kinanâskomitin – I offer gratitude to Suzie LeBlanc and Early Music Vancouver for giving me this platform as part of my summer residency to write about my relationship to historical musics.
I wish to begin by acknowledging the recent discovery by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of the bodies of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia. These children were buried in unmarked graves near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School which operated from 1893 until 1978.
Genocide is the history of British Columbia. Genocide is the history of Canada. White supremacy is the history of British Columbia. White supremacy is the history of Canada. This is a living history, a peopled history – it is a continuum of shame and grief that extends to this very day. It is not only of the past. As an Indigenous two-spirit person, I walk and sing and protest with my community carrying this knowledge within me.
Collectively, we understand the importance of history and its bearers. We can say the words “forced adoptions”, “abuse in foster care”, “the sixties scoop”, “residential school”, “missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits”… but do we really know what they mean? Do we understand their human cost – the arithmetic of death. Living in Canada today, we must ask ourselves: What histories does the land alone know? Lives unfinished, identities erased, nations made invisible, stories and songs untold, unsung. Bodies and histories buried in the ground.
they’re covered up in clay
oh tell me we’re alright
since they were forced to stay
the ground has held them tight
we say their names by day
and try to sleep at night
clay to eat
clay to sleep
While we honour the legacies of European artists throughout history during this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival, we must also look critically at our own relationships to white supremacy as a music community. What histories have been preserved and upheld? Which stories have been suppressed?
My love of historical music began and was nurtured growing up in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). I was adopted by a loving white settler family at birth. I was given every opportunity to encounter music from the European canon, studying piano with Theresa Dunster and singing with Heather Johnson from a young age. I believe it was my love of history, an innocent tendency toward mental time travel that drew me to the music of Bach, Scarlatti, Handel, Purcell and others. It was not until much later that I began to feel something was missing.
While I acknowledge the many privileges afforded me by my adoptive family, I realize now that a crucial part of my identity was often neglected. A connection to Indigeneity was difficult to manifest on my own as a child. I came to understand this was not done to me out of any ill will of my adoptive parents, but a natural outcome of being displaced, taken out of my biological mother’s community at birth. I did not learn my grandmother’s songs; I did not benefit from my aunties’ teachings. I was not able to form a relationship with the land like my great grandfather had as a Medicine Man in the Big Stone Cree Nation.
Although we acknowledge many of the 19th and 20th century examples of colonial genocide in Canada, such as the Residential School System and the Potlatch Ban, the arms of white supremacy reach back much further into our histories, stretching all the way back to the time of first contact between Indigenous nations and settlers on Turtle Island (North America). Since the 17th century, schools have been in operation on Turtle Island with the sole intent to ‘civilize’ Indigenous children and indoctrinate them into the Eurocentric culture of the recently migrated white settlers.
One such school was the École des Ursulines. It formed part of the Ursuline Convent in Québec City and was Turtle Island’s first institution for girls. Founded in 1639 by Marie Guyart, sisters of the Ursuline Order taught girls from the Abenaki, Algonquin, Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Montagnais and Nipissing nations, among others. In addition to other subjects, music was part of the tuition of these girls. In a letter dated 3 September 1640, Marie Guyart wrote the following about one Indigenous pupil: “Agnès Chablikuchich was given to us[…] She has made great progress while with us, both in her knowledge of the mysteries of the faith and in propriety[…] in reading and playing the viol.”
Throughout the colonial history of Canada, Indigenous people have been discouraged and banned from connecting to and sharing with pride their musical, linguistic and land based traditions. In their place we have been given the music, art, language, modalities of the colonizer. We have excelled at sharing in the practices of Eurocentric art – but we must now prioritize our own stories and modes of storytelling. When I sing the songs of my ancestors and trancestors I feel them all around me, guiding me, protecting me, singing through me.
Indigenous bodies hold our past. Indigenous bodies predict our future. Indigenous stories are our past. Indigenous stories are the future.
- Jonathon Adams