The kokum of rock, Buffy Sainte-Marie has left her very distinct mark on the music industry. With anti-war anthems like Universal Soldier at the forefront, she has never shied away from bringing politics into her art. Her music and vocal support of Red Power movements in the 1970s drew the ire of U.S. presidents, and resulted in Sainte-Marie being blacklisted from American radio. This did not stop her career, and she has the decades of awards and accolades to back it up. In 2015, at age 74, the Cree rocker showed no signs of slowing down as she won the Polaris Music Prize for her album Power in the Blood. Sainte-Marie’s legacy has inspired generations of Indigenous musicians, and she continues to collaborate with the new crop of music makers, creating an ever evolving sound that remains timeless and universal.
I have a framed picture of Buffy Sainte-Marie that is hanging right beside the entrance to my house, so that I can see her every day when I walk out and every day when I come in. That woman has influenced my life in such a huge, huge way. She was one of the people that made me say, “Yes. I’m proud to be this [Indigenous].” A lot of her prowess onstage, who she is, her sobriety, her health, her positivity, everything about her, and mostly her strength — that woman is like 100 metal bands. She’s just incredible. She is just the coolest person in the world.
Robbie Robertson first picked up a guitar in Six Nations of the Grand River. While the legendary songwriter and guitarist was born in Toronto, his Mohawk mother was born and raised in Six Nations, which became a second home to him, and had a profound influence on his art. “I was introduced to serious storytelling at a young age, on the Six Nations Indian reserve,” Robertson wrote in Testimony. “The oral history, the legends, the fables and the great holy mystery of life … what I heard on the reserve had a powerful impact on me.” You can hear that impact in the evocative songs Robertson penned during his time with the Band, from The Weight to The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down to Acadian Driftwood, as he blazed his way into the history books, guitar in hand, lyric by lyric, lick by lick. Robertson reconnected with his Mohawk roots later in life during his solo career, specifically on his 1994 album Music for the Native Americans, bringing it back to where his love of music began.
Edward Gamblin is the voice of Canadian country rock. The singer-songwriter was one of the earliest and most influential stars of his day. The Cree musician built his career by leaning heavily on his roots and speaking to his Indigenous music fans, first and foremost. A survivor of the Norway House residential school in Portage la Prairie, Man., his music often dealt with the abuse he suffered at the hands of his teachers, as well as many larger political issues facing Indigenous people in Canada. Gamblin formed his first band, Cree Nation, in 1966, and would join many others throughout his career, including Northern Lobo. Before he died in 2010, at the age of 62, Gamblin wrote more than 60 songs, from protest music to full-out rockers and beloved ballads. Later in his career, Gamblin also became an outspoken activist for reconciliation and healing, including writing the song Survivor’s Voice in 2006. “Why just me? Canada heal with me,” he sang. “Open up your heart, you'll hear a survivor’s voice.”
A folk legend from Aklavik, N.W.T., Willie Thrasher found solace in a set of school drums when he was forced into a residential school at the age of five. “I went in and began banging them, just to get away from the noise, the fighting, the supervisors, the nuns and the priests,” he told the Financial Times in 2014. “And I’d think of my dad and mum. I’d go in there and play the drums all day.” Thrasher, his brother and a few friends later formed the Cordells — their hometown’s first rock ‘n’ roll band. While Thrasher lost his language in the residential school, music proved to be a way back to his culture. After modelling his drumming after Ringo Starr and performing covers of music from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and CCR, Thrasher started writing music that represented his life. The result was the full-length album Spirit Child, recorded in the early 1980s with the CBC, and Sweet Grass Music, a live recording Thrasher did in Val-d’Or, Que., with Morley Loon, Willy Mitchell and Roger House. These collections would form the basis of Thrasher’s catalogue and influence, while the Grammy-nominated 2014 release Native North America, Vol. 1 would reinvest in that influence decades later when it featured three Thrasher songs alongside other unsung recordings from North American Indigenous communities.
