‘We are all treaty people’
Celebrating ancestors by passing along traditional knowledge, cultural practices
“I do this work to honour those who have gone before, and I lay the footwork for those who have yet to come. This is all a continuum of Indigenous excellence, and you are here to witness it.” Jeremy Dutcher’s acceptance speech, 2018 Polaris Prize Gala.
During the recent Lumière Arts Festival, I joined more than 300 people to watch Jeremy Dutcher in concert at the United Heritage Church, on the traditional and unceded Mi’kmaw lands of Unama’ki, Cape Breton Island.
For those not familiar with Dutcher’s work, he was awarded the prestigious 2018 Polaris Prize for his debut recording “Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa” (wool-las-two-wi-ig lint-twowah-gun-ah-wa) which integrates archival recordings of his ancestors with new compositions that transcend musical boundaries.
As a part of this five-year project, Dutcher worked in the archives at the Canadian Museum of History, transcribing Wolastoq songs from 1907 wax cylinders.
Today, archivists often work with artists, creators and knowledge keepers to uncover new collaborations and ways to interpret and share the cultural materials held in institutions.
Staff at Cape Breton University who volunteer with Lumière worked to bring Dutcher to Unama’ki to share in this “continuum of Indigenous excellence” at this important moment in history.
Another installation during Lumière was a theatrical performance of Muin aqq L’uiknek te’sijik Ntuksuinu’k (Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters), a wellknown Mi’kmaw legend.
Leading up to the performance, Joel Denny and members of the Denny family educated and entertained the crowd with demonstrations of songs and dances of the L’nu, including Ko’jua, the most popular genre of traditional Mi’kmaw song and dance.
Like Dutcher’s work, Joel Denny is celebrating his ancestors by passing along traditional knowledge and cultural practice shared with him by his parents Sarah and Noel Denny that might otherwise have been lost.
The Beaton Institute is currently working with Denny to preserve and make available the Sarah Denny Cultural Collection, an impressive collection of L’nu oral histories, dance demonstrations, chants, stories and songs which documents the legacy of Sarah and Noel Denny and their family from the community of Eskasoni.
Two CBU students from Eskasoni, Jerri-Ann Marshall and Promise Sylliboy, have been hired through the Nova Scotia Culture Innovation Fund. They are using their expertise and fluency in Mi’kmaq to fully describe content, provide translations, facilitate digitization, and help host interview sessions with Joel Denny.
The Beaton Institute, like most cultural archives in Canada, is trying to work toward a “de-colonial sensibility” within the archive when working with Indigenous-created collections.
Essentially this means institutions are doing things differently, recognizing that a more inclusive and participatory approach is needed. Ultimately, we want to learn from Joel Denny, and have his own words inform the collection descriptions rather than impose settler interpretations on the content.
We hope that, like Dutcher’s work, these significant recordings will find their way into new and creative explorations of L’nu culture as well as highlight the ignored history of our Indigenous peoples.
Another current cultural initiative at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery is the exhibit Red Rising Hoods by artist Teresa Marshall.
Thoughtful and creative approaches to presenting Mi’kmaw clothing and craft speaks to and promotes the strength, talent and wisdom of women in L’nu culture. As well, other pieces incorporate materials from the natural world like deer tails, bone and hide, sometimes displayed with a sense of humour and sometimes with condemnation for past and present injustices. I believe that cultural awakening and discovery through song, dance, art and language can help us together on the road to reconciliation.
During October’s Mi’kmaq History Month, I encourage you to explore the shared responsibility and meaning of the term “We Are All Treaty People” by visiting Red Rising Hoods at the art gallery, experiencing the work by Jeremy Dutcher, and learning more about Sarah Denny and her cultural legacy at beatoninstitute.com/sarahdenny, or visit the Mi’kmaq Resource Centre here at CBU.
Jane Arnold is an archivist at the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University. Arnold also participates as a board member with Heritage Cape Breton Connection, the Old Sydney Society and works with the Council of Nova Scotia Archives.
Joel Denny explaining the game of Waltes at the Mi’kmaq Resource Centre at Cape Breton University.
A Mi’kmaq peaked cap, part of the Red Rising Hoods exhibit by artist Teresa Marshall at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery.
Sarah Denny, 1985.