Canada Scene: Jeremy Dutcher is using music to save Maliseet language

Jeremy Dutcher's on a mission to preserve the Maliseet language through music. Photo: John Paille

There are less than 500 speakers of the Maliseet language in Canada. It  is a situation that deeply concerns Jeremy Dutcher. And it is something he wants to do something about.

His First Nation is located about two hours north of Fredericton, New Brunswick and he comes from a musical family. His eldest brother sings traditional chant music. Another brother plays rock and roll. A third is a jazz pianist.

Jeremy is a classically trained tenor. He was turned onto singing when one of his brothers convinced him to check out the high school musical. He auditioned and made the grade.

“I became interested in the stage and that world and I started taking voice lessons,” the 26 year old said in an interview with ARTSFILE. After a while, he says he asked his voice teacher “what’s the next step if I want to be serious about this work. She said, ‘Well, there is opera and classical music.’ It was one of my first introductions to anything classical. I fell in love with it very quickly.”

That led to university where he continued his voice training.

“I was learning German and really digging into the stuff and thinking about language. I was calling home and I wasn’t able to speak my own language, Maliseet.”

Dutcher’s mother is Maliseet and his father is non-indigenous. The language was spoken a little bit around the home, he said. “My mother was a fluent speaker … until she went into the day schools it was only language she knew.

“But at six she was forced to stop speaking it.” The day schools had replaced residential schools, but the regime was still the same, Dutcher said.

“She was only able to pass on to us the building blocks of the language. She had a six-year-old’s vocabulary. My grandmother spoke it, but she had a complicated relationship with her culture.”

He had an epiphany during his study of German, a typical course for budding opera singers. “I thought, ‘Why am I spending so much time learning German tenses when I should really be investing in my own language?”

At the same time he learned of the deaths of three elders who spoke Maliseet and understood there were so few speakers left.

“When that happens it’s like, “Wow, if we don’t do this now it’s gone. When you lose a language you’re not just losing words, you’re losing an entire way of seeing the world; one that is so integral to Canada, the place. Language comes out of the land. It intimately ties us to the world around us.

“For me it was a long journey to get there, but now that’s why so much of my work now reflects that language. I’m 26 and I’m trying to encourage other young people to think about our language and about the importance of making sure it stays with us for next generation.”

Dutcher sees himself as being between two worlds.

“That is a perspective that needs t0 be lifted up as a way forward. I think about my parents and what they had to go through to be together. The rifts that caused in their families. At their wedding, the indigenous side and the non-indigenous side did not mingle. There was table in middle for the three people who didn’t care. That was our existence growing up; it was always this sort of weird space.”

But his parents always made sure their sons had a connection to the community. In Fredericton they were involved in the Indigenous community. And the reserve was a short drive.

“We were always back and forth.”

As his thinking crystallized, Dutcher began looking for the language and he found it in music.

“I wanted to work through my identity through music of the kind people had made when I growing up. That was missing from institutionalized, classical music kind of space. I was seeking to return to that good way of making music.”

So he started to searching for classical music written by indigenous people or that just had some connection. He didn’t come up with much.

“I thought ‘I really wish there was content that speaks to the issues in our community and that takes up our melodies and our music. I didn’t see it out there and I realized I would just have to create it.”

So he has been composing, building on traditional songs. He has a collection that he calls Wolastoqiyik (The People of the Beautiful River) Lintuwakonawa (Songs).

“I am reconnecting my community with these songs which have been removed from the culture in which they originated.” He supports himself with grants and singing gigs in Toronto and beyond.

The work led him to the choir Camerata Nova of Winnipeg and the choir director and composer Andrew Balfour

“He came to see a show I did at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and after that he asked me to consider writing a piece for the  choir.

“I was so excited about that. I was always very interested in choral music … but only singing it. I had never thought to put a pen to it.”

The piece Dutcher has produced is called Taken Away and it is dedicated to three school survivors who went to Shubenacadie Residential School.

“I write everything at the piano and I’ve never taken a piano lesson. Some of the piece is scored, some is not. I thought about the times as a choral singer that I had the most enjoyment singing on stage. That was when I was able to create the piece as it went, to have say in how the piece moved forward.”

So in the first part of his piece the singers are not given notes; they are given suggestions and allowed to create that world (the Maliseet world) in their own way.

When the students arrive at the school, the piece is in Latin and it becomes very structured and linear and dictated, much as the schools were, he said.

“I finished it on the night of the first performance in Winnipeg on March 3. Any composer will know that moment of the first time you have ever heard people perform your work who are not yourself. I’ve never had a child but the act of creation and seeing something into being is really one of the most incredible experiences. Composers chase that feeling.”

His piece is part of a larger performance that includes works by:

• Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight, a composer and Muskoday First Nation hip hop artist. Her work is a rap called Taken where the choir provides the beat.

• Andrew Balfour. His work is called Quamaniq (Bright Aura). Balfour was part of the infamous Sixties Scoop and is an adopted First Nations’ child. His piece is a quasi-opera featuring Resolute Bay singer Madeleine Allakariallak. It imagines an  encounter between explorer Martin Frobisher and a First Nations woman in the Baffin Islands.

Dutcher does’t “really engage with the term reconciliation. I take the lead from an Mi’kmaw elder named Isabelle Knockwood. She says the Talking Stick has been passed and now it’s time to hear from non-aboriginal people. The truth has been laid down and reconciliation is not our work to do. This is Canada’s work to do.”

He hopes the audience that hears his music take a message of resilience away with them.

“I often get asked ‘What is indigenous music?’ It’s everything. As long as an indigenous person is making music that’s what indigenous music is. I’m making the music that is most salient to who I am as a indigenous person who is super interested in classical music and somebody who is passionate about our language and all of the themes and ways of being find themselves in the music.”

Taken (Part of Canada Scene)
Who: Camerata Nova
Programme: Taken Away by Jeremy Dutcher; Taken by Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight; Quamaniq (Bright Aura) by Andrew Balfour.
Where: Tabaret Hall, 550 Cumberland St.
Saturday June 17 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Here is a selection of indigenous artists and art also taking part in Canada Scene which opens June 15.

It’s Complicated: Visual art from 10 Indigenous artists — the OO7 (Ottawa Ontario 7) Collective and guests — offering an alternative perspective on Canada 150 celebrations. At the Central Art Garage, 66 Lebreton North, from June 15 – July 31.

A Nation of Nations is a free screening of  10 short documentaries by First Nations, Métis and Inuit filmmakers. Saw Gallery, June 19.

Making Treaty 7 asks whether the written word matched the oral agreement between settlers and First Nations people in a play. June 20

Buffy Ste Marie with Randy Bachman, DJ Shub and Leela Gilday. July 3.

#callresponse “is a multifaceted, multiplatform, geographically expansive exhibit that is centred on Indigenous women.” SAW Gallery. June 18 to July 30.

Northern Craft Workshop & Marketplace. Seven northern artists will be at the NAC displaying their crafts and hosting workshops for the public including beading, caribou hair tufting, soapstone carving, jewelry design and carving, birch bark weaving, and traditional doll making. July 19 – 22.

Kiviuq Returns tells the story of the legendary Inuit hero Kiviuq as he journeys across the Far North encountering mystical animals, giants and spirits. Starring Inuit actor Pakak Innuksuk (of the award-winning film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) as Kiviuq. July 21-22.

Anishinabekwe. A night of music by Indigenous women including Polaris-Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, Ottawa’s Amanda Rheaume, Metis singer-songwriter Sandy Scofield, Cree/Dene singer Iskwé and Métis artist and experimental musician Moe Clark. July 22.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.