The ’70s saw the continuing influence of folk and protest music, as Indigenous musicians like Willie Dunn, Tom Jackson, Shingoose and many more used songs to express pressing political messages. Down in the United States, a popular NBC variety show, The Midnight Special, featured the California rock band Redbone performing their No. 1 hit, Come and Get Your Love, giving young Indigenous music fans across Turtle Island one of their first opportunities to see themselves as rock stars. “That was the first time I got introduced to Indigenous musicians playing music on the mainstream,” says artist manager and music industry veteran Elaine Bomberry, who grew up on Six Nations of the Grand River. “The lightbulb went off in my brain — Indians can play rock ’n’ roll, too. It was a great time to see positivity for our artists and for our community.”
He was a musician, filmmaker, poet, activist and politician, but above all, Willie Dunn was one of Canada’s master storytellers, often compared to Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen.
As a folk singer, he sang about topical concerns, highlighting Indigenous issues, and created poignant ballads for historical figures, from Crazy Horse, Pontiac and Louis Riel to Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who fled from a residential school in 1966, never to make it home. Dunn was also an innovator in many regards, whether it was incorporating Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot with Akwesasne Drummers, as he did on the 1980 album, The Pacific, or his groundbreaking work on the 1968 award-winning short NFB film, The Ballad of Crowfoot, about the 19th-century Blackfoot leader and the damaging effects of colonialism on Indigenous people. The film featured Dunn and his guitar, singing in his striking baritone voice over archival images and video, and is considered to be one of the first music videos in Canada. Dunn died in 2013, at the age of 71.
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.
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.
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 took those icebreakers and made those trails for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tom Jackson may be best known today as an actor, most notably for his role as Peter Kenidi on North of 60, but his first love has always been music. Born in Saskatchewan’s One Arrow First Nation, Jackson played his way through coffeehouses and folk festivals in the ’60s and ’70s with his guitar and distinct baritone voice. Jackson didn’t release his first official album until 1990, but by then he was already well-known across the country, whether for his music performances, his broadcast work with the CBC or his acting, which was just beginning to take off. Throughout his life, however, music has remained a constant, and to this day Jackson continues his work with The Huron Carole benefit concert, which he founded in 1988 to raise money for food banks. In 2007, the Junos presented Jackson with its Humanitarian Award. “Music is the single most powerful instrument of change in the history of humankind," he told CBC Music in 2017 — a message he’s clearly stood behind for his entire career.
The influential music career of this Mohawk/Algonquin singer infamously almost never happened, as Willy Mitchell was shot by police in Maniwaki, Que., at age 15. It began with a friend’s prank to steal Christmas lights, and ended with teenaged Mitchell laying in the snow with a bullet lodged in his head. While recovering in hospital, Mitchell used his settlement money from the shooting to buy a guitar, and wrote the song Big Police Man in response. He formed the Desert River Band (Desert River being the previous name of his home community of Kitigan Zibi) and toured extensively. Mitchell has said in later interviews that he doesn’t like to sing songs like that anymore and prefers to sing about Indigenous culture, lands and animals. In 1980, along with Jannie Poirier MacDonald, Mitchell co-founded the Sweet Grass Music Festival, which showcased the works of Mitchell, his contemporaries and other Indigenous musicians.
Adopting the name of his great-grandfather, Shingoose, Ojibway singer Curtis Jonnie used the popular medium of country-folk music to address the Indigenous issues of his time. Born in Manitoba and raised on the Roseau River Reserve, Jonnie was adopted by a Mennonite family, where he began singing in church choirs. In the mid-1960s, Jonnie moved to the U.S., where he would spend the next decade touring widely and working with artists like Glen Campbell and Bruce Cockburn. Returning to Winnipeg in 1973, inspired by a generation of new Indigenous activists, Jonnie began using his voice to spread messages of Indigenous solidarity and pride. In 1986, he stepped into the world of broadcast television, producing the acclaimed series Indian Time, a show about Indigenous current events that hosted Indigenous musicians, activists and thinkers. But Jonnie was not ready to give up performing music: he released the album Natural Tan in 1988. In the ’90s, he was part of the team that created the best music of Aboriginal Canada recording category at the Juno Awards, ensuring his impact on generations of Indigenous musicians to follow.
Shingoose is my buddy, my colleague. It was with him and Buffy that we created the Indigenous music category at the Junos. “Reservation Blues,” that was his phrase. He also did an amazing TV series, Indian Time, which had people like Buffy and Charlie Hill, who at the time was our most famous comedian. It was like an Indian Jeffersons. Goose, I love him, he was really just a warrior for our people in our music. “We’re going to change the industry,” he used to always say.
