DIRTSONG DE­LIV­ERS

ABO­RIG­I­NAL VOICES UNITE

The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - > BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

De­line Briscoe is not look­ing for­ward to the cold of a Cana­dian win­ter. “I’m a trop­i­cal per­son,” the singer says with a laugh, in­ter­viewed by phone from sum­mery Bris­bane, on Aus­tralia’s steamy east coast. But there are some things that she’s keen to ex­pe­ri­ence when the Black Arm Band’s dirtsong comes to the Push In­ter­na­tional Per­form­ing Arts Fes­ti­val next week. The plea­sure of per­form­ing on a new con­ti­nent a world away from her home. The sol­i­dar­ity that will come from meet­ing First Na­tions ac­tivists, who share many of the same con­cerns as her own Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. And gaz­ing at the un­fa­mil­iar high­way signs—es­pe­cially those in Coast Sal­ish, a rel­a­tively new de­vel­op­ment here in un­ceded Musqueam and Lil’wat ter­ri­tory.

“When I go to a place and I see that, I feel more wel­comed by the in­dige­nous peo­ple, be­cause it looks like they have a place,” she ex­plains. “It makes me feel that they’re ac­knowl­edged. It ac­knowl­edges that these places al­ready have a name, and al­ready have a sig­nif­i­cance to the lo­cal peo­ple—but we don’t have a lot of that in Aus­tralia yet.”

Signs in some of Aus­tralia’s sev­eral hun­dred Abo­rig­i­nal di­alects are be­gin­ning to be in­stalled around Ade­laide, tra­di­tion­ally a cen­tre of in­dige­nous pride, she al­lows. That’s one in­di­ca­tion that Canada and her na­tive land are on par­al­lel paths, al­though those paths are si­mul­ta­ne­ously hope­ful and painful: progress is slowly be­ing made to­ward a more eq­ui­table shar­ing of land and re­sources, but those vic­to­ries have come only af­ter gen­er­a­tions of dis­en­fran­chise­ment.

Dirtsong, Briscoe adds, has grown out of an ugly ex­pe­ri­ence shared by in­dige­nous peo­ple on both con­ti­nents: the at­tempted erad­i­ca­tion of their cul­ture through res­i­den­tial schools. The Black Arm Band troupe it­self was formed when a for­mer Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter at­tempted to be­lit­tle Abo­rig­i­nal claims, say­ing it was time to give up what he termed a “black-arm­band view of our past”. A for­mal apol­ogy for the res­i­den­tial-school sys­tem was even­tu­ally made, but the strug­gle for Abo­rig­i­nal rights con­tin­ues.

“Peo­ple are more aware of that his­tory now, be­cause of that apol­ogy,” says Briscoe. “But I don’t see that there’s been a great deal of ef­fort from the gov­ern­ment to have peo­ple make amends and move for­ward. I mean, my mum was a part of that, so that’s only one gen­er­a­tion ago, and they’re not put­ting sys­tems in place to have more eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble help for peo­ple like her. For­tu­nately, she found her fam­ily, but a lot of other [res­i­den­tial-school] stu­dents went through life kind of sep­a­rated from cul­ture and fam­ily.”

Through in­deli­ble im­ages, pow­er­ful sing­ing, and lu­mi­nous mu­sic from both western in­stru­ments and didgeri­doo, dirtsong ad­dresses that chasm. The mul­ti­me­dia con­cert cel­e­brates Abo­rig­i­nal strength and di­ver­sity by rein­vig­o­rat­ing a dozen dif­fer­ent lan­guages, some of which were on the brink of be­ing ex­tin­guished for­ever. And in the process, Briscoe adds, it strength­ens an Abo­rig­i­nal world-view that had been sim­i­larly en­dan­gered.

“Our lan­guages are so in­ter­twined with our en­vi­ron­ment,” she says. “I guess you prob­a­bly have that over there as well, with in­dige­nous lan­guages. There is no sep­a­rat­ing them. The songs, the sto­ries, the en­vi­ron­ment, the peo­ple: lan­guage con­nects them all, and when you lose some­thing like that, you lose a huge part of the cul­ture.”

Briscoe had en­joyed a fruit­ful ca­reer sing­ing in English be­fore join­ing the Black Arm Band, but writ­ing songs in her na­tive Yalanji di­alect is what’s truly brought her back to her Abo­rig­i­nal self.

“The minute that you start writ­ing in an in­dige­nous lan­guage, the sub­ject mat­ter is com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” she ex­plains. “Even if you’re writ­ing a love song, the way you ex­plain it is very dif­fer­ent.…in my lan­guage, for in­stance, we use one word for love but it also means spirit, and it also means heart, de­pend­ing on how you say it. Spirit and love and heart and heart­beat and home and your home­land… They’re all one word, and as sim­ple as that sounds, it’s quite com­plex as well!”

Dirtsong plays the Queen El­iz­a­beth The­atre next Satur­day (Fe­bru­ary 4), as part of the Push In­ter­na­tional Per­form­ing Arts Fes­ti­val.

De­line Briscoe feels a link with First Na­tions peo­ple here. Chris Dew photo.

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