos would be something that we could participate in because we didn't have a record deal and it would seem like it was an industry event, but we still had a real desire. But there was a door for us to try and go through. We decided we were going to put out some original music, but we didn't even submit our first album! I don't even know why. I just didn't even really feel I was a recording artist yet, but it was kind of funny because we had a great album.

In 2002, the Junos went to St. John's and that was incredible. Eagle & Hawk was up for an award and it was like, "Are you kidding me?" We got called up to the podium! It was so cool but it was also so funny because you get your award, you do your onstage speech, then you go to the photo-op and then you go to the media room and then the greenroom, and the next thing you know, you're in the hallway going back to your seats. It's like, holy smokes, we just had a two-minute whirlwind and now we're walking down the hallway by ourselves, like, what the heck this is like Spinal Tap. Then suddenly the artist Shaggy — very big-time, international artist at the time — he comes up to us and goes, "Congratulations, mon." We went to some of the after-parties and we got to hang out with and meet Blue Rodeo and Jim Cuddy and those folks and Nelly Furtado. It was really incredible.

​Leela Gilday: The first time I was nominated was in 2003 and it was for my very first album. I had already graduated from music school and went to Toronto, but of course you can't be full-time in music right away unless you're very lucky. I made this album over the course of a year. It was sort of a compilation of songs that I had written over the past five years, and it was really a huge step for me as an artist. I studied opera and when I graduated, I was intending to stay in classical music. But, I decided, "Oh, I'm just going to try songwriting because I have this creative voice inside me that I'm not hearing represented in what I'm singing." I got nominated for an award at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and then all of a sudden this whole other audience kind of opened up for me.

Elaine Bomberry called me up the night before the deadline of the application for the Junos and she said, "I really think you should apply for this." And I was like, "Well, I don't think I'm there yet." I'd been performing for many years but I felt nervous to apply because it was my first album, but I rushed and I put together an application, I brought it over to CARAS and got it in before the deadline. I was floored when I got a nomination. The Junos were in Ottawa that year and they put me onstage performing one of my songs during the first evening, the industry awards, the same night that my award is usually handed out on. So there I am singing "Village of Widows," which is a song about uranium mining in front of, like, Avril Lavigne. It was really a fantastic experience and it sort of changed everything for me at that point, just being able to reach a lot more people.

PorterSome people say, "Oh, Junos, whatever, it's awards for music, who cares, doesn't make a difference," but I think it actually can be pretty important to the artists particularly if their music is political and meaningful and purposeful.

Fontaine: In Calgary, when Derek Miller won, he went up there and the first thing he said was, "You know. I wish we had clean drinking water." And there have been other artists that have said their peace publicly, like Buffy shared some of her wisdom and her convictions. This is an opportunity for artists to use their voices, and to not only reinforce their music identity but their Indigenous heritage.

Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Leela Gilday helped inspire When They Awake, a film about the power of Indigenous music. (Shawna McLeod photo)

Gilday: [Winning my Juno in 2007] was super emotional. Sedzé means "my heart" in North Slavey. I was really happy when we were nominated because I knew the impact that the first nomination has had on my career, and I totally did not expect to win. My parents came down from Yellowknife and my best friend came out from Ottawa and they called my name and I was really confused for a minute. Then everybody around me was like yelling and then I just started kind of hyperventilating a little bit. I got onstage and I hadn't really written a speech because I didn't really think that I would win and I just ended up talking about Indigenous voices and the importance of representing, of hearing us in the mainstream.

Grey GrittIt had kind of been this dream of mine to be nominated since I was a kid but I didn't know that it would ever happen and I had never thought about even applying for the Juno up to that point. Under some encouragement from a friend of ours, we submitted.

Tiffany Ayalik: The category was just synonymous with Buffy Sainte-Marie: a beautiful woman with fringe and beads. She's my hero and then Leela I know from growing up in Yellowknife. Her dad was my music teacher and I just was always thinking the Gildays were a super awesome family, and those were the two names I associated with the category.

Gritt: Being nominated was such a gift and also such a validating experience. To be acknowledged by your peers as promoting excellence, and good music, and hard work. Honestly, we were writing our thank-you speech at the table because we didn't think we were gonna win and as the night went on we're like, "I suppose we could win, I mean, it's one in five, so maybe." The category is announced pretty much at the end of the night and so we're just seeing these tables get up and speech after speech and we're just like, palms getting sweatier and sweatier. In the end, we didn't even use the speech because we were so flabbergasted that I forgot how to even use a phone and I couldn't turn up the brightness on my phone.

Ayalik: Let's be honest, we all had tears in our eyes. It was hard to look down because they were full of water.

Gritt: We cried all friggin' day. It was an incredible weekend.

Ayalik: We're just two kids from the north on a red carpet, and there's Kiefer Sutherland in the corner, and Buffy's over there, Tribe is over there having some steak. Be cool, be cool!

DJ Shub: The nomination [for 2017's PowWowStep] is a real compliment. It's a compliment of what I've been doing, especially of my solo career now that I'm by myself and on my own. It's good to get that recognition as a solo artist and I think that was the biggest thing for me personally this year.

Porter: The big thing for me is that we don't always get featured on the big show. I received my Juno in 2012 at the big dinner the night before the Junos. At some point I would like to see us on the big stage on the big night at the big performance. There's no reason we should be shuttled down to the non-rockstar categories. It's sad the way they do it actually; pop stars and rock stars are the only ones featured. What about the jazz artists, the classical people, blues artists and folk artists? Are we not important enough?

