Jeremy Dutcher and Dewayne Everettsmith live on opposite sides of the world, in Canada and Tasmania. But they are both passionate about the same project: using music to bring back the language of their indigenous communities.
Dutcher is a performer, composer, activist, and musicologist who won the prestigious Polaris prize in 2018 for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, sung entirely in the native language of his people, the Wolastoqiyk. He first did music studies in Halifax before taking a chance to work in the archives at the Canadian Museum of History, painstakingly transcribing Wolastoq songs from 1907 wax cylinders. Dutcher heard ancestral voices singing forgotten songs and stories that had been taken from the Wolastoqiyik generations ago, and was inspired to create his own Wolastoq music.
He's in town for Mona Foma and spoke to Everettsmith, who is involved in revitalising palawa kani: the Tasmanian Aboriginal language. He is an Tasmanian Aboriginal songwriter and performer, ex-Australian Idol contestant, and wrote a song that soundtracked a Tourism Australia advertising campaign. He has toured Europe with Gurrumul, put the Tasmanian Aboriginal anthem milaythina-mana to music and is its most iconic performer, and is now working on an album of palawa kani songs.
DE: I'd like to go back to life before colonisation, or invasion. For Aboriginal people in Tasmania, we had 16 different languages on this small island, that were spoken within the nine nations that we had. And within those nations we had clans and we had family groups, and all of those had little dialects of their own. Was it similar where you're from?
JD: The history of colonisation in Canada is that there was a migration: it didn't all happen at once. The Europeans first landed on the east coast, and since then had been moving west and west and west. So, the people on the east coast - the People of the Dawn, as we call ourselves - we bore the brunt of a lot of that early colonisation: the religious indoctrination, trying to strip our people of our culture and language.
Now, a lot of our people have lost sight of who we are. Because of that history of colonisation. And we're in a moment right now where people are reclaiming and discovering, and it's really beautiful to get back to the culture and back to the language, and how it's informing how we create our identities. Language is not just words, you know. It's an entire worldview. And so, when we start to get that worldview back and make sure that worldview is strong - that is the work of this generation right now.
DE: Tasmania was also at the forefront of colonisation and invasion. Upon the first arrivals of the British, we had a population that was recorded at roughly, an estimate between 7000 and 50,000 people, and over a matter of 30 years they had taken that population down to 200 people.
JD: Oh, my god.
DE: The survival of our people was actually through Irish sealers capturing Aboriginal women and taking them to islands, around Cape Barren Island, and using them for slavery. So that's how our culture survived.
Our creation stories are with the sun and the moon: we believe that upon their first rising came the creation of this beautiful island. And although we might not have existed in the form we do now, we existed in the beginning of that creation.
Science says that Aboriginal people have been here, living on this beautiful island, for 60,000 years. And we became isolated 10,000 years ago when the last ice age ended. So, we know how to thrive. And what I really love about the reviving of our language is - like you're saying - it's not just talked about in terms of reviving a language, it's talked about here as almost reviving a vibration.We're returning the vibration of country. And feeling. Because when we speak it's not just a tone, it's a vibration that comes from country.
JD: Absolutely. I love that idea of vibration, I think that's really beautiful. With us, our language is so connected to the land that's around it. A lot of our words kind of sound like the thing that it's describing - so, the word for a bird kind of sounds like something that's been ducking and flying. A lot of our words are like that.
I think that language is in a vibrational relationship with the land, and the more that we encourage our young people to have a relationship with language, the more they're having a relationship with the land and with our territory. The nuts and bolts of learning a language is really just one piece of it, right? There's so many cultural lessons that come through.
One of the beautiful things, and one of the things that really set me on this - well, this obsession - with linguistic revitalisation is coming to understand that indigenous languages all come from where we stand. The UN declared last year 'The Year of the Indigenous Language', and I really hope that momentum keeps going: that lots of indigenous people from all over the world see the importance of language and how it roots us in place. I think that when we lose that, we lose a sense of self.
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That's what we've been seeing in Canada because there were these schools that were created to re-educate us, and to take us away from our culture and language - and they were quite effective, because now there's whole generations of people who don't speak their own language and who don't have any idea about our cultural values through that language. I really do believe that there's a depth to the meanings of our words that are almost un-translateable.
For me, it was important when I started to undergo my musical project that I didn't translate anything on my record, I'm singing it all in the Wolastoqiyik way, and that for me was a statement of intentionality: to say, who is this for? I didn't create this record to be accessible for non-indigenous people. This is for my community. And they know that, they can see that. I think we're having this moment where we don't need to translate anymore. We can make things for our community, and that, by itself, is enough. We don't have to make it palatable for people outside. We've been trying to find a seat at the table, but we're realising that, actually, we've got our own table, over here. We might even be in a different restaurant.
DE: Yes. It's a similar story with the impacts of colonisation here: our people were forbidden from speaking their language, doing their dances, doing their ceremonies, and we were completely removed from our land. All of our people were taken off the main island and put on this one little island. So, today's language that we speak now is a combination of those 16 fragmented languages that were recorded separately.
JD: Oh, wow.
DE: So we revived our language by taking words from all those 16 languages into the one language that we speak today. Has that been a similar process in your community?
JD: Yes and no. I mean, Canada being so big, there's incredible linguistic diversity within indigenous communities. Before colonisation there were recorded over 250 distinct language groups in what is called Canada. But even the way that we construct a sentence is vastly different from European languages. English is very 'I' focused, very subject focused: me, you. In our way of speaking, it doesn't take the subject out of it, but it reorients it to be more inclusive. Even in a country that is so vast, and so different, there's a thread that runs through it that is so beautiful.
DE: It's amazing the similarities. In Australia - including Tasmania in the mainland of Australia - there is over 340 different languages, or nations, and within those nations there's different dialects.
That's one of the things that's very misunderstood about Aboriginal culture. We were thought of as very simple, very plain, no governance, no law: as being scavengers, basically. But we had a real knowledge - not only speaking our own language but speaking four or five in accordance with our neighbouring nations. That was shared through our women, marrying into different nations. Our knowledge was shared in that way - women would take the creation stories, the songs and dances into the nation or family group that they married into.
What happened here was there was a real push to remove Aboriginal people from the picture. To take us off the face of the Earth. So what happened here in Tasmania was [the British] said, 'There's no more Tasmanian Aboriginal people. We don't have an issue any more'.
So, because of that, part of us reviving our language over the past 100 years, and part of me releasing music into the broader community, is that people don't think it's authentic. They question it and say it's not really traditional, it's not really ceremonial. And what I say is that language is an evolving thing, culture is an evolving thing, it never remains stagnant. That's why our people were able to thrive for 60,000 years.
JD: Yeah, I mean, I think the further you get away from our community the more abstract the ideas about us, and the stories about us. I think the whole idea of 'indigenous authenticity' is a trick of the colonisers, to be honest. I think it's a way to police us and to say who 'is' and who 'isn't' based on something very arbitrary.
I think you hit it right on the head there when you said it all evolves. Language and culture is like a river. It's never static in one moment. It's always evolving and growing, all the time. Which is kind of why I laugh a bit when people say that I'm singing in a traditional language or an ancient language - there's nothing traditional about me and who we are. We're here. Right now. And we're singing.
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Non-indigenous people will always try to pin us to an idea of who they think we are. And we're in a moment where we are asserting who we are - and for the first time. At least in North America, all of the portrayals of indigenous people have come from outside of our community. Think about, you know, Western movies. But talk about authenticity: this is what it is. It's coming from our voice. It doesn't put us in the past at all, this is us, sharing our voice, in the way that we know to be us. And nobody else can decide that for us. For me, one of the principles of my work is that statement of: this is us. And you don't decide what that is.
But, absolutely, that's something I hear, [that my music isn't authentically indigenous], and something I try to do when I hear it is try and stop and educate that person. Because they just don't know. They don't know. And it's not their fault that they don't know. Because governments and institutions have a vested interest in holding indigenous people in a particular place and timeframe. It's like you were saying, if they don't think that we're authentic then they don't have a problem anymore.
Indigenous people are an inconvenient truth in settler states. We are a constant reminder of a dirty history, our dirty collective history that we all share. But I don't think, at this point, that anyone's going anywhere. We have a vested interest in sharing ourselves in this moment and finding a new way forward.
DE: Yeah, beautiful. My community would love you, they would love the words that you're speaking. It's phenomenal the similarities in the struggles of indigenous peoples from all around the world.
To finish it off, one of the greatest gifts that I love to give in reviving language and songs of ceremony is that I get to teach my community, and they get to learn those songs, do ceremony and heal - but also I love that I'm able to showcase that shared history without the politics. By singing in language I'm almost able to remove the politics and just share. What do you feel is the greatest gift that you give when you sing in language?
JD: The greatest gift that I've received through sharing this music is coming to understand a bit more closely that nothing has died. You know? We talk a lot about how much we've lost as indigenous people, and what I think is beautiful is that, we are here, and we are still sharing. We are here, in this moment, right now. And it''s up to us to carry it forward.
That is a fire. When you talk to young people, and share songs and messages with them, you can pass that fire through them, and they can carry it forward. We can spread that fire, and we can share that song, and everybody is going to bring their own current to it. Sharing that passion is what I do it for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- See Jeremy Dutcher at Mona Foma on Saturday, January 18, at 5.45pm at the Annexe Theatre or on Sunday, January 19, at 7.30pm at the Festival Hub Northern Stage, included in Festival Pass.