At the point where country, blues and rock meet, you’ll find Billy Joe Green, strumming away on his twangy guitar. With a career spanning 50 years of singing the blues, Green is one of Turtle Island’s most prolific guitar players. At age six, Green was removed from his home and put in residential school for 10 years. After escaping the school he found himself in the Winnipeg nightclub scene, where he developed a reputation as being a hard-playing guitarist. He joined other Indigenous bands at the time, such as Peacemaker and the Feathermen, before setting off on his own solo career. Steeped in the old-time country music sounds of the bush and traditional powwow music, and now with more than 30 years’ experience producing his own music, Green has a storied career of touring the great blues venues and dives of the continent. He has won numerous awards and earned the reputation as being one of the premier blues musicians in the country — with no signs of stopping.
In the ’80s, as musical influences became broader, more and more Indigenous musicians were able to find a larger audience for their music, from folk and rock to country, metal and blues.
“It was all new for everyone,” says Elaine Bomberry. “We never had a lot of exposure. It was very minimal, but then all of a sudden a bunch of artists started coming down. People needed to tell their stories, and what better way than through songs?”
Transcending language and culture, Kashtin burst onto the Canadian music scene in the late 1980s with songs sung in Innu-aimun, topping both the French and English music charts. Selling more than 200,000 albums worldwide, the folk-rock Innu duo from Maliotenam, Que., is one of the most commercially successful Indigenous musical groups ever. Members Florent Vollant and Claude McKenzie drew inspiration from popular folk and rock musicians like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, but also drew deeper from the powerful messages of Indigenous musicians like Willie Dunn and Buffy Sainte-Marie. They chose the name Kashtin, the Innu word for tornado, as a play on words: Kashtin sounds like “cashed in” in English, and is a response to traditionalists’ criticisms that they were selling out. Releasing three studio albums together, the band toured the world and even reached the top 10 in France. Kashtin never officially broke up, but after their third album in 1994, McKenzie and Vollant have mainly stuck to solo carers, only once reforming as a duo to collaborate with Algonquin rapper Samian in 2010 on his single Tshinanu.
Laura Vinson’s voice has been her trademark since her 1978 debut album First Flight. It wasn’t just the burnt velvet of her vocals — warm but wise — but that she sang about growing up Métis, colonization, women’s rights and mapping all the highs and lows between love and fear. From that very first album, there was a worldliness to her voice, both as a singer and a songwriter, as she carved out space for herself, and by extension fellow Métis artists as well as Indigenous artists in country music and the blues. At the start of her career, Vinson received seven Juno nominations, including five nods between 1979 and 1985 for country female vocalist of the year, and back-to-back nominations for most promising female vocalist in 1980 and 1981. She didn’t win, and even though Vinson never quite experienced the breakthrough for which she seemed destined, she has been a successful working musician her whole life and continues to perform to this day.
As a woman, and especially in [country-blues], to be able to make that mark and to last as long as she has — you know, you have to really fight for your presence when you're trying to be in the blues world, especially as a female. It's really great that it's finally getting to a point where it's really opening up. You're seeing a lot of new artists coming out and rising up and I feel like it's because of artists like [Laura] who were opening doors and making it possible. In the music world, sometimes there's little fads and trends where this artist will find success for a small amount of time and then kind of drift away. But she's been lasting and that's what's so inspiring about her journey. It's like, “Hey, maybe I could do that too.” Just finding that fight in yourself and trying to be better than the artist you were yesterday.
While members of C-Weed Band have come and gone during the band’s 40-year history, frontman Errol (C-Weed) Ranville has remained onboard as an ambassador for Indigenous music in Canada. Coming from a large musical family, the Manitoban troubadour from Sainte Rose du Lac took to music at the age of eight. In 1965, using his family nickname of C-Weed, Ranville and his siblings formed the first incarnation of C-Weed Band and continued to play in small venues throughout the 1970s. In 1980, C-Weed Band jumped into the Canadian country music scene, topping the charts with its version of Robbie Robertson’s Evangeline, effectively making a name for itself in the world of country music. The band of Ranville brothers and friends toured extensively with their newfound fame, and once again reached the pinnacle of Canadian country music charts with their version of the Rolling Stones’ song High and Dry. A few decades and band member shuffles later, Ranville has been a driving force for Indigenous musicians, producing music and award shows. In 2005, Ranville was inducted into Manitoba’s Aboriginal Hall of Fame.
