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Young artists move Indigenous conversations forward
by Jackie Wong
Tanya Tagaq is a Nunavut-raised Inuk throat singer whose latest record, “Animism,” beat rapper Drake and indie darlings The Arcade Fire to win the 2014 Polaris Music Prize awarded to the year’s best full-length Canadian album. Photo: Ivan Otis
At Toronto’s Polaris Music Prize Gala in late September, Tanya Tagaq’s powerful performance marked a
shift in a contemporary independent
music landscape that is often strikingly homogenous. For the eight years that the annual $30,000 Polaris Prize has been awarded to a notable full-length Canadian album, the winners have never featured Indigeneous representation, or even people of color. Tagaq won for “Animism,” her fourth album that Six Shooter Records released this spring; she broke the dry spell by beating out the likes of the Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat, and Mac DeMarco.
In her Polaris Prize performance, Tagaq projected a list of names of missing and murdered Aboriginal women onstage while she sang. In her acceptance speech, she told the audience to “wear and eat seal as much as possible.” She further stirred controversy when she finished with an F-bomb-laced message to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Tagag wished to make a point, she told reporters later, that Indigenous communities should have the right to hunt and harvest seals, particularly in impoverished First Nations communities in Newfoundland, where the hunt takes place. She says the fact that her PETA statement caused such a stir — and the list of missing and murdered women didn’t — is an indicator of a widespread and sinister, willful ignorance.
“It’s exhausting to have people dismiss it,” she says. “I got tired of people thinking of the missing and murdered indigenous women as something that’s happening to somebody else because it’s not just somebody else. These are sisters and mothers.”
Tagaq, 40, was raised in Nunuvut in the Canadian Arctic and is Inuk. Her musical practice draws from Inuit throat singing, a practice usually done by two women. After actively performing and recording for nearly a decade, the Polaris distinction has provided a new, necessary platform to speak publicly about gender equality, indigeneity, and de-colonization: the issues closest to her heart.
“It’s something that I live with every day and that we talk about around my dinner table every day. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to bring these issues up because it’s not something I study from far away: it’s something that I live,” she told Megaphone on the phone from her home in Brandon, Manitoba.
“Like waves against the rocks”
The process of undoing a colonial legacy that spans centuries and generations isn’t happening quickly. “It’s like waves against the rocks. It’s going to take a really long time for people to understand why they think that way about us,” Tagaq says.
“People don’t understand that there had to be this attitude towards Indigenous people in the first place in order for colonialists to ethically take the land and do what they did to us. They had to think we were inferior and they had to think we were savage animals and they had to dismiss us. Because you wouldn’t ever do that to an equal.”
From where she now stands as one of the major players in Canada’s independent music landscape, Tagaq is working to make public what she has been experiencing personally for years. Last month, she was sexually harassed while walking through downtown Winnipeg in mukluks.
“It was racially specified, what happened,” she recalls. She Tweeted about the incident, which was covered by national media that rarely touch such issues.
The moment has come, Tagaq says, where issues previously understood as exclusively indigenous – equality, colonial violence — -should move to a wider audience. Tagaq is working to move the conversation forward through her music, and so are a number of younger Indigenous artists.
Taking back the land
In early October, 29-year-old Jordan Abel, a poet from the Nisga’a on the northwest B.C. coast, launched his second book, Un/ Inhabited, at the Vancouver Art/Book Fair. The book of conceptual poetry features appropriated text from 91 western novels. The novels, most of them published in the early 20th century, tell traditional western tales of the frontier, and the relationship between “cowboy” and “Indian.”
Though the novels he appropriates in Un/ Inhabited are fiction, those fictions did a lot to influence public consciousness about land use and who has the right to it. “I think they were really integral in creating a national fiction around these spaces, just the common understanding and belief that there were these blank spaces that were there,” Abel says, “and that the pioneers and the settlers were the ones taming it and shaping it and founding cities.”
A process of reclamation
In appropriating western novels and interrogating them, Abel digitally searched the texts for colonial language and ripped those words out. He re-territorializes a set of colonial narratives with a voice of his own.
Abel’s next book, Injun, will be published by Talonbooks in 2016. Between now and then, Abel will continue his PhD work in Simon Fraser University’s English department. His work appears in the forthcoming “Futures” issue of Poetry is Dead magazine.
“A different temperature in the water”
Late last month, Jarrett Martineau participated in a sold-out book launch and panel discussion at SFU Woodward’s in downtown Vancouver. The 37-year-old Saskatchewan Cree/Dene hip-hop artist came to town from Victoria to support the launch of noted political theorist Glen Coulthard’s latest book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Megaphone caught up with him the morning after the talk. Reflecting on the unprecedented attendance at the launch, Martineau feels a shift in public mood.
