Music and reconciliation
Collaborations of an Indigenous Elder with a School Music Teacher
Through their friendship and shared love of music Dr. Winston Wuttunee and Jordan Laidlaw feel that they have been able to contribute to the process of reconciliation in Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation in Canada
‘Truth and reconciliation’ are important issues in Canada as the country comes to terms with the many wrongdoings committed against Indigenous peoples since the appropriation of their land and denial of their culture by white settlers, a process which began over four hundred years ago. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) has acknowledged the magnitude of the Canadian governments’ atrocities against Indigenous communities and generated 94 Calls to Action.
Although the issues are difficult, the process of reconciliation as described in the ’94 Calls’ should be positive and the role of education is recognised as especially important.
Who we are
Music can be a powerful vehicle toward reconciliation as our experiences collaborating in a public school context, but through different lenses shows have shown. We are Dr. Winston Wuttunee, an Indigenous Elder and Knowledge Keeper, and Jordan Laidlaw, a white settler public school teacher in Winnipeg, Canada. Together, we have written and performed music with school choirs, and in doing so, have educated Canadian youth of the beautiful Cree culture. In Spring 2022 we co-composed and premiered Peynikamun Nīcī (“Come Sing With Me, My Friend”), a school musical teaching the Cree language.
Starting our collaboration
Our collaboration began through conversation when we asked ourselves three questions after which we reflected and then took action. These were the questions:
1. What does reconciliation mean to us?
WW: Reconciliation is giving us back our language, our pride, our culture. If you don’t have your language you are missing a big part of your culture. The Indigenous Peoples have always spoken the Truth and the non-Indigenous Peoples now have to do the Reconciliation. When non-Indigenous want to be my friend, I look at them as strong allies.
We are different from them as we are fun and kind and sharing and caring and teaching and loving to those who wish to be with us. Our values of love and kindness, teaching our beliefs and friendship, helps to glue it all together. Non-Indigenous delight in that kind of relationship.
JL: As a Canadian public school teacher, I feel I have both a moral and legal obligation to engage in reconciliation with our Indigenous communities. The negative legacy of the residential school system in Canada cannot be understated. I believe education is the most powerful vehicle to ameliorate the injustices of both the past and the present day. As such, reconciliation is our commitment to ensure all youth have hope for a better world.
2. Why is it important to be involved in schools and to teach the Cree language to Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth?
WW: It is important to teach all children as they are willing to learn. Non-Indigenous adults are ashamed of the historical truth. The children, if you can teach and make it fun, they will be glad to learn. All children know about stories. They learn good and bad from stories. There are many lessons to be found in the Indigenous stories. There is no way to lie in our language.
JL: In addition to our commitment to reconciliation, there is an abundance of rich culture and wisdom to be learned from our Indigenous communities. As a public school music teacher, I have had the privilege and responsibility of facilitating learning experiences for diverse student bodies. Many families are First Nations peoples, or have been settled in Canada for multiple generations, or are newcomers. All of our students have family histories, songs, and stories. But few of us know Indigenous language, stories, protocols, or songs.
We have so much to learn from Indigenous languages and cultures.
3. Why is music important to reconciliation?
WW: Music is very important. I always remember the old people singing in sweat lodges, sun dances, ghost dances, horse dances and round dances. I remember listening to a young man who just suddenly picked up a nearby drum and started to sing. We could tell by the compassion in his voice and the gentle, meaningful way he sang it that it was a very serious song to him. Nobody spoke or moved until he finished and put the drum down. His song captivated us all.
JL: Music is really quite an intrinsic quality to humanity. We all yearn to sing, drum, listen, create, and enjoy music. I have had the privilege of teaching in an incredibly culturally diverse school community. I have learned so much from Elder Winston about language, protocol, meaning, and purpose. Music connects us and cultivates an appreciation for each other’s culture. There is just so much beauty in music.
The power of music and the example of friendship
We hope these brief insights resonate with others. We have become close friends. We enjoy talking on the phone, meeting for coffee, playing golf, attending Pow-Wows together and reflecting upon life. We feel it is through our friendship that we have been able to be so impactful in schools. Fostering positive relationships is really quite essential to reconciliation. Children in schools observe that we are good friends, we love creating music together, and, by extension, they also rejoice in music making with us. We do not believe we could have achieved what we have without establishing a sincere friendship. As such, our advice to teachers committed to reconciliation is to seek out local, community Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and to make an effort to build trust and friendships. All partnerships must be done through honesty and in a good way. It is through friendship that opportunities are limitless.
Finally, we hope that the way that we have approached reconciliation through friendship and music may also strike a chord with other communities facing similar issues around the world.
If you practice hard, one day the world will call you.
Elder Dr. Winston Wuttunee is a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. He was born in Red Pheasant (Mikisew Achi) in the Eagle Hills, close to Mosquito, Grizzly Bear Head and Lean Man Reserves.)
He received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Manitoba in June of 2019.
Jordan Laidlaw is a public school music teacher in Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, Canada. He is Ph.D. candidate in educational administration at the University of Manitoba and serves on the Executive of his Local teachers’ association. In 2016, Jordan was the recipient of the New Builder’s Award from the Canadian Music Educators’ Association.
FEATURE IMAGE – kindly provided by Jordan. (Our thanks to Matea Tuhtar, Manitoba, Teacher’s Society)
To listen to the children in rehersal for Peynikamun Nīcī (“Come Sing With Me, My Friend”) please click on the link below.