EDMONTON—A Cree woman accused of cultural appropriation for including throat singing on her new album won’t withdraw it from the Indigenous Music Awards because she says the sounds she makes are distinct from the Inuit cultural practice.
“What I do is not Inuit throat singing,” said Edmonton-based Connie LeGrande, who performs as Cikwes. “I have went on and put my own expression and my own sounds because I don’t know their sounds.”
Five Inuit artists, including Polaris Prize-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq, urged LeGrande and the Indigenous Music Awards organizers to pull her album ISKO, which means woman in Cree, from the nominations for best folk album. They boycotted the awards when they were refused.
“I don’t know how such a beautiful experience has turned into such an evil thing,” said LeGrande, who consulted her elders at home on northern Alberta’s Bigstone Cree Nation after Tagaq contacted her privately on social media about five weeks ago with her concerns about cultural appropriation. “That’s one of the things my elder told me. A gift is a gift, that this was given to me from the Creator.”
LeGrande said the elders didn’t believe it was a case of cultural appropriation because the idea of “ownership” of sounds and traditions is a colonial concept.
She said throat singing is practised in other cultures, including in Tibet and Mongolia, where it is called overtone singing.
“I can’t feel bad about something, throat singing, that’s shared all over the world.”
She said she was taught how to throat sing by an Inuk throat singer in 2011 or 2012 to fill a spot at a National Aboriginal Day performance. That woman has since reached out and said it was only supposed to be for that one event, which LeGrande said no one told her at the time.
LeGrande said her music is also influenced by soul music, her time singing gospel at a Black church, and also includes reggae, R&B and jazz sounds, to create a sound that she calls Nehiyaw (Cree) soul. The ISKO album, her first, was a passion project and a spiritual calling, and she hasn’t made any money from it.
“My music is a fusion of who I am as a Cree woman … there’s just so much more to my music.”
LeGrande said her understanding of Inuit throat singing is that it’s more of a contest, where two women try to outlast one another. The first one to laugh or run out of breath wins.
Tagaq’s spokeswoman said the singer wasn’t available to comment.
Tiffany Ayalik, one of the Yellowknife-raised sisters behind the Inuit throat-singing duo PIQSIQ said it’s not up to a non-Inuk to decide what is or isn’t Inuit throat singing.
“That sits solely on the shoulders of Inuit, who are the living knowledge carriers of their own culture,” said Ayalik, who added that she found the sounds LeGrande makes “unmistakably mimicking” and a mockery.
Ayalik and her sister Kayley Inuksuk Mackay, who were nominated in the best electronic music category, Tagaq, Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt (who performs as IVA) and Kelly Fraser all posted messages on social media saying they would not support, submit music to or perform at the IMAs, which take place in Winnipeg on May 17.
Ayalik said it’s not fair or accurate to say the Inuit cultural practice only occurs between two women.
“I also feel that reducing a practise down to checking boxes of what defines throat singing is also a very clinical way of looking at a culture when there are plenty of solo throat singers who throat sing by themselves.”
She hopes the boycott will open a larger conversation about appropriation among Indigenous groups as well as the cultural distinctions between Indigenous people.
“We are light in our hearts knowing that what we’re doing is going to help make people understand the various beautiful differences across cultures, and that people can also listen and look at Indigenous music with a bit of a different lens and focus,” Ayalik said in a previous interview.
The Indigenous Music Awards released a statement on Tuesday saying they were faced with the “very difficult task” of determining if an artist had overstepped creative boundaries. They talked to their internal committee, an Elders’ committee, Inuit representatives and their Board of Governors and decided LeGrande’s nomination will stand.
“Her nomination is in the best folk album category, and not in the best Inuit, Indigenous language or Francophone album category,” the statement said.
“We don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way … We have been taught that our gifts from the Creator should be honoured and that we do not ‘own’ what is gifted to us, but that it is our responsibility to share those gifts.”
With files from the Canadian Press
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter covering inner-city issues, affordable housing and reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh