2022 Harmony Foundation Essay Prize: Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North

It is with great excitement that we are announcing this year’s winners of RAVEN’s Harmony Foundation Essay Prize.

In second place we have co-authors, Sarah Rhude & Diane Sam – səwəyələq.

Sarah is a lnu’sgw from Gespe’gewa’gi- Mi’kmaq/Algonquin/French woman on their mother’s side, and mixed European, settler, ancestry on her father’s side. Sarah was born in Sioux Lookout and was raised in Anishinabek territory, in and around Northern Ontario, as well as many territories within what is now known as Interior British Columbia. For the last twenty-two years, Sarah has been honored to work, live and learn in and amongst the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakwaka’wakw territories and peoples. Developing relationships with and learning (with permission) from and with the land, plants, animals, water, peoples, and working with traditional materials from the land to make art, medicine, regalia, and curriculum has rooted Sarah as a strong advocate and educator for and within community, and continues to provide healing for them. Working as an Indigenous educator and grad student incites Sarah’s passion for affirming the natural agency of Indigenous peoples, and creating interventions into settler colonial systems that create Indigenous space- particularly with regard to accessing land as pedagogy. Sarah is a proud Grandmother, mother, auntie and community member. Msit No’kmaq- All My Relations.

Diane Sam and Sarah Rhude

səwəyələq is lək̓ʷəŋən and a Songhees Nation community member. She has devoted much of time to working in the Education field as a First Nations Education Assistant. More recently Diane has been an avid lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ learner (her ancestral language) and is very eager to keep learning more. She is the former team leader of the Songhees Cultural Centere and feels that working at the Centre sparked a light into digging into the culture and language of her homelands. She is passionate about sharing information about her land when the opportunity arises.

And the winning paper goes to Nicole Stonyk with Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North.

Stonyk had this to say about writing her paper:

“Much of the research I have come across in my recent studies center decolonization themes in music pedagogies; music education; music reconciliation; and decolonizing music faculty and higher music education. These are arguably the main areas of decolonization research within the field of music, much of which is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and pressures to Indigenize higher education. As pressures mount in themes of reconciliation and Indigenous inclusion, the classical music scene is experiencing a high demand for Indigenous performers and commissions for Indigenous-specific works. “Indigenization” within the classical musical industry and academia raises questions regarding the Indigenous experience within conservatory frameworks and its Eurocentric cannons, Indigenous inclusionary music, and “reconciliation” and the push to collaborate with Indigenous musicians.

I wrote this paper as an exploratory measure for my own research and academic trajectory, to begin unpacking decolonization themes in classical music and to exercise my knowledge and passions within two separate disciplines: Indigenous Studies and Classical Music. This paper is also an exercise of creating space for myself in a complicated industry and to tackle issues of misconceptions that often accompany (mis)understandings of Métis and Indigenous peoples within the broader Canadian context.”

Headshot photo of Nicole Stonyk

About Nicole Stonyk

Nicole Stonyk is a Métis-Ukrainian-Cree woman born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  She is the daughter of a 60’s scoop survivor and comes from the Demeria/Desmarias of Lac du Bonnet/White Mud, Manitoba. She also belongs to the Marchands and acknowledges her Cree ancestors from Norway House and Polish/Ukrainian settler family. She is a Master’s student in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba and holds undergraduate degrees in both music and Indigenous studies. Her research and community engagement combines her skills as a classically trained pianist/musician to examine and participate in ways of decolonizing Western forms of music and performance. Nicole is moving on to Doctoral studies in winter 2023 to continue her work in decolonizing music and exploring interdisciplinary themes between music, language, and Indigenous aesthetics.  

Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North

Operatic and artistic works portraying Louis Riel as a central theme are not new to the musical arts scene. Narratives of his trial and hanging often depict the mythmaking of Riel as a madman, martyr, and religious prophet with concerning depictions of Métis people within Canadian history (Clark et al., 2018; Braz, 2020; Elliott, 2018; Karantonis & Robinson, 2011 Lee, 2018; Renihan, 2018; Simonot-Maiello, 2018). Further, scholars writing about Riel in musical arts are missing key pieces of dominant Métis discourse of (mis)recognition, Peoplehood and Métis women related to the larger historical and contemporary Canadian context (Anderson 2014, Anderson & Adese, 2021, Gaudry 2013). A welcome departure from Eurocentric depictions of Riel and Métis people are presented in Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North, a dramatic musical work created by Métis librettist, Dr. Suzanne Steele, with composers Neil Weisensel and Alex Kusturok. Selected amongst thousands of applications through the Canada Council New Chapter, Li Keur was selected as a historic re-investment of the arts to showcase diversity and artistic expressions in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation and will premiere in 2023 (“About The Project,” n.d.; New Chapter, n.d). Li Keur challenges the classical music hierarchy and Eurocentric aesthetic that is common practice within Indigenous performance works and narrates Métis history through unpacking Peoplehood, addressing Métis (mis)recognition and recentering Métis woman by situating it within the dominant discourse of Métis studies specifically.

It is first important to position myself as a Métis researcher with a background in classical music within the field of Indigenous studies, and more specifically, within the growing field of Métis studies. To conceptualize and contextualize my chosen research topic and methodological approach I offer the following: my social position, epistemology and ontology; the influences that guide my research questions; my experiences and values that shape and underpin my perspective; my relationality and obligations to the Métis community and therefore my methodological standpoint as a research scholar (Walter & Andersen, 2013). 

I am a Métis -Ukrainian-Cree-kwe woman born and raised in Winnipeg Manitoba. I am the daughter of a 60’s scoop survivor and come from the Demeria/Desmarias of Lac du Bonnet/White Mud, Manitoba. I also belong to the Marchand’s and acknowledge my Cree ancestors from Norway House and Polish/Ukrainian family. I grew up in a middle-lower class home in a white neighbourhood always knowing I was “part Indian”, but as a survival mechanism existing in a colonized world, I was brought up “white”. This created an integrative distance between myself and the world I knew as I was different but could not fully understand why. University was the first time I could peel back the layers of my Indigeneity and learn more about who I am and where I am from. This is a continual process as I mend the pieces of my missing self together in what I call “Indigenous purgatory”, the feeling of neither belonging here nor there. I did not grow up in community and my “foster” grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins were Dutch. I never experienced my Métis culture before university where I found acceptance into various Indigenous communities and circles generally yet held at a distance within the Métis community. This is the piece of tattered cloth I wish to understand and sew back together. 

I have played and studied classical piano on and off my entire life, eventually completing a Bachelor of Music from the Desautel Faculty of Music, University of Manitoba. My involvement in music has been a strange ebb and flow relationship with complicated and damaging experiences. I now realize my music education, rooted in the Eurocentric Conservatory framework, was the issue. The Conservatory framework prizes excellence and virtuosity; is a cultural system within music that holds power in comparison to other music cultures it interacts and surrounds; and a system that moulds individuals to re-create its ongoing narrative. In essence, I was not a “good enough” performer to be accepted into a world I desperately wanted to be a part of. A recent opportunity involving an Indigenous work within the classical music realm brought me back to this world. I was initially excited but quickly learned of the difficulties working with Indigenous content within a conservatory mindset and the tendency to “add” Indigenous content instead of engaging with transformative change. My experiences as an Indigenous musician have made me keenly aware of the power dynamics, imbalances and the damage of “Indigenous inclusion” in concerts programs dominated by historical pieces from a colonized perspective. More importantly, despite my recent troublesome experience, I learned I can hold space in the classical music world as a non-performer and make important, critical and necessary research contributions within the intersections of Indigenous Studies and classical music. In this research specifically, my epistemology centres Métis voices of history, stories, and experiences as sites of knowledge production. Further, my ontology is concerned with the work of Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North as it mends together and reconnects aspects of what it means to be a Métis woman, the sewing of our culture and families back together and the artist’s mantra of never giving up hope despite our experiences and diaspora (First Fridays Winnipeg, 2022). As a daughter of a 60’s scoop survivor, I am continually sewing together pieces of my family history and in search of what it means for me to be Métis. This research are the pieces to my own identity expounding the larger context of my connection to Métis culture and Peoplehood. Intersections of music, Peoplehood and Métis women not only reconciles my own identity but is an important piece of history yet to be recognized in understanding how music should narrate Métis history. This research is a process of remembering, “to remember is a way to re-know and re-claim a part of your life” (Cajete, 1995).

Historical context to previous musical performance iterations of Louis Riel began with the 1967 Louis Riel opera. Composed by