Young aboriginal musicians pay tribute to poet Rita Joe at the NAC

Inspired by 'I Lost My Talk' by Mi'Kmaq poet Rita Joe, students from five aboriginal communities created songs infused with the same spirit of hope and resilience.

The Rita Joe National Song Project challenged indigenous youth to create new works inspired by Rita Joe poem

'Gentle Warrior' video and song from students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School is located in Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia.

8 years ago
Duration 6:28
Featured VideoThe video is part of The Rita Joe National Project- wherein students were asked to create new songs inspired by Rita Joe's poem, 'I Lost My Talk.'

Voices clear and strong, voices raised in harmony and defiance.

In Gentle Warrior, a brand new song created by the students and teachers of Allison Bernard Memorial High School, in Eskasoni First Nation, young Mi'kmaq musicians dance and sing about their determination to reclaim their culture.

These students are taking part in the National Arts Centre's Rita Joe Project, a nationwide challenge to aboriginal youth to  make new music based on I Lost My Talk, a poem Joe wrote about her childhood pain of being forbidden to speak her own language in Residential school.

The children she knew lost their "talk" — forbidden to speak the language of their parents and grandparents in the residential schools they were forced to attend. Joe's poem is about the loss of identity, but also a call to regain the culture and share it:

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl 
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you 
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk 
Both ways I say, 
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk 
So I can teach you about me. 

The NAC arranged for guest artists to conduct songwriting workshops with students in Maniwaki, Que., Norway House in Manitoba, Edmonton, Iqaluit and Eskasoni,  Nova Scotia.

Eskasoni is Rita Joe's hometown, so young musicians such as Kalolin Johnson, the featured singer in Gentle Warrior was already schooled in the poet's legacy.

Johnson says she learned about the courage to express herself from lessons about Joe.

Kalolin Johnson is the featured singer in 'Gentle Warrior' a song based on the poem 'I Lost my Talk' by Rita Joe

8 years ago
Duration 0:56
Featured VideoKalolin Johnson is a 16 year old, grade 11 student from the Eskasoni Mi'kmaq community of Cape Breton

The students are here in Ottawa to present their music in a live performance.

Rita Joe's youngest daughter Anne is here as well. She says her mother would have been overjoyed to see her work still resonates with young people.

"She loved children. She loved connecting with children. When she was well she would travel to schools and read her poems to them. She would love it that they are inspired by her work and making something new of it," said Joe.

Today, the students who attend Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni First Nation, Nova Scotia, are able to take courses in Mi'kmaq Language and Mi'kmaq Culture, and they say there is pride and hope for the future of their culture.