Music·Point of View

Willie Dunn was more than my mentor

Dunn worked tirelessly to move forward and 'get that truth out,' writes Digging Roots' Raven Kanatakta.

Dunn worked tirelessly to move forward and 'get that truth out,' writes Digging Roots' Raven Kanatakta

A new anthology of Willie Dunn's work called Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies is out now. (David J. Cutler)

Willie Dunn was an influential Mi'kmaq artist, musician, filmmaker, poet, activist and politician. But for musician Raven Kanatakta, one-half of the folk-rock duo Digging Roots, he was also a family friend who introduced him to life as a working musician.

As told to Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Being an amazing storyteller, Willie Dunn wrote from the perspective of being an Indigenous person, which was a rarity back then. He is like the grandfather of Indigenous music in Canada in many ways.

He never had a huge spotlight outside the community, in the mainstream or anything like that, but his voice has always been important for the community because of what he spoke about, what he sang about. He talked about the Indigenous experience, of being alive, and it had such a powerful impact.

He'd come to my rez when I was a kid. He had a song back in the '70s called "Charlie Wenjack," and he was singing about that way before Gord Downie ever talked about it. He talked about the residential school system, and he was active not just on a musical scene, but active in working with young people in the communities.

Willy Dunn on CBC's Songs of Man

9 years ago
Duration 4:58
The aboriginal singer performs on the 1965 CBC-TV program

Willie Dunn was really fundamental to my musical sensibility, and also, because he was a family friend, I not only grew up on his music, but my first professional gig was with Willie. I was 15 or 16 and would travel around and be his guitar player. He basically said, "Raven, I've got a gig for you, show up at the gig." He threw the baby in the river and the baby learned to swim.

A lot of Willie's songs could be pretty hardcore, but the way he approached them was from a place of kindness.- Raven Kanatakta

He would ask me, "What should we play next?" and I'd always say, "Ah, man, let's do 'Crowfoot' again." I remember playing in Ottawa on Canada Day, we played "The Ballad of Crowfoot" and we did a 25-minute version, we were just on fire, and people were crying at the end. A lot of Willie's songs could be pretty hardcore, but the way he approached them was from a place of kindness. Willie felt bad, he didn't want to hurt people, but he also wanted to get that truth out. He worked for that, he really fought for that.

He always said that his guitar was his drum, and you could hear that in his playing. He approached his guitar like he was playing a hand drum, or a powwow drum, and that rhythm was like a train. You could hear that momentum. It was like a 200-ton train that you just can't move from its tracks.

And we talked about that, just pushing forward and wanting to not be in one place. Always be moving forward and keep that momentum. I think that's important to Indigenous people. We want to move forward, we want to raise our voices and we want to tell our stories.

So it's important that his music is out there, and it's important to have us honour the musicians that trail-blazed, because Digging Roots wouldn't be here, Tanya Tagaq wouldn't be here, A Tribe Called Red wouldn't be here without people like Willie and Buffy and everyone else who made those trails for us.

This piece was originally published in 2020 as part of the feature, 60 years of Indigenous Game Changers

Stay Ready! Simple yet complex words from an Indigenous trailblazer. This episode is all about one of the greatest singers, songwriters and storytellers of the past century: Willie Dunn. For those who know of the Mi’kmaq artist, it's understood that he's a legend. A visionary... An artist who could see into the future and the past, and sing through time. An activist who helped shape a movement for generations of Indigenous artists to come. BUT, for too long this enigmatic lodestar of insight and creativity has been overlooked. Willie played an integral role in the long continuum of resistance and reclamation through Indigenous music. Some would say he and his contemporaries provided the early "flicker of light" of the Indigenous renaissance we’re living through today. Despite his passing, the gift of his songs keeps his spirit forever present. Get ready to hear stories, lessons and songs from an iconic musical hero -- Join host Jarrett Martineau as he explores the creative worlds and legacy of Willie Dunn. Celebrating the music and storytelling of the great Mi’kmaq artist whose talents were described by some as a: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash all rolled into one.