MEGAPHONO: Honouring the past and hoping for the future with Duke Redbird

Duke Redbird today.

In the ferment of the 1960s, many voices were speaking up. Among them was a generation of Indigenous artists, musicians and poets who were talking about the conditions that faced their people and their hopes for a better future.

Duke Redbird was in the mix in those days. The Ojibwe from the Saugeen First Nation has been a poet, journalist, activist, businessman, actor, artist, educator and administrator in his time. He has also been a key figure in the development of First Nations literature. As an infant he became a ward of the Children’s Aid Society and was raised by a white family.

He started writing as a way to confront the racisim he faced growing up.

In the mid-1960s, Redbird was a spoken word artist performing at folk festivals, coffeehouses and theatres. He also edited a newspaper called The Thunderbird and was active in the Red Power movement.

One of the shows he performed at was in the National Arts Centre where he was on stage with artists such as Willie Dunn, Winston Wuttunee and Tom Jackson. On Friday night he’ll be there again, this time as part of the Native North American Gathering along with Alanis Obomsawin, Wille Mitchell and others. In a way he’s come full circle.

“What happened in ’60s was,” Redbird said in an interview, “we realized there was an opportunity to have a little leverage into the world in general from the very marginal place that we lived through music and poetry.

“It was the era of the hippie movement, the summer of love and it was a bit more open. Young people then were looking for an alternative lifestyle that appealed to them and the indigenous lifestyle had the appearance, in a very romantic way, of being free from the trappings of middle class North American life.

“Many of us landed in the middle of that and realized there was an opportunity to participate.”

Duke Redbird at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1968.

Redbird ended up in Yorkville in the 1960s and mingled with the now famous.

“You were sitting at a coffee house called the Mousehole or in the Purple Onion or any of these places and you’d bump shoulders with famous people who weren’t famous at the time.

“You could look over and say hi to Joni Mitchell, we were good friends. You’d see Blind Lemon Jefferson walking down the street with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, or Neil Young. Gordie Lightfoot was always in the neighbourhood. I was good friends with Leonard Cohen.”

In fact he lived in the same rooming house as Mitchell.

“We were all poor as church mice. She had room across the hall from where I was living. She had just come in from Saskatchewan. Those were wonderful times. She was connected in a beautiful way to the earth. We stayed connected over the years.

“And Buffy Sainte-Marie always around. She just keeps on putting out her music.”

These days Redbird says it’s great to see that there is an audience for Indigenous music with bands such as A Tribe Called Red.

“We are the old-timers now.”

But that era of freedom didn’t last long.

“It closed down just like the slamming of a door. By the ’80s, everyone had already turned Yorkville into the Mink Mile.

“There was no room for the Indigenous artists. We got moved along and moved out.”

Redbird continued his work and by the 1990s had managed to hook up with CITY-TV as an arts and entertainment reporter. After that he moved over to the Ontario College of Art and Design where he started an Indigenous art program. These days he works with the Toronto District School Board as a consultant in Indigenous arts and culture.

But he remembers those voices from the 1960s and ’70s.

“People like Willie Dunn wrote some wonderful songs about injustices associated with the treaties and the residential schools.

Redbird thinks that writing helped set in motion some of the things that are happening today.

“The young people who heard us then are now running the government, many of them.”

But Indigenous people, he says, are still trying to navigate the colonial system.

“I was part of the Red Power movement in the ’60s and ’70s. We struggled and fought and scratched our way through. I was fortunate enough to get an education. I got a Master’s degree and now a doctorate. We had no other choice.

“I feel that our survival depends on our capacity for innovation, invention, creativity and imagination because we don’t have any of the other tools. We have been denied access to power and money so we have to depend on romance and self-preservation. Romance includes the arts.

“I feel extremely lucky to have lived as long as I have to have to see the change that is happening and to see that there is a generation coming along now who is wired in to the society of the future.”

He believes that everyone is being re-tribalized. And now “we are the best equipped people to engage the future.” There is a lot of irony in that, something he acknowledges.

Redbird was a songwriter in those halcyon days, working often with the singer Shingoose.

“We wrote The ballad of Norval Morrisseau and The Chanting song. Another was called Silver River.”

On Friday night, Redbird will read his poetry.

“I use a teleprompter now. I have a little iPad. I have a pretty good memory, but at one time I recited all my poems from memory, still do. The IPad is there just in case. I tell my grandchildren (he has five), ‘Grandpa doesn’t have Alzheimer’s I have Some-Timers’.”

He has been at other Gatherings including one in Toronto and at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

“They were wonderful, the audience was so enthusiastic.”

It was great, he says, to see a mix of old and young in the crowd.

He likes to get together with his colleagues of course.

“We share a lot of funny stories but I don’t spend a lot of time in nostalgia. I’m looking at the future with a sense of concern especially about climate change.

“Indigenous people have lived her 100,000 years we have a lens that can guide you to have another 150,000 years if you would only listen.

“That’s why I think these concerts and getting word out is important. I have a message.”

He still writes a lot. His other passion is working with young people from kindergarten to university. He teaches teachers how to teach. And he is an optimist.

“What options do I have. If I am negative I have no options. If I am optimistic there may be a chance we’ll get through this time and give our grandchildren a better world.”

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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.