The pioneering metal band from the Inuit community of Igloolik, Nunavut, took the Indigenous world by storm in the 1980s, releasing what is thought to be North America’s first rock album recorded in Inuktitut. From its beginnings in 1984 as a local community band, Northern Haze began to gain recognition across the North, releasing its self-titled debut album in 1985. On it, Kolatalik Inukshuk’s voice blares over fuzzy guitars and heavy bass, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. That album sent Northern Haze touring across the country, spreading its heavy northern metal sound. New material was not hard to come by, but the lack of recording infrastructure in the high north made a follow-up album all but a dream. Then in 2007, the band was struck twice by tragedy: founding member Elijah Kunnuk died from cancer, and original lead singer and frontman, Kolatalik Inukshuk, was murdered. To call the band legendary in Nunavut is an understatement; its members have inspired generations of Inuit musicians to rock out. Juno Award-winning Nunavut band the Jerry Cans are among those who consider Northern Haze an inspiration, coming full circle when they produced and released Northern Haze’s followup album, 2018’s Siqinnaarut. Based on that album — which was 33 years in the making — Northern Haze was nominated for the newly renamed Juno for Indigenous artist or group of the year in 2020.
John Kim Bell is a classically trained pianist, activist, philanthropist, artist and trailblazer. He became Canada’s first Indigenous conductor in 1980, but was a sought after conductor for Broadway musicals before that, and toured with Red Foxx, Sonny Bonno and the Bee Gees. In 1984, the CBC released John Kim Bell: The First North American Indian Conductor, a documentary on Bell’s musical career. In 1988, Bell produced the country’s first all-Indigenous ballet, In the Land of Spirits, which received a 10-minute standing ovation on its opening night, according to a review in Macleans. Throughout his career, Bell has racked up accolade after accolade, has become an officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario, has served as one of the Canadian advisers to the Prince of Wales and was one of Shania Twain’s earliest mentors. But as much as Bell accomplished professionally, he also gave back, creating several foundations geared at awarding grants to young Indigenous artists — including founding the Canadian Native Arts Foundation, the predecessor of the Indspire Awards.
By the ’90s, Canadian music was enjoying a boom. A major label and indie scene thrived, led by acts such as the Tragically Hip and Sarah McLachlan, and was sometimes referred to as the Canrock renaissance. Indigenous artists were able to find a large audience, such as Susan Aglukark, who became the first Inuk musician with a Top 40 hit. The Junos acknowledged the contributions of Indigenous musicians by introducing the best music of Aboriginal Canada recording category in 1994, co-founded by Sainte-Marie, Shingoose and Bomberry.
Susan Aglukark broke new ground for Inuk musicians in the ’90s. The singer, who was raised in Arviat, N.W.T., (now in Nunavut), became the first Inuk artist to score a Top 40 hit in Canada with her 1995 single O Siem. That track reached No. 1 on the Canadian adult contemporary and country charts, and the album it was on, This Child, later went triple platinum. Aglukark’s music combines country and pop with traditional Inuit folk traditions (she sings in both English and Inuktitut) to create something that was able to cross over into the mainstream, earning her three Juno Awards, including best new solo artist in 1995. At times joyous and celebratory, such as on O Siem, Aglukark’s songs have also addressed some painful realities including suicide, trauma and sexual abuse. Aglukark has openly spoken about her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. As an advocate for victims of abuse in Northern communities and a big supporter of today’s Indigenous youth (she is the founder of the Arctic Rose Foundation), Aglukark is determined to look ahead and help forge a brighter, stronger future. In 2005, Aglukark was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada and in 2016, she was given the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Susan is a gem and we were all very proud of her and looked up to her and I never thought back then [when O Siem came out in 1995] I would be a musician. Today, she is a legend. We got to perform with her in October with the NAC [National Arts Centre] Orchestra with maestro Melanie Leonard. It was such an honour to share the stage and sing with her. We've also had a couple of sit-ins while she sat as a keynote and it is truly inspiring to hear her talk about her journey. O Siem is still one of my favourite songs. It was our very own We Are the World: we are Inuit and we are human. —
When the very first Juno Award for best music of Aboriginal Canada was presented in 1994, one man’s name was read out loud: Wapistan. Lawrence Martin was born in Moose Factory, Ont., and performs under the name Wapistan, which was derived from the Cree word for marten, a small mammal popular in the fur trade. Of Cree and Irish heritage, Martin’s music is influenced by each of his cultures as much as it is by folk and country. He sings songs in both English and Cree, sometimes dealing with Indigenous issues, cultural pride and, on a song like The Elders, of reconciliation. He also has a knack for writing a great break-up song, such as I Got My Music. Martin also successfully pursued a career in politics, becoming mayor of Sioux Lookout in 1991, the first Indigenous person in Ontario elected as mayor of a municipality that was not also a reservation. Martin was also elected mayor of Cochrane, Ont., in the 2000s, continuing to release new music, always with a focus of marrying his two cultures.
I was able to play one of my songs called Elders [at the Junos 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.
Read more in our Oral history of the Indigenous Juno Award category
With a 30-year career singing and playing blues piano, Murray Porter has never shied away from facing Indigenous issues head on through his music. A member of the Turtle Clan, hailing from Six Nations of the Grand River, Porter takes on subjects such as residential schools, Idle No More and water protection with grace and power, his gravelly voice singing of love and life as he knows it. Porter continues to be a force in the Canadian music scene, winning the 2012 Juno Award for Aboriginal album of the year for his album Songs Lived & Life Played. He is recognized as one of the premier musicians in his longtime home of Vancouver, where in 2010 he performed at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Considered far and wide as a master bluesman, Porter has graced the stage with such other legendary acts as B.B. King, Mavis Staples and Etta James. The living blues legend continues to play shows across British Columbia and tours widely.
Mi’kmaw rocker Hubert Francis, from the community of Elsipogtog, N.B., began performing with his rock band Eagle Feather in 1990, gaining commercial success with their straightforward rock hits. But in the early '90s, while performing in clubs, Francis was hit hard by the self-destruction that comes with drugs, alcohol and rock 'n' roll, and decided to change his sound. "I kept seeing myself in those people at the bar and realized our people needed more Indian heroes, especially the youth," Francis explained in a 1999 interview. "They needed more positive role models in the music industry." Francis returned to his Mi’kmaw roots, a move that changed his approach to life and music. His music ranges from folk to country to rock, and is steeped heavily in First Nations culture, stories and lessons. Over its 30 years, Eagle Feather has released three albums and received many nominations, including multiple Juno Awards, East Coast Music Awards (ECMAs) and Native American Music Awards. In 2019, Francis received the Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the ECMAs for his “profound and lasting effect” on Atlantic Canadian music.
When he was born, Jerry Alfred was named “Song Keeper,” a traditional honour given by the Northern Tutchone people located through central Yukon. The title gave him the responsibility of collecting traditional songs and performing them at ceremonies and gatherings. In his early life, Alfred spoke the Northern Tutchone language, and was able to maintain it despite spending years in the residential school system. While in residential school, he sang in a choir, where his musical talents began to develop. But music took a back seat to Alfred’s work in politics throughout his 20s and 30s, including a large role in the negotiations with the Yukon and federal governments over the Selkirk people’s land claim, which was settled in 1997. It wasn’t until the 1990s — at the request of his father — that Alfred focused more on music. His father’s dying wish was for Alfred to keep the music of their people alive. Alfred did just that in 1994, when he released Etsi Shon: Grandfather Song, his first album with his band the Medicine Beat. The album, recorded in the Northern Tutchone language, subsequently won a Juno in 1996 for best music of Aboriginal Canada recording.
