Jeremy Dutcher: ‘Always do it our way first’

Opera singer adds to the Indigenous renaissance, entire album is in Wolastoqey language

Jeremy Dutcher’s voice echoes and grows louder in one of the largest rooms in the world, the Grand Foyer of The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His “oohs” and piano sounds dance with the light from the crystal chandeliers as the sun peeks through the windows.

Each chandelier weighs a ton, the marble building stands 100 feet, some 630 feet long, along the Potomac River.

And it’s clear that Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik of the Tobique First Nation, belongs in this building.

There are so many echoes present at the Kennedy Center. There is the 1958 law that authorized the building, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Just seven years before that, in 1951, the Canadian government had lifted the official ban on Indigenous cultural practices (part of the Indian Act). When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act had not yet become law. The United States only codified the right of Native people to practice tradition, sing, and conduct sacred ceremonies in 1978. And in Canada, the Indian Residential Schools continued its course of abuse that began in the 1870s (around the same start time in the U.S.) until the last school closed in 1996.

What does this all mean for Dutcher?

“I never take for granted this moment. And that a generation ago this was not possible,” he said several hours before his live performance in Washington or in “the belly of the beast.”

His mom was part of that generation who attended the residential schools in Canada where students were beaten for speaking their first language.

“That time is done. That time is over. Now we’re in a beautiful time when we’re sharing ourselves. We’re not ashamed anymore,” said the classically-trained opera singer.

(Yes. An Indigenous person who is trained in classical music and sings opera. How rare is that?)

Dutcher took home the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. The Polaris is one of Canada’s most prestigious music awards given to the best album of the year.

Four Indigenous artists have won the Polaris in the last five years. Lido Pimienta, featured on A Tribe Called Red’s latest album, won last year. In 2015, Buffy Sainte-Marie won and Tanya Tagaq took the award in 2014.

Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa took the composer five years to work on due to research and translation from wax cylinders that were stored in the Canadian Museum of History. His mentor and elder Maggie Paul told Dutcher about the recordings. An anthropologist recorded community’s traditional songs and stories on these cylinders in 1907.

With that, the entire album is in Wolastoqey, his Indigenous language, where there are only less than 100 fluent speakers left.

He said on NPR: “To get to hear these voices and to not just hear the songs but also to, you know, hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes and - it was a real snapshot of life at that time. I heard what they heard, you know? There was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. That was something that changed my life.”

He made this album specifically for his people he told Indian Country Today: The Wolastoqiyik, the People of the Beautiful River. Their homelands sits near the Saint John River in New Brunswick.

(Previous story: An awards night to remember in Canada: This is not nation to nation)

His work is only a “small portion” of this shift in Indigenous art creation, such as music, literature, film, visual art, and more. It’s a shift from shame to standing tall and sharing, and “sharing on our own terms.”

This “critical movement” has Indigenous artists saying “we’re not translating our work.”

“There is something in the untranslatability of what we offer and that’s where the lesson lies,” he said.

He does credit all those who paved the way before him such as A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and Indigenous artists in the U.S.

Especially his hero Buffy Sainte-Marie.

“She was talking about genocide in the ‘60s before any of us were thinking about it,” he said. “There’s really not that many of us who had gone out really at that level, you know? And she took a lot of flak for what she said too.”

Sainte-Marie rocked the ship so much that the Nixon and Johnson administrations blacklisted her. She told Vogue that the U.S. government had a 31 page dossier on her that she didn’t know about for more than 20 years.

“It’s not easy to go out there and be unapologetically Indigenous,” Ducher said.

He said Sainte-Marie’s work helped him push the conversation forward. (The duo met for the first time at an awards show and he says he wouldn’t mind hanging out with her in Hawaii.)

“As young people we always need to be aware of the shoulders on which we stand on. It’s all just progression. We're always building a little layer on top of the goodness that came before,” he said. “If she had not burst through the door and said, ‘I’m here. Here’s what I have.’ I would not have walked through the door in the way that I have. It would have been a lot more difficult.”

Dutcher is holding opera doors open for youth who may just stumble into classical music and opera singing like he did.

“Growing up I was a bit of an odd child. I did a lot of theater, you know? Those theater kids, we find safety in that. The weirdos, we clump together,” he said. “I went to my teacher and I asked, ‘If I wanted to take this to the next level what would it be?’ And she said, ‘Well, have you thought about classical music?’”

He shook his head and said, “No, not really.”

He attended Dalhousie University and graduated in 2012 with dual degrees in music and social anthropology.

“So yes, classical music is a bit of an odd choice,” he said with a short laugh. “To this day I still think what am I doing?”

“This album came out of being in that classical music world and figuring out as an Indigenous person how do I navigate that? Because it’s such a colonial western way of making music. Like where do our people fit in that?” he said. “This record was an answer to that question. It’s to say well if what I want to see is not out there then just make it.”

This juxtaposition of traditional and classical music honors both of his lineages - his mom who is Wolastoqiyik and his father with a German, Scottish and European background. A “settler man” who “knew better,” Dutcher said with a smile.

“He was one of the good ones. He really knew to step aside at times and let my mom lead,” he said. “I’m so grateful for both of them for what they offered us.” 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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