Jeremy Dutcher’s Gift For His People
How a Singer and Composer From New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation is Keeping the Wolastoqey Language Alive With Breathtaking Music
An interview by: Matt Williams
Photographs By: Matt Barnes
“Psi-te npomawsuwinuwok, kiluwaw yut." That means, “‘All my people, this is for you,’” singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher says about the hopes he has for his debut record, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. “I just really want all the people of my community to understand how beautiful our songs are, and understand we can draw on our traditions and create something new and beautiful through that lens.”
With Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher — a member of the Tobique First Nation, the largest of the Wolastoqiyik and Maliseet Nation reserves in New Brunswick — reaches across more than a century of history to touch familiar ghosts that reach back, singing, dancing, and joking in turn, staving off their fading forms. The album encourages the evolution of tradition, melding passed-down songs and ancestral voices with Dutcher’s classical training as an operatic tenor and 21st-century pop and electronic elements. Urged on by Passamaquoddy Elder Maggie Paul, a pioneer of reviving Indigenous East-Coast music herself, Dutcher visited the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, to explore wax-cylinder recordings made by anthropologist William H. Mechling among the Wolastoqiyik between 1907 and 1914. It was there, in the midst of time travelling with these songs, that Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was conceived.
“To put on those headphones and actually get to hear these old voices was a transcendent moment,” Dutcher says. “It was almost like leaving my body, in a way. I think about that time, that first listening, a lot — when I was first able to hear those voices. Then I turned it into a conversation. They reached out to me with this archive, and with this record I'm reaching back to them, and saying, ‘I've heard you, and I'm gonna take what you've taught us and what you've sent to us forward.’”
He wastes no time making the musical connection between past and present. The spectral voice of Jim Paul singing a traditional melody rises out of the middle of the album’s first track, “Mehcinut.” Shivering strings, bold piano and rousing drums push slowly skyward, and Dutcher’s own voice soars alongside the stirring orchestral swell. As the song comes to a blissful, slightly melancholy end, Paul’s voice returns to the forefront, speaking about death and what lies in wait for us after.
I first had the privilege of seeing Dutcher perform last year, on a chilly December night in Fredericton — where he went to school growing up — as part of the New Constellations tour. He made his way to the stage silently and alone, dressed in a black robe with ornate designs, and sat down at a spotlit grand piano. As he opened his mouth to sing, the sound that burst forth knocked the wind straight out of the room, conjuring something so visceral, graceful and magnetic that I could barely choke back tears. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa captures that heaviness. Dutcher’s amalgamation of the old and the new is a sound in and of itself, something unheard of prior.
What may be more astonishing is that it exists to be heard at all. The Canadian government’s discriminatory 1876 Indian Act banned “any public displays of native-ness,” Dutcher points out, which means it was illegal for Indigenous Peoples to conduct their ceremonies or sing their songs. Dutcher’s mother and grandmother both grew up as part of these silenced generations. How strange, then, to be told by a colonial government that your traditions and way of life are outlawed, only to have some anthropologist ask you to help him record them for posterity.
The Indian Act has contributed to making many Indigenous languages in the country nearly extinct. Only 305 people named Wolastoqey as their first language in the 2016 Statistics Canada census. And Dutcher understands the urgency of preserving such a vital part of his community’s history: last year alone, he lost three people in his own family who had spoken the language since birth.
“When we lose that, we're not losing words, we're losing whole world views — ways of seeing the world that are rooted in the language,” Dutcher says. “I see the importance of making sure we're passing our language on, and particularly with my first record, I wanted to make sure it was coming from the Wolastoq point of view, and from the language. I do this work for those who are young. I was very fortunate that my mother passed on a little bit of the language to us, and not everyone had that.”
A language with a small and decreasing number of speakers is usually said to be “dying.” Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa clearly aims to push back against that finality. On a sonic level, ancient melodies intermingle with modern technology. On a philosophical level, Dutcher looks to complicate the idea of tradition, which he feels is often frozen in a place and time, not allowed to live and breathe and grow. It’s through this music that he’s able to bring new life to old ways and transform tradition in the hope it may carve out a space in the midst of modern life — somewhere it can exist as both a necessary part of Indigenous heritage and a vital piece of the present.
“Tradition is not static,” Dutcher says. “We only move things forward if we inhabit those traditions, and then use our contemporary sensibility and lens to build on what has come before.”
“We have a unique opportunity right now where we can draw on what has come before, but as Indigenous people today, we're just as connected as everyone else. We're modern people. In Mi'kma'ki they talk about two-eyed seeing. It's that idea of living as a contemporary Indigenous person in two worlds. Seeing the world in two ways — one through a contemporary lens, and one through a traditional lens. And for me it's respecting that dichotomy, and letting my artistic practice and what I create be enough to satisfy tradition, to be acceptable for that carrier knowledge. And through that, I too become a knowledge carrier, and someone who will share our stories on a wider level.”
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Dutcher which story of the Wolastoqiyik he would like to share on a wider level, and he pulls one right from the book he’s currently reading, Janet Silman’s Enough Is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out.
In 1970, Mary Sandra Nicholas, born on the Tobique First Nation reserve, married Bennie Lovelace, a non-Indigenous man. As a result, she was no longer a Status Indian under the Indian Act. When the marriage ended, she (now Sandra Lovelace Nicholas) returned to her reserve, but the Tobique band council refused to grant her housing in the community. She was denied access to healthcare, and her children were denied education.
Indigenous men who married non-Indigenous women, however, were not subject to the same penalties. In July 1977, she joined other women on a 100-mile march on Ottawa to bring attention to and right the inequity. Later that year, she and a group of other Indigenous women occupied the Tobique band office for four months. “F***ing radical women,” Dutcher says. Eventually, she was allowed to stay on the reserve.
But Lovelace Nicholas was seeking a long-term solution, and in 1979 she petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Committee over the Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous women and children. In 1981, the UN ruled that Canada had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Four years later, Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act, returned status to Indigenous women who had lost it after marrying non-Indigenous men. Over 114,000 persons received or recovered status under the Indian Act as a result.
“A lot of people don't know that this narrative or this challenge or this case was brought forth by women of New Brunswick,” Dutcher says. “They led that charge. They're the ones that marched on Ottawa.”
He’s right — a lot of people don’t know that. But Dutcher believes more of them are listening now. “We might not be on the same page,” he says about non-Indigenous people, “but at least we’re reading the same book.”
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was not created for everyone. It is completely in the Wolastoqey language, and no translations are provided. That’s because it’s meant to be an intimate conversation between Dutcher and his community. It’s about accessibility for the Wolastoqiyik — to their songs, their stories, their past. Still, judging by the response so far, Dutcher has created something so stunning that people outside his community can’t help but be drawn to it. Hopefully, they listen thoughtfully.
“Thinking back to my mother's generation, I could probably still do this project, but the way it's been received and the way people are listening now is totally different,” Dutcher says about the steps that have been made to address and amplify Indigenous stories. “Almost like a 180 [degree turn]. It's a very critical moment right now, but I think if we can capture people’s minds, and tell them our story from our perspective, there could be some substantive change.”
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.