John Arcand is the master of the Métis fiddle, a tradition that goes back nine generations in his family. Arcand has become an integral part of passing on Métis music and culture to future generations. The fiddle has been part of Arcand’s life since he was born, learning traditional Red River Métis tunes from his father and grandfather, who each learned from their own fathers and grandfathers. Arcand has composed close to 400 original songs, and has passed that knowledge onto younger generations, whether as a teacher or through the John Arcand Fiddle Fest, held annually for more than 20 years near Saskatoon. Arcand became a member of the Order of Canada in 2008, and received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, among many other honours. “The fiddle was always good to me,” Arcand told CBC Saskatchewan in 2017. "I was always able to make a good living doing that so I wanted to share what I knew with the young people to make sure the traditions were kept on."
Elisapie: photo, Vanessa Heins; illustration, Ben Shannon
In June 2000, the Aboriginal Voices Radio Network (AVR), which was based in Six Nations of the Grand River and founded by a group of prominent Indigenous artists, officially received its first radio station: Toronto’s CFIE FM. Like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which began in the ’90s, the goal of AVR was to amplify Indigenous culture and voices, specifically through music, and it eventually expanded to include stations in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. At the same time, hip-hop was becoming the popular form of expression for youth in Indigenous communities across the country, a movement that started in the ’90s but would blow up in decades to come. That sowed the seeds for an explosion of music across genres as a new generation of artists grew to prominence.
Salluit, Que.-born Elisapie Isaac, known as Elisapie artistically, started her musical career early, singing backup in her uncle’s band Sugluk when she was only 12. At 19, in the late ‘90s, the singer moved to Montreal, forming the duo Taima with composer Alain Auger, which led to winning a Juno for Aboriginal Canada recording of the year in 2005 for their self-titled, and only, album. In her work, Elisapie — who speaks Inuktitut, English and French — often draws influence from both her birth home and chosen home. Her 2018 album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, captures this best, released after a six-year break that included having her second child and something that she describes as a feeling that would "just get too heavy." After a deep, restorative dive into work by formative Inuk artists from the '60s and '70s — including material from Sugluk as well as Willie Thrasher — Elisapie resurfaced. The resulting record is a complex, striking mix of original material and covers of Indigenous rock and folk songs, sung in all three of her languages. While Ballad touches on heavy themes of intergenerational trauma, one’s relationship to the land and a woman’s role in society, one of its most heart-wrenching pieces is the song “Una,” which Elisapie, who was adopted at a young age, wrote for her birth mother. The Ballad of the Runaway Girl was shortlisted for the 2019 Polaris Music Prize.
Crystal Shawanda sings fire and she is a force. The country-blues artist was born in Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Manitoulin Island, Ont., and though she primarily calls Nashville home now, Shawanda is still a deeply influential artist for numerous Indigenous and settler Canadian musicians who hope to follow in her footsteps. Her 2008 breakthrough debut, Dawn of a New Day, scored her tour dates with superstars like Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley and cemented her as a bold new talent in country music. Since her debut, Shawanda has expanded her sound, mixing blues, soul and country over the course of five more studio albums, winning a Juno Award in 2013 for Aboriginal album of the year.
These Cree hip hop trailblazers from Maskwacis, Alta., received national attention as the first Indigenous rappers to have a music video in rotation on MuchMusic. At the time, most Indigenous musicians in the mainstream were found in the folk, rock and country categories, but hip hop soon proved to be a powerful medium to bring Indigenous issues to a new generation. Founded in 1995 by musicians Rex Smallboy, Hellnback and Big Stomp, Warparty is considered to be one of the defining acts of Canadian hip hop in the 2000s, showing that northern rap could have a social consciousness. Winning multiple awards, including the Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album, Warparty has become an iconic group for Indigenous rappers. Rex Smallboy, Hellnback and Big Stomp’s smooth beats and flow gave Canadians a chance to better understand the Indigenous world, taking on topics like residential schools, colonialism and substance abuse. Warparty disbanded in 2007, but its members still sometimes tour as solo acts.
Joey Stylez, born Joseph Dale Marlin LaPlante, is a Cree-Métis rapper, activist and artist. He began freestyle rapping in high school, and although he was surrounded by addiction and violence, he emerged as a grounded artist. In 2003, Joey Stylez’ cousin and friend, Kevin Moccasin, was stabbed in a gang-related altercation. The following year, the rapper’s uncle Isho Hana was shot and killed. Joey Stylez made a promise to his late family members to turn his life around and, in 2006, had a breakthrough with the music video for his song Longway. Today Joey Stylez has won and been nominated for multiple awards, including winning for songwriter of the year at the 2010 Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards. He’s also a successful visual artist and runs his own clothing line, Stressed Street. "The message we're trying to spread out there is we're working for the overachievers and underdogs,” he told CBC Saskatchewan in 2019. “We can all be victors instead of victims."