“There’s a different temperature in the water, to my knowledge and perception,” he says. “I don’t attribute it exclusively, but I think a lot of it is an outgrowth of what happened with Idle No More as a really important intervention into broader public discourse.”
Cultural change precedes political change
Martineau, who was a key community organizer with the Idle No More movement, is currently at work on PhD in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria. When he started his doctorate work, he also co-founded Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), a digital music platform to promote contemporary Indigenous music culture.
The site, RPM.fm, intends to introduce a general-public audience to contemporary forms of Indigenous music. Martineau has worked extensively with Tanya Tagaq and Ottawa’s Indigenous hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Red. “It’s also about building community from within. A really big part of what we do is try to get people who are recording in their bedroom and who don’t have access to maybe a bigger community of people to get their work out.”
Martineau is a former CBC television and radio host who formerly performed with Vancouver musical outfits The Front and Damage Control. He occasionally raps and samples under the stage name No-1. His current academic work brings together his personal experiences as a media artist and musician to investigate how art can be an instrument of social change.
“There’s an author, Jeff Chang, who wrote this great book called Can’t Stop, Don’t Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He says cultural change precedes political change. I really think that’s true,” Martineau says. “Looking to art as a way of anticipating the kind of changes we want to realize in these other ways, I think, is really useful.”
What’s happening among younger Indigenous artists and thinkers now, Martineau says, builds hopeful momentum that he expects will grow.
The invisible reality of Spain’s homeless
Story and Photo by Inés Benítez for IPS
MALAGA, Spain – “It’s easy to end up on the street. It’s not because you led a bad life; you lose your job and you can’t afford to pay rent,” says David Cerezo while he waits for lunch to be served by a humanitarian organization in this city in southern Spain.
Cerezo, 39, lives in a filthy wreck of a house downtown with two other people. He used to work as a baker and confectioner but his drug abuse ruined his life, and separated him from his wife and his 36- and 39-year-old brothers.
Now he is determined to undergo rehabilitation, he says in front of the lunch counter of the Ángeles Malagueños de la Noche (Málaga Angels of the Night) association.
“Most of those who ask for food here have ended up on the street because of drugs or alcohol, but there are also parents coming for food for their kids, and very young people,” he says, pointing towards the dozens of people lined up under the midday sun for a plate of rice steaming in a huge pot.
Spain’s long, severe recession has led to an unemployment rate of 24.4 percent according to the national statistics institute, INE. Meanwhile, government social services budgets have been cut.
According to statistics from earlier this year, between 20.4 and 27.3 percent of the population of 47.2 million – depending on whether the measurement uses Spanish or European Union parameters – lives below the poverty line.
Nor does having a job guarantee a life free of poverty. The proportion of working poor went from 10.8 percent of the population in 2007 to 12.3 percent in 2010, according to the Dossier de Pobreza EAPN España 2014, a report on poverty in Spain by the European Anti Poverty Network.
Even worse, 27 percent of the country’s children – more than 2.3 million girls and boys – in poverty or on the edge of it, according to the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF.
Yet a study published Sept. 19 by the Association of Directors and Managers of Social Services reported that public spending on poverty this year was $18.98 billion, $2.78 billion less than in 2012.
The 2014 study on exclusion and social development in Spain by the Foessa Foundation reports that five million people are affected by “severe exclusion.” That’s 82.6 percent more than in 2007, the year before the lingering economic crisis began.
In Málaga dozens of poor families, many of whom were evicted for failing to pay the rent or mortgage, are living together in squats known as “corralas,” empty buildings owned by banks or construction companies that went bankrupt.
Since 2007 there have been 569,144 foreclosures, the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) reports. At the same time, there are 3.5 million empty dwellings – 14 percent of the total, according to the INE.
“The system could use a turn of the screw, to provide permanent and unconditional housing, in first place,” the director of the RAIS Foundation, José Manuel Caballol, told IPS.
His organization is promoting the Housing First model in Spain. This approach focuses on moving homeless people immediately from the streets or shelters into their own apartments, based on the concept that their first and primary need is stable housing.
The approach targets people who have spent at least three years living on the streets, or those suffering from mental illness, drug use, alcoholism or disabilities.
“The results are spectacular,” he said. “The people are so happy, they take care of their house and of themselves because they don’t want to lose what they have.”
Caballol said this approach, which emerged in the United States in the 1990s, “offers a definitive solution to the problem of homelessness and spells out significant savings in costs for the state, in hospital care, for example.”
Since July, 28 homeless people have been living in eight housing units in Málaga, 10 in Barcelona and 10 in Madrid. Some units were given to RAIS and others rented by the NGO through agreements with city governments and foundations, and with economic support from the government.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes