On Sept. 19, something that is not being performed on the Southam Hall stage is at the centre of an important precedent, says a Queen’s University professor who is leading a push to have Indigenous songs repatriated from archives and museums to the communities from which they were taken.
Dylan Robinson is a Stó:lō scholar. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s.
The piece of music that is not being played on Thursday evening is known to the wider world as the Kuyas aria that opens Act Three of the Canadian opera Louis Riel by Harry Somers and Mavor Moore. The opera was written in 1967 to celebrate the centennial year.
The song is part of a touching moment in the opera featuring a young Metis woman singing to her infant child. But the music used in the lullaby was actually a ceremonial song of the Nisga’a people and it should not have been there.
Robinson and two Nisga’a colleagues — G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli (the leader of the Git Hayetsk Dancers), and Wal’aks Keane Tait (the leader of the Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers) — led the charge to have the music removed from the opera.
They approached the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre in 2017 about the presence of the song and began the push to have it removed from the opera. The COC commissioned Riel as a centennial project.
Earlier this summer the COC and the NAC announced they were commissioning a new lullaby from the Metis composer Ian Cusson. That song Dodo, mon tout petit, will be performed in this concert.
In announcing, this summer, the commission and the removal of the original lullaby, Alexander Neef, then the COC’s general director said in a media release that: “Our goal in taking these steps is to honour and acknowledge the process of learning and exchange by which we grow as a culture and as a community. Opera is a living, breathing art form that evolves through continuous dialogue and interpretation; we are proud to support that creative process as we reimagine opera’s role and relevance today and chart its course into the future.”
The National Arts Centre’s CEO Christopher Deacon added that the centre was “honoured to be working with the Canadian Opera Company and the brilliant composer Ian Cusson in creating a new piece of music that we hope will be an act of reparation. While respecting Harry Somers’ and Mavor Moore’s landmark opera Louis Riel, Ian Cusson’s new work will provide an opportunity to continue a dialogue and co-operation with the Nisga’a people.”
“I was involved at pretty much every stage except for dealing with the executors (of the estates of Somers and Moore) in the lead-up to the final decision,” Robinson said.
Robinson knew that the COC intended to remount Louis Riel for 2017.
Somers and Moore “mixed things together that shouldn’t have been mixed together,” Robinson said in a recent interview. “They were under the misunderstanding that most Canadians held at that time and still do today that if an Indigenous song existed in an archive it was in public domain, or it was the music of a culture that no longer exists. In 1967, a lot of people did understand our songs in that way.
“Both of those conceptions are not how rights work within Indigenous communities. Very simply, for all our songs, there is one specific rights holder and the rights transfer to someone within the family, usually a son or daughter or a close relation. It is up to the hereditary rights holder to make the decision who has the right to use the song.”
Right now there are “thousands and thousands of songs in places such as the Canadian Museum of History, that were recorded by ethnographers.”
In the case of this song, it was recorded by Marius Barbeau in 1927, Robinson said. The song is based on a Nisg̱a’a lament (or lim’ooy̓). After Barbeau recorded it, Sir Ernest MacMillan transcribed it and called it the Song of Skateen.
Robinson said that he believes that even though those songs are in museums Indigenous people still hold the rights. But that’s not how western European copyright works.
“This is a major misunderstanding,” Robinson said. “Harry Somers didn’t do anything intentionally. He did not understand the way the rights system works within our culture.”
This concept of the Indigenous rights to Indigenous music has not been tested in court. And, Robinson said, there are very few repatriation initiatives in Canada about music because museums will often make a digital copy and produce a copy for the community.
“That treats the issue of access. The family has a copy of the song. But if it were real repatriation, the museum would give over all copies, wax cylinders and digital copies.
“Museums aren’t in business of giving over their stuff,” he said.
Indigenous communities may not have the time or the money or the inclination to go through that process, he said. The best case scenario would see an understanding reached between with the community or family involved.
This hasn’t happened with songs, he said.
“The white world may not get the spiritual importance of songs like this. The deeper significance is quite localized and it’s not necessarily shared even within the communities.
“Our songs are more than songs. For thousands of years, songs have acted as our law — the equivalent of law books and maps.
“This is how we have transferred knowledge through the centuries. Songs aren’t just pretty things we listen to.
“The song that was included in Riel was intended for the passing of a family member. It is a mourning song, a dirge or a lament. It’s only ever sung when a member of that particular family dies,” Robinson said, adding that the Nisga’a people believe it has a lot of spiritual power and there are negative consequences if that song is sung out of context.
“Regardless of whether you believe that or not, there is the issue of respect for the cultural belief system.”
The Nisga’a feel that the song has been sung out of context for years and years and not just in Riel, Robinson said. It’s on the list of available Canadian repertoire at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
When he brought his idea to the Nisga’a government, they said they wanted every instance of the song removed. So far it has been removed from the opera and the score.
“To actually remove the song from every recording is impossible but that’s the goal. They still want a formal apology.”
Still the COC decision is an important precedent, he said. A number of First Nations have their songs used inappropriately in classical works, Robinson said, noting that a generation of composers has been given these songs by ethnographers “as a way to create a kind of Canadian music without thinking the songs belonged to peoples in specific ways.”
It’s a bit of double-edged sword, he said.
“We do value many times the way these songs were recorded and have become resources for us. But I understand from elders that I speak with that these songs were recorded (for example) at the height of the potlatch ban under the Indian Act Section 3. They were outlawed. We couldn’t sing our songs. And they were recorded at the height of residential schools when culture was literally being beaten out of the students.
“They were recorded at time of great duress. If the songs were dying out, they were being forced out by residential schools or the Indian Act. The songs were sung in precarious times.”
How did they get this victory done?
“I have been having conversations with Nisga’a colleagues for a number of years and I found out the COC was remounting Riel for 2017. We said this is a good time to confront it. We wrote to COC and NAC and said, ‘Did you realize there is a Nisga’a song in Louis Riel?’ They said they knew about it.”
By the time they started the discussions the opera almost on the stage.
“We knew process of addressing this would take time.” It did. It took 2 1/2 years, he said.
For Robinson, this is part of larger project to work with other nations with their songs trapped in music. The Nisga’a First Nation still has five or six other pieces in arrangements in the Canadian Music Centre.
“Each song will have its own journey. We could go to a family and they could say they like the arrangement and say that’s really interesting. Every nation, every family will have their own way of treating this. But now we have an important example of removal and I think removal will be the way forward for many pieces.”
He said there are hundreds of of songs in similar situations. There was a list made in 2005 of all the music in the Canadian Music Centre that use Indigenous stories songs or has Indigenous titles. The list is a few hundred songs long.
“Not everything is appropriating a song, but some may be appropriating stories. Some may use language inappropriately.
“This is a victory. The process is on-going with small victories and small setbacks.” But he feels things are moving forward after having been static for so long.