Kinnie Starr’s unique blend of hip hop, spoken word, pop and rock have made her both the object of rapturous attention and also an unquantifiable outsider. Since her self-released demo in 1995, Starr briefly tangled with a major label in 1997 before asking to be released from her contract. She’s remained fiercely independent ever since, releasing eight studio albums over the last 25 years. Starr is also a Juno Award-winning producer (for Digging Roots’ 2009 album, We Are), activist, actor, composer (Edge of the Knife), and documentarian (Play Your Gender).
Kinnie means so much to me. She's a matriarch of Indigenous hip hop, but also music-making and producing her own music. That's super inspirational to younger artists. It was my very first Indigenous hip-hop show and I saw she was one of the only women onstage, and just being proud of who they are and where they come from, and being proud of being Mohawk. I'm Onondaga and Haudenosaunee, and Mohawk — we're all together. So to see that representation on the stage has meant so much to me, and encouraged me to make my own music. There are not many women who produce and make their own music and she's a pioneer of that. That was such a huge thing for the Indigenous community. And there were other artists like Eekwol at the same time and Cynthia Smallboy who were all in that generation before me who inspired me the most. So, it was never a question of, “Oh, I can never do this.” It was like, “I can do this.” They gave me permission to be proud of being a woman and being in the music industry.
Being an MC, a mother and an academic are all parts of Lindsay Knight’s identity. Born a member of Muskoday First Nation, she weaves together Plains Cree music and culture with hip hop, bringing the reality of living as an Indigenous woman in Saskatchewan to her music under the artist name Eekwol. Her self-titled debut album dropped in 1998, and since then, Eekwol has received multiple awards and nominations for her music, including one for best hip hop/rap album at the 2005 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards (now called the Indigenous Music Awards). She describes herself as “passionate, disciplined and fierce,” and pushes for Indigenous women to be recognized in the rap industry. As an academic, she wrote her master’s thesis, “Resistance in Indigenous Music: a Continuum of Sound,” on how the past and present of Indigenous music are connected. She’s also been a lecturer in Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
Well, I've known Lindsay for probably since the beginning of my career-ish, when I first started being in the same circles as her, being on the same bill, stuff like that. Twenty years ago, there weren't really a lot of women doing what she's doing. For me, it was really refreshing to meet other female rappers. She's got this thing in her — she's probably not going to like that I said this — but this thing that you see in a lot of athletes. Actually, maybe she will like that I said it. Anyway, this thing you see in a lot of athletes, like the way they carry themselves. I was raised in Calgary, and I had this girl in my class, I think it was Danielle, and she was a martial artist. And I remember as a really little girl noticing the way she carried herself and when I first saw Eekwol, she had that thing in her, too, that sure-footedness. I really notice the way people carry their physical frame. That really hit me about Eekwol. Also, in the entertainment industry, there are a lot of people vying for positioning and I never got that feeling from her where she was trying to position herself above me or felt like she was below me. She just came in straight as herself with absolutely no need for comparison.
Since 2010, Indigenous musicians began to enjoy a level of widespread exposure and acclaim unlike any other decade before. A new generation of musicians from across Turtle Island started creating sounds that pushed boundaries and challenged genre and stereotype. To many, it was the beginning of a movement, a revolution, an Indigenous music renaissance — and it was a long time coming. Revisit some of the key moments from the past decade in the timeline below.
Writing by Ossie Michelin, Rhiannon Johnson, Jesse Kinos-Goodin, Andrea Warner, Holly Gordon, Melody Lau
Website by Geoff Isaac, Ben Shannon
Video by Vivian Tabar, Jesse Kinos-Goodin
Original artwork by Mer Young, David J. Cutler, Mishiikenh Kwe, Samantha Leigh Smith, Ben Shannon
Additional sources: The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet, by Brian Wright-McLeod; APTN’s National Indigenous Music Impact Study
Special thanks to Elaine Bomberry and to CBC Indigenous