More than music: New MUN project passing Indigenous identity to eager learners

Michael Denny is the first of four Indigenous resident-thinkers who will be leading classes and sessions at Memorial University's School of Music.

Project 'getting quite a bit of interest' from students

Michael R. Denny is the first of four resident-thinkers to be a part of the MUN School of Music project known as Indigenous Voice. (Submitted/Jeffrey van den Scott)

When Michael R. Denny looks at the back of his classroom and sees repeat students showing up to hear him talk and sing, he feels satisfied.

Denny is Mi'kmaw and a traditional knowledge keeper in Mi'kma'ki culture and living.

My father went to residential school … the things that happened to him, we inherit that.- Michael R. Denny

From the Nova Scotia Eskasoni First Nation, he is the first of four visiting Indigenous resident-thinkers at Memorial University School of Music. It's part of a new project called Indigenous Voices: Steps Toward Decolonizing the Music School Curriculum.

The project aims to help people view music and song with Indigenous perspective. So far, Denny says he has been able to lead drop-in sessions and classes on things like instrument building, Indigenous spirituality and comparing contemporary music with more traditional song.

"I have a couple of students now who have participated in more than one class. They'll come in and sit in the back and just listen," Denny told CBC Radio's On The Go.

"I feel like I'm getting quite a bit of interest from the students," Denny said.

A part of truth and reconciliation

Nearly $50,000 in funding was awarded to MUN's School of Music, as part of an Indigenous Research Capacity and Reconciliation Connection Grant through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada came up with 94 calls-to-action for the federal government, in order to help create a better future for Indigenous people across the land. Among the calls were for the creation of funding for universities and colleges to help better provide Indigenous education.

Denny leads a Ji’kmaqn instrument workshop with students from MUN’s School of Music. (Submitted/Jeffrey van den Scott)

The university hopes the Indigenous Voices project will help the school on its own path of reconciliation with Indigenous history. The end goal is for there to be a new music course created at MUN.

"It's focused on the idea of voice, and giving voice to Indigenous traditions and bringing that voice into the school of music," said music faculty dean Ian Sutherland.

"When I hear Michael R. performing, while I may not understand the words or be extra knowledgeable about the traditions he is performing in, what I do hear is the passion for the making of the music and it also reminds me of how much we still have to learn with our Indigenous and Aboriginal First Nations brothers, sisters, friends, cousins, everybody," Sutherland said.

For Denny, the opportunity to pass his knowledge and culture to students, university members and the general public is a sort of mending of the experiences he and members of his family have endured.

"My father went to residential school and while he was there, the things that happened to him, we inherit that, the intergenerational impact," Denny said.

"He was a wonderful singer and I think that was a part of his healing … I believe there is a clear correlation between my father's experience and to my experience tying it into the school of music."

Denny will give a free performance at the Suncor Energy Hall Sunday at 7:30pm. It's called the Tunes 'n' Talk: Traditional and Contemporary Mi'kmaw Powwow Music event. Other events are scheduled for later in March.

With files from On The Go