“Stay calm and decolonize”. These were the strong, yet pithy words that singer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, commanded the audience to consider when asked about Canada’s impending 150th birthday at AGO Creative Minds earlier this month.
Buffy’s words resonated with me all week. This concept is something that I’ve been thinking about for many years. It’s not a foreign, new, or shocking concept, yet it feels uncomfortable for me to use in a sentence with ease and panache. For decolonization represents the concept, but not the individual actions or ideas.
I find the term ‘grounding’ to be far more relatable and comfortable to use, while encompassing decolonizing concepts. The concept of grounding takes into account the emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual self. I use the medicine wheel concept, taking into account those four areas of life to stay grounded in my everyday life. One of my most grounding activities is by staying connected to my maternal Ts’msyen family and culture.
One grounding force is my involvement in my Ts’msyen dance group of Lax Kxeen and also through Indigenous music makers like Buffy (who is only one amongst many). Through these musical grounding activities, I’ve developed a stronger sense of identity, which has helped alleviate the continued colonial stresses in my daily life.
Last year I experienced one of the most distressing periods in my life. I lost one of my closest friends, Alana Madill, and found myself for the first time in Regina for her funeral. Alana’s mother Ruth asked me to sing a song in my Ts’msyen Sm'algyax language for Alana’s funeral on her Ahtahkakoop Cree territory.
I don’t know why Ruth had asked me to sing a song for her daughter. I thought maybe it was because Alana had told her mom that while we were Guatemala working with the Mayan Youth Movement, we were asked to share a song from our culture.
In October 2008, Alana and I were at an Indigenous Youth Summit in Guatemala. We were asked to share a song to conclude the event. We had absolutely no idea what song to sing because our Indigenous communities were from two different parts of the country. Alana had the bright idea to sing Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Darling Don’t Cry”. The song was perfect because at that time it represented to me what it meant to be an Indigenous woman in Canada.
This time, I was asked to sing a song not with Alana but for Alana. I had a little more preparation time and thus I called my brother Phil Gray (Musii’nmuułgibaaw) and explained the situation. We went over a song together that Christine Smith-Martin had composed for her relative who had lost her loved one, the song tells them to walk softly when a person is mourning. This song is open to be sung by all members of Lax Kxeen and I wasn’t precluded from singing it. In the end, I didn’t end up singing the song, but it got me thinking about our Ts’msyen songs and culture.
During this conversation with Musii’nmuułgibaaw, I told him that I would soon be going to Uganda and asked him whether I should bring my button blanket and drum with me in case I was asked to share a song. Musii’nmuułgibaaw replied that it wasn’t necessary to bring them and he told me that, “You’ll always have your culture with you, no matter where you go in the world”.
This is something I always knew, but somehow it became much more meaningful at that heightened moment. I now remember this teaching whenever I’m feeling the need to reconnect with what it means to me to be a Ts'msyen woman.
I feel that through song, I’m able to find a tangible anchor point to be buoyed to my identity and stay grounded as a Ts’msyen woman. Song is one gateway to connect with all communities while also paying tribute to my own past and loved ones. It is something that I can always find no matter where I am in the world because I can find it within myself.