Singing in the face of colonial danger: Music's place in Indigenous resistance
From healing balms to calls to action — how singing, drumming and dancing help bolster resistance movements
Music can be a galvanizing force. It can provide peaceful meditation; it can be a rallying cry. From marches to round dances, powwows to standoffs on unceded territory, Indigenous people use music and dance to spread awareness, come together and combat years of colonial oppression.
Defending the land and protecting the water is both physically and emotionally exhausting, but music can act as a healing balm, whether it's singing traditional spiritual songs during a march or playing the hand drum around a sacred fire.
Indigenous resistance is inextricably linked to music and dance, especially in a country where, for many generations, First Nations people were forbidden from practising their own culture. In the wake of the continual discovery of mass graves on the sites of former residential schools and increasing colonial encroachment on Indigenous land, CBC Music spoke with four Indigenous artists, land defenders, water protectors and community organizers about the big and small ways music has factored into their resistance.
Editor's note: the transcribed conversations below have been edited and condensed.
Staats is a singer-songwriter, water protector and land defender. He is Mohawk from Six Nations. Recently, Staats spent six months travelling between British Columbia and Ontario to stand on the frontlines in Wet'suwet'en territory to protest the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
"At one point I kept my music separate from my activism but as I got further into activism, I realized the most powerful thing I could do is just make them the same thing. A lot of my recent writing has been done on the frontline and I'd say it's some of my best writing. My music in the past is about love, loss and desperation. I was letting it fall out of me to help me heal from heartache. Now, what I'm writing is still kind of in the same vein but my heart's not broken by a partner, it's broken by the experiences that I've had, being on the frontline, being at these blockades, being part of some really beautiful moments of resistance. It's more about reclamation and our people and our loss and the desecration of our lands. Indigenous resistance, everything we've been through in the past 500 years, is embodied in my work.
"I went through quite a lot when I was invited to Wet'suwet'en territory and I was badly arrested [in November], like hyper-violently arrested, and a lot of my writing stemmed from that because it was a hard thing to deal with, to shake the dust off after being attacked by the police. The only way I've ever been able to deal with my traumas and things that have happened in my life are with music.
"One of the most pivotal moments of my time on the frontline was the day of the raid. I was with seven other land defenders, including a matriarch, and our job was to hold this bridge. I think 100 RCMP officers showed up with sniper rifles, dogs, semi-automatic weapons, shields and started marching in formation toward us. In those moments, you kind of have to decide, 'Am I gonna run away, or stand my ground?'
"It was one of the most terrifying, violent moments I've ever experienced. All eight of us stood together, on that bridge in the face of all that colonial danger and we just started singing. My sister grabbed a drum and we started singing a traditional Mohawk water song. I just remember as these cops were closing in, and we sang and gathered around the matriarch to make sure she was protected.
"Our singing was also one of the reasons I was able to stand there in great peace. We didn't react violently. Because of that song and what it means to us, I was able to control my anger. You know, you're getting punched, pushed around, knocked to the ground; instinctively you want to fight. But I just remember singing and that kept me standing in pride and great peace."
Maud is an organizer with the Orange Abinoojiinh Movement. On May 31, 2021, the chiefs of Fort William First Nation and Nishnawbe Aski Nation announced a sacred fire in Thunder Bay to honour the 215 children whose bodies were found buried on the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. That sacred fire began at the former site of St. Joseph's Indian Residential School. Maud and her partner, Clarence Fisher, had the idea to continue honouring the children and got permission to keep the sacred fire burning, organizing with members of the community to move it around Thunder Bay. They kept the fire burning for a total of 123 days, culminating on Sept. 30, the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
"We moved the fire around every four days. We'd take embers from the fire every time we moved it and used that to start it up again in a new place. It was a really beautiful ceremony. It was really amazing to see the amount of people that joined us. We made 215 moccasins for people to place in the fire for the children. We had an elder that told us of a vision that she had, that we should try to keep this fire going for as long as we could. When these kinds of things happen to Indigenous people, the government and the colonized world, they just expect us to be quiet and sweep it under the carpet as usual. There were so many people that needed this fire to heal and grieve, especially the survivors.
