The Appropriation and Incarceration of Indigenous Songs

Dylan Robinson

The Canadian Music Centre (CMC) document “Music Inspired by Aboriginal Sources” (2010), compiled by Jeremy Strachan, lists compositions by composers of the CMC whose works use stories, songs, words and oral histories of Indigenous Peoples across Canada. Elaine Keillor’s 1991 essay “Indigenous Music as a Compositional Source” lists an additional number of Canadian compositions that use Indigenous music. Much of the source material used by composers represented in these lists was collected by folklorists, ethnographers, and anthropologists without documenting the proper protocol (Indigenous law) that governs who may sing, tell, speak and share this cultural wealth. Generations of composers—in addition to poets, novelists, and artists—across Canada have assumed that because such songs and stories were written down in anthropological texts or part of museum collections, that they were simply available for use. At the same time that composers were exploring the use of Indigenous stories and songs in their work, Indigenous Peoples were being prohibited from practicing our culture, and often from singing the very same songs composers were incorporating into their compositions. These forms of censorship included the Indian Residential school system that ran for over one hundred years (1870s – 1996), where thousands of Indigenous children were prohibited from speaking their languages and singing their songs. Additionally, for over seventy years (1880-1951), Section 3 of the Canadian Government’s Indian Act considered Sun Dances and singing and dancing in potlatch and winter dances a criminal offence, stating: “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment…” This history of song prohibition and censorship is the musical legacy inherited not just by Indigenous people across the country, but by music organizations. Just as the government, educational institutions and the churches are grappling with how to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ Calls To Action, so to do musical institutions have a responsibility to address the legacy of attempted cultural genocide and appropriation of Indigenous song. 

This history of song prohibition and censorship is the musical legacy inherited not just by Indigenous people across the country, but by music organizations.

One such attempt to address this legacy began in February 2017, when Dylan Robinson, G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli, (Nisga’a, Leader of the Git Hayetsk Dancers) and Wal’aks Keane Tait (Nisga’a, Leader of the Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers approached the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and National Arts Centre (NAC) to request that they begin a dialogue about reparations for Harry Somers’ appropriation of a Nisga’a lament/limx oo’y (“Song of Skateen”) commonly referred to as the “Kuyas” aria in the opening of Act III of the 1967 opera Louis Riel.

On April 19, a meeting was convened by Dylan Robinson and hosted by the COC where Mike Dangeli, Keane Tait, Dylan Robinson and Mique’l Dangeli shared information about the misuse of Indigenous songs in Canadian classical music, and in Louis Riel more specifically. Collected by Marius Barbeau and Ernest MacMillan while on the Nass River in 1927, the Nisga’a lament—or limx ooy̓—“Song of Skateen” was set to Cree text by the composer, Harry Somers. Following Nisg̱a’a protocol, limx ooy̓ must only be sung by those with the appropriate hereditary rights to do so; to sing these songs in other contexts is to break Nisg̱a’a law as well as release their spirit, which can have negative impacts on the lives of singers and listeners. While the work of realizing the appropriate form of action to redress this appropriation involved three years of work between the COC, NAC, Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, and the executors to the estates of Somers and Moore, there were more immediate ways we addressed this context for the performance in 2017. One of these was to make present the continuance of Nisga’a culture in performances by the Git Hayetsk Dancers and Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers at the Toronto (COC) and Ottawa (NAC) performances. Another way we addressed this context was through the inclusion of a short writing in Louis Riel’s program note.

Following this meeting, Nisga’a colleagues and delegates from Nisg̱a’a Lisims government attended the performance of the opera. Additionally, I was invited to speak with the Nisga’a Lisims Government’s Council of Elders regarding other Nisga’a songs recorded by Barbeau and MacMillan that had also been used in classical compositions.

In transforming this song into an aria for orchestra and soprano, Somers wanted to have something that “sounded native”, or as his wife Barbara Chilcott said, had a direct “Indian connection”. In contrast, at the 2017 remount of Louis Riel, members of the Nisg̱a’a nation who were present weren’t feeling this “Indian connection” as they listened. One might assume, as I did before discussing with Nisg̱a’a friends and colleagues, that the transformation of a traditional limx oo’y sung by a single male voice into an aria for a operatically trained soprano supported by orchestra would result in an experience of affective distancing because of the strong differences in its presentation. Yet on numerous occasions, my conversations with Nisg̱a’a listeners revealed that despite the extreme differences in presentation, because the melody of the song was the same, it carried with it the same life and spiritual impact as the original. In fact, the combination of the melody with Somers’ compositional treatment heightened the traumatic experience for Nisga’a listeners—some described the feeling of getting punched in the gut, while it left others nauseous. Nisga’a who heard the limx oo’y embedded in the aria did not just hear Somers’ aesthetic manipulation of a melody, they instead heard it as the violent dismemberment of life. I raise this example here in the context of original and reproduction to demonstrate how the reproduction, compositional transposition, or remediation of songs does not cease life they hold, but can continue to carry the life of the original, even when significant changes occur to the presentation. In this sense, full repatriation with the intention to redress epistemic violence against song-life needs to contend with returning all copies, all recordings, all publications including song transcriptions, all scores based upon those transcriptions, and all wax cylinders, given that all of these versions carry spiritual impact and life.

