New Brunswick

Award-winning musician Jeremy Dutcher gets inspiration, humility from home

Jeremy Dutcher is dedicating his award-winning debut album to the Indigenous people of his home province.

Tobique First Nation singer's debut album won the Polaris prize in 2018

Jeremy Dutcher did not sign with a label to release his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which won the Polaris prize in 2018. (Matt Barnes)

Jeremy Dutcher is dedicating his award-winning debut album to the Indigenous people of his home province.

Tobique First Nation's Dutcher is having a big couple of years. His album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize and was named one of the best of 2018 by National Public Radio in the U.S.

He's since been taking his songs, all written and performed in Wolastoqey, the language of the Wolastoqiyik, on cross-country tours.

"I didn't create this for Canada, even though it's being enjoyed and people are gravitating toward the work I created," he told Information Morning Fredericton. "This for a very small community here in New Brunswick."

In his award-winning album, Dutcher sings alongside a collection of recordings from 1911, gathered by anthropologist William H. Mechling. The album cover depicts what would have been used to record during Mechling's time. The backdrop is Cree artist, Kent Monkman’s painting, Teaching The Lost. (Matt Barnes)

On Monday, Dutcher was also nominated in five East Coast Music Awards categories, including rising star recording of the year and Indigenous artist of the year. 

Dutcher said his roots, where he came from, inspire his next steps.

"It dictates and it guides the work that I do, because it's for the people here. And these songs belong to the people here."

Wolastoqey is teetering on a fence between preservation and disuse, and Dutcher said he will work to pull it to the right side.

"For Wolastoqiyik, our music is telling us how we are to be with each other. It's telling us how we are to relate with the world around us," he said. "And so for me it's essential that these songs need to be not living in a museum but actually with the people."

And he listens to those people's feedback, especially Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqi and Wabanaki youth. He said they have a lot of questions but also a desire to be closer to their culture.

"We're coming together and there's a collective yearning for this knowledge and we still have speakers alive, you know,  and so we're at a critical moment right now."

Learning to be 'unapologetic'

Dutcher said a history of residential schools and attempts to erase Indigenous culture has made people feel ashamed of speaking their language or identifying as Indigenous.

"I think about my mother a lot in these conversations because you know she spoke fluently the language until she went into the schools when she was six, where you are not treated well if you speak your language … you're punished," he said.

"This disincentivizing of who we are as people, I think, created a sense of 'Sorry, sorry for being too Wolastoqey,' you know, in the moment. Or speaking our language and feeling like we have to translate. No, I think it's a time for us to speak to each other and lift each other up."

Polaris prize winning musician Jeremy Dutcher talks about his music, his language, and his culture. He says "our songs tell us how to live." 16:33

He said this is the message that he wants to convey to young people who may not see themselves represented: This is your moment.

"I think there's a lot of young people right now who are yearning for the lessons that are embedded within this language because language brings us not only a sense of communication but a sense of identity and belonging," he said.

The pressure of being heard

Though he dedicates his work of traditional songs mixed with classical instruments to a small community, Dutcher does feel the pressure of representing that community on a large stage.

And his answer to that pressure?

"I dance through it."

"There are so few of us out there," he said. "I see it as an immense sense of responsibility rather than pressure. And I think I take that responsibility very seriously. But for me at the end of the day, I'm a musician and I like to play, you know, and play is my currency."

Dutcher, who lives in Ontario, said he comes back to New Brunswick often, to stay grounded and be around people "who are not afraid to humble me."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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