"We ended with a two-day powwow at Fort William First Nation. It was really amazing to be able to bring the fire to an end with a powwow. Most of our group members being dancers, lots of people had been missing powwows and not being able to go because of COVID-19 regulations.
"When it comes to dancing, our mind, body and spirits are connecting with Mother Earth. We see the beat of the drum as our heartbeat. It's just very moving. And it was very healing for our people to be able to dance for our ancestors and those children.
"One of our sons had never danced in his life and throughout the time of the sacred fire, we would have the big drum come. One of the singers is a hoop dancer and he would teach the kids how to hoop dance. My son took a huge interest in it and he mastered it like no problem. Every single time he heard a drum, even if it was just the hand drum, he would dance.
"One of the elders noticed his dancing and showed up one day with a surprise. He put down a box and told my son to open it and inside that box was full regalia, like top to bottom, it was beaded everything. It was amazing. He and his wife were trying to figure out who to give their son's regalia to because it didn't fit him anymore."
Simard is a cultural leader, a singer, a drummer and the Indigenous Performance Arts Alliance's regional coordinator for northwest Ontario. He's been active in the First Nations music and arts scene since he was 12 years old. Simard is a member of the Obishikokaang First Nation in Treaty Three Territory and he sits with the Kingfisher Clan. He is a Sixties Scoop survivor.
"I was adopted with my older sister when I was two. She ended up leaving our adoptive family at a young age because of the abuse that was going on in the household, and I left when I was 11. My goal was always to come back to northern Ontario, back to Thunder Bay. I was very fortunate to get to go to a cultural school and all of my teachers and mentors were traditional storytellers and beaders. We had the likes of Dr. Richard Lyons [a community leader responsible for the resurgence of First Nation culture and heritage in northern Ontario] teaching us. He taught us drumming and dancing. We had dancers that came in and showed us different dances, different kinds of regalia, fancy dance or the grass dance, or the traditional dance.
"When I got older, I aged out of Children's Aid and I ran around in the streets for a while. But what ended up saving me was the drum. I started a drumming group, Thunder Mountain Singers, with all these other guys that were also aged out of children's aid. We were young, 16 and 17 years old, and we'd all experienced having to deal with police and racism and all of that stuff. And we found that we had a voice through singing, and were really encouraged by the community to keep on singing.
"One of the first times I remember the big drum being used for a protest in Thunder Bay was in the '80s, when the government was trying to cancel an education bill for post-secondary students. The organizers of the march asked our drum to lead the procession. We marched to Indian Affairs, which was located in Thunder Bay back then, but has since moved. Lots of people came out, prior to that there had always been small gatherings but this is one of the ones that really brought a lot of people out and it really started their movement for the education protests and they went all the way to Ottawa.
"It really woke people up, in terms of how to utilize the big drum to bring people together. A lot of the songs during these protests or activities are meant to bring people together, sometimes they're prayer songs, sometimes they're invitations, sometimes they're spiritual songs."
Whabagoon is a water protector, a land defender and the First Peoples leadership advisor to the dean at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. She is an Ojibway elder, a member of Lac Seul First Nation and she sits with the Loon Clan. She is a Sixties Scoop survivor.
"I made a promise to the water when I was probably around six or seven years old, that I would respect her and that I would carry the word on and teach other people how to love her, how to connect with her and have a relationship with her. I sing to the water, I pray to it, I pray for it.
"You'll often hear me just pick up the drum behind me [in my office] and start singing a song, I do that so I'm always in a peaceful state of mind. My drum saved my life when I was very young and I pay huge respect to it.
"When I've had to march under the blazing hot sun, song helps me through. When I first began protecting the land and the water 15 years ago, I joined this very interesting group of women who taught me all the songs, some ceremonial songs, the Strong Woman song, the Idle No More song, the Mukwa [Anishinaabe Spirit Bear] song and more.
"I always think of the women in Standing Rock, one of my good friends, she stood in the waters, while she was shot at with rubber bullets. She stood there in very cold waters and she said what got her through was the song she was singing and knowing that the water she stood in was going to be there for generations to come. Whenever we make a decision, we always have to think seven generations ahead. How is this going to affect seven generations ahead of time? And that's a huge question when you're protecting the water and the land."