Indeed, this is exactly what the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Elders’ council has called for – the complete removal of all unauthorized forms of the limx oo’y that exist in the world today. These need to be removed from all books, shelves, CDs, and transcriptions not just because of the infringement of the hereditary rights of Sim’oogit Sgat’iin, hereditary chief Isaac Gonu, Gisḵ’ansnaat (Grizzly Bear Clan) to whom the song belongs, but because these various instances of the song perpetuate violence against Nisg̱a’a song-life. I raise this fact here in the pages of this book for you, the reader, to contend with. Perhaps you own a recording of this opera or Somers’ composition “Kuyas”, where the limx oo’y has also been used; perhaps you own a printed version of MacMillan’s transcription “Song of Skateen”; or perform this as part of your repertoire as a singer. If so, the decision rests with you as to how you will honour the Nisg̱a’a Elder’s Council’s request to remove this song from further use and circulation.

During my visit with the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Elder’s Council about Nisg̱a’a songs used in compositions, I was additionally told by members of the council that they did not have access to any of their songs held by the Canadian Museum of History. This is far from uncommon, and many Indigenous communities and families remain unaware that their songs even exist in museum archives. There is great irony in the fact that ethnographers engaged in collecting Indigenous songs, like Marius Barbeau and Ida Halpern, made these songs available for settler Canadians and composers to use at the same time as these songs were hidden away in museums archives (as wax cylinders, but also in more recently digitized forms). Without the proactive efforts of museum staff to connect these songs with their rightful hereditary owners, they will continue to remain separated from the communities to which they belong.

Following the meeting with the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Elder’s Council, and learning of the lack of access they had to their songs I wrote to the Canadian Museum of History: “I simply no longer want to feel like our nations’ songs are incarcerated in institutions; I no longer want to have First Peoples’ songs held hostage in classical music pieces; I no longer want to hear that museum copyright is asserted as a means to refuse an Indigenous singer/artist the right to use their family’s song as they see fit; I no longer want to hear members of Indigenous communities telling me they had no idea their songs were part of a museum’s collection.” Museums, to move forward in addressing their ongoing role in the incarceration of the life of Indigenous songs (in addition to other Indigenous belongings and ancestors) must reimagine their role not only as leaders in practices of reconnecting our people with our ancestors and cultural wealth, but as leaders in supporting Indigenous people in determining whether the museum should retain any access to recordings, or other belongings held in their collection. This is the action of committing to Indigenous sovereignty.

The Nisg̱a’a History of The “Kuyas” Aria

For impressiveness nothing approached the song of Skateen …. The lament of the mourners rose plaintively and fell in descending curves, like the wind in the storm. It was the voice of nature crying out. … I heard Dr. MacMillan say, when he was trying to transcribe it from the phonograph: ‘Those things can’t be written down on out stave, they simply can’t.’ But they could, our stave being a rack upon which to pin down sounds and rhythms whatever they are, at least approximately.

Marius Barbeau (1933)

It may surprise listeners to learn that Act III’s opening aria begins with the Nisg̱a’a song described above by Barbeau, and not a Métis song. “Song of Skateen” is one of thousands of First Nations songs collected by ethnographers during the early 20th century. Many of our ancestors were convinced by that sharing their songs would keep them safe for future generations. Many agreed to have their songs recorded believing that the Indian Act’s censorship from performing our songs and dances would result in their eventual loss. From 1880-1951, under Section 3 of the Indian Act, the Canadian government considered singing and dancing in potlatch and winter dances an offence: “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ … is guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall be liable to imprisonment…”

Little did our ancestors know that by sharing their songs with ethnographers for safekeeping, their songs might then become “pinned down” in compositions like Louis Riel without their consent. “Song of Skateen”, a Nisg̱a’a lament song, was used by Harry Somers without knowledge of Nisg̱a’a protocol that dictates that such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times, and only by those who hold the hereditary rights to sing them. For Nisg̱a’a and other northwest coast First Nations, to sing lament songs in other contexts is a legal offence and can also negatively impact the lives of singers and listeners.

At the COC presentation of Louis Riel, Nisg̱a’a, Métis and other First Nations performers and artists gathered with members of Louis Riel’s production team, the Canadian Opera Company, and National Arts Centre to discuss First Nations song protocol and the mis-use of Indigenous songs in Canadian compositions like Louis Riel. Our continuing dialogues at the NAC will consider how performing arts organizations can provide space for new Indigenous-led initiatives that redress histories of entitlement to use Indigenous song and story.

Dylan Robinson (Stó:lō), Associate Professor, Queen’s University; Wal’aks Keane Tait (Nisg̱a’a), Leader, Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a Dancers; G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli (Nisg̱a’a), Leader, Git Hayetsk Dancers

I simply no longer want to feel like our nations’ songs are incarcerated in institutions; I no longer want to have First Peoples’ songs held hostage in classical music pieces.

Dylan Robinson

Dylan Robinson

Dylan Robinson is a xwélmexw (Stó:lō/Skwah) artist and writer, and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University. He is the author of Hungry Listening (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) on Indigenous and settler colonial forms of listening.