Aboriginal women's voices bring spirit back

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 14, 2002

One of my favorite quotes is from the Russian writer Dostoevsky: "The world will be saved by beauty."

I gained a new appreciation for these words August 8 when participants in the International Indigenous Women's Song workshop performed on the lawn outside the Tsuu T'ina Nation administration office west of Calgary.

The workshop was part of the Aboriginal Women's Voices project of The Banff Centre's Aboriginal Arts Program, in partnership with Tsuu T'ina Nation, the Maia Cultural Arts Collective and the Bullhead Adult Education Centre.

Coinciding with the Sixth World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education held at Morley last week, it celebrated ancient music traditions through contemporary artistic expression.

The outdoor performance showcased singers and songwriters from across North America and from as far away as New Zealand. I'd like to tell you about two participants in particular who are instruments of hope for their people – and for the world– through beauty.

Aroha Crowchild, the Tsuu T'ina site organizer, has her identity deep in the traditions of the Ngati Kahungunu Maori people of New Zealand. Her father, the late Wi Te Tau Huata, was a powerful force in the revival of Maori arts and language.

Aroha brings that same passion to her own affirmation of Maori culture. She is also co-founder, with Lee Crowchild, of the Red Thunder Native Dance Theatre of Canada, whose interpretations of Plains Indian culture have inspired many.

It's been 25 years since I first met this charming and talented woman. Throughout that time we have often been guests in each other's homes.

Aroha and her Maori relatives end our visits with a harmonious performance of traditional – and very energetic – song, including the Maori original for the well-known Now Is the Hour.

These impromptu concerts have also included something the likes of which I've not experienced elsewhere – a musical rendition of Aroha's genealogy. The deeply-moving chant traces her family's roots back to one of the 14 canoes that sailed the South Pacific more than a thousand years ago to bring her ancestors to "The Land of the Long White Cloud," the Maori name for New Zealand.

If one of Aroha's contributions to life is her celebration of connectedness within family, then the second participant I'd like you to meet has as her contribution connectedness with the creation.

Wendy Walker, Metis/Mi'k Maq, is a singer/songwriter with a passion for using arts education to motivate young people to be proud of their First Nations heritage. Many in Morley and Cochrane know her because of her support of local artists and her creative classroom program, Legends in a Box.

I had not personally met Wendy till last week when she stood before the 200 of us gathered outside the Tsuu T'ina administration centre. She took her guitar and shared with us a song she wrote while on a television shoot amidst the mountain splendor of Waterton Lakes National Park:

Hi-hi, my Creator, hi-hi!
Oho, your gifts, they surround me—
The Earth meets the Sky,
The Air and the Water,
The Earth and the Sky....

As she repeated these words, I grew keenly aware of the view behind her. The impressive Chief Joseph Big Plume Building that houses the Tsuu T'ina administration is a symmetrical structure with two wings, one to the north, the other to the south, each with a row of 23 large, reflective windowpanes.

From where I sat, the south row of windows stretched behind Wendy's shoulders, mirroring the sky and a flock of fluffy white clouds. The strings of her guitar, overlapping the ground and the reflections behind her, literally linked Earth and Sky, Air and Water. Oneness.

After the performance, I went up to Wendy and described the window-reflection of her music.

"When something is written at the heart level," she said, "all the ages can connect with it."

I quoted to her Dostoevsky's line about beauty saving the world. She responded with a prophecy from the legendary Metis leader Louis Riel:

"My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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