DJ Shub is nominated for a 2018 Juno for his debut solo EP, PowWowStep. (Submitted by DJ Shub)

DJ ShubIt was kind of the consensus of [A Tribe Called Red] to not submit [in the Aboriginal category]. I think we were more stern on being recognized as artists. I've always had split thoughts on the whole category. For one, I definitely think that it's brought Indigenous music to the forefront and it wouldn't have been anywhere close [to that] without the category being that way. I think it's done a lot for the artists, especially just seeing different artists that you wouldn't have been able to see before, or hear, brought to that mainstream level of notoriety.

I was not a big fan of being an Aboriginal artist. I mean I look at myself as an artist first, not as an Aboriginal artist. That's my only thing I had against the category. I think there were a lot of Native artists that kind of shared my same thoughts but that's nothing compared to what it does for you. Especially, the youth coming up and knowing that you can do your work, do what you do as an artist and be recognized at that top level.

Gritt: I think without the Indigenous category, I'm not sure how we would have fit in. I'm not sure if we necessarily would have been given the time of day and I can certainly understand why some people don't apply to this category or don't apply to any category at all, and that's totally valid and I support that. I think it's in the same way that it's broad, but it allows us to fit in.

Ayalik: When people say, "Should we even still have this category?," I think that Canada's so huge and there are so many different people and we are far from a monolithic kind of culture. Some areas in Canada, like are we still in 1950 right now? There's still rampant racism. There are considerable barriers to Indigenous artists that frankly do not exist for any other category of artists. Even talking about barriers like having poor internet. Applying for the Junos is tricky.

Gritt: We know someone who wasn't able to apply because their internet doesn't allow for it. They couldn't upload their material, it's dial-up speeds. But also, we've got to create, but how am I supposed to record when I don't have water? Or I don't have food security? Or I don't have an ability to travel out to get equipment or to work with people?

Gilday: I moved back home in 2002 when I released my first record but I still wasn't really able to afford to live at home because the north is very, very expensive. I was basically on the road 11 months a year.

​Gritt: The financial barriers — I mean even for us to exit Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, it's not always that affordable and it takes a lot of time. So you take that all into consideration. Some people call for the eradication of that category, but we've literally had it for only 24 years so that doesn't seem remotely equitable to how much time we went without it. We should have that category and we should also be in other categories at the same time because we were just excluded for so much time that if you want to make good on that, and to make a difference and to make things equitable.

It might seem to some folks as unfair but if they were seeing things from this side, this perspective, they might see how that is only like a tiny, tiny, tiny drop in the bucket of what can be done. When else in history do you have a band that won a Juno who has a female Indigenous and transgender, two-spirit, Indigenous, kind of queer band winning a Juno? I've been openly queer and two-spirit and transgender and non-binary for the past six years, and other identities for even longer, so for me to be in the category and to go up and win, I'm like, when else has this ever happened?

Gilday: People talk about stereotyping and marginalization when it comes to this category and I really don't think that's what's happening. It's not a poverty category, it's a strong category and actually I wish the Indigenous musicians who haven't submitted to it would submit so we can continue to increase and raise the level of professionalism and musicianship in the category. But that's their choice.

Bomberry: One thing though the Junos did was [add] flexibility for craft categories. Like, blues Aboriginal, roots, those that aren't based on sales. They allow you to submit into two craft categories, that's just within the last maybe seven, eight years. The Indigenous category is there to help people get their feet in the door.

Sainte-Marie: [The category] has acted like a ladder whereby a person can raise their profile a little bit so that they can be seen because most artists, there's a visibility problem. Even with YouTube and, you know, somebody who's lucky enough to be using all this nice technology, it's very, very hard to compete with big record companies who have billion-dollar budgets and budgets for publicity. Most artists don't even have a publicist. Just to get your music heard in a category, I mean, it's such an honour. It's a little boost, but you have to make the most of it.

​Bomberry: Hopefully one of these days they'll have enough recordings — we were hoping that we would have been able to split the category [between traditional and contemporary] but it just didn't happen. Splitting the category was always the ultimate goal.

Sainte-Marie: Here's what I would like to see for the future of the Junos in general, not only our category but everything: I would like to see more people applying for positions and involvement and participation in the Junos. If you want to vote, if you want to become a part of it, consider it. Just go to their website, there's all kinds of things that you might be doing including becoming a judge of a category where you have some expertise. The future of the Junos would be greatly beautified and enhanced if more roots people — women, Indigenous people, roots people of all kinds who are music lovers and, you know, do have something to do with music would apply for and take seriously filling those positions.

GildayMy overall feeling from my friends, who are my colleagues, is this has been important in all of our lives, and it can be going forward. When something first starts, you feel like you're all alone, but we're not. When I was first emerging as a young artist in the industry, I was really embraced by other Indigenous artists. For young Indigenous artists right now, having strong shoulders to stand on, it's so important. I see a lot of really talented young emerging artists coming up and I'll do all that I can to support them and to really place their voices forward. No other category has an honoring ceremony for its nominees. That's really unique and it builds community.

Bomberry: I'm also tremendously proud — with some organizations, we were able to hire someone to organize the very first honouring celebration for the Aboriginal nominees and that started a tradition that happens every year. So it goes community to community, and it varies, one year I think they did a showcase in the bar. But the original intention was to bring it to the community and have the community come and meet the nominees and we'd have food, and we'd honour them with gifts and prayers and songs so it's still happening. We're a small category but with lots of heart.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


Wherever you are in the world, you can watch the 2018 Juno Awards broadcast live from the Rogers Arena in Vancouver this Sunday, March 25 at cbcmusic.ca/junos.


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