Champion powwow singer from Sask. remembered for musical legacy, mentorship

The family of Nathan (Rikishi) Pelly says the 34-year-old died in a Saskatoon hospital on Sunday as a result of liver and kidney failure. A wake and funeral was held in Pelly's home of Cote First Nation on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Nathan (Rikishi) Pelly, 34, lived dream of being a world-class drummer, singer

The family of Nathan (Rikishi) Pelly says the 34-year-old helped mentor young drummers and singers while on the road at powwows and round dances. (Logan Perley/CBC)

The musical legacy of a champion powwow singer will help friends and family heal from his loss, according to those who knew him.

Nathan (Rikishi) Pelly, 34, from Cote First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan, was well known for his drumming, singing and sense of humour. 

"He was such a jokester. Whenever when people were down, he would always try to make us laugh ... he just loved people so much," said Dallas Pelly, Nathan's younger brother. 

Pelly died on June 19, 2022, surrounded by family and friends inside the ICU at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. 

Dallas said his brother had been fighting for his life for 15 days, the result of simultaneous kidney and liver failure and a lung infection. 

"During that time, we had so much good medicine. People in ceremony, trying to pray for him," Dallas said.

"But you know, Creator called him home. The short amount of time that we had with him, he was a gift to this world." 

Pelly was laid to rest in his home of Cote First Nation, where a wake and funeral was held Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Following the funeral, Pelly's family asked that his photos and videos be removed from publication. It is practice in some Indigenous cultures not to show images of those who are deceased for at least a year after their death. 

'Those songs are medicine'

Dallas said his brother's musical gift, which started with drumming at two years old, was nurtured by their late grandmother Pauline Pelly. 

By the time he was in school, Pelly was dreaming out loud of becoming a singer. 

"We would say, 'focus on your studies, you know you've got to graduate.' He said, 'No, I'm going to be a world-class powwow singer.' And that was his goal, he achieved that," Dallas said. 

Pelly would go on to become a three-time world champion powwow singer at the Gathering of Nations, the largest powwow in North America, held in Albuquerque, N.M.

Pelly won twice at the group level, and once as an individual. He also wrote and composed music, collaborating on dozens of albums. 

"Right now, those songs are medicine. Those are things that are helping us heal and helping our community heal," Dallas said. 

Pelly's work is featured in the music of drum groups such as Rock Hill, Cree Confederation, Flying Eagle singers, Young Bear and Midnight Express, among others. 

A lot of these young drummers got their start because of my brother, and are singing because of him.- Dallas Pelly, brother of Nathan (Rikishi) Pelly

Dallas said his brother made a living by performing at powwows across North America. When those seasons were done, he would attend round dances. 

"He really had two families — his real family and his powwow family," Dallas said. 

Pelly would also make time to mentor the next generation of drummers and singers.

"We are getting messages from moms and dads all across Turtle Island saying, 'he showed my son the ways of the drum, and brought him to the culture,'" Dallas said. 

"So a lot of these young drummers got their start because of my brother, and are singing because of him." 


Daniella Ponticelli is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She has worked in print, broadcast and digital journalism in Manitoba and Saskatchewan since 2012. Get in touch with Daniella at or on Twitter @dponticelliTV.

With files from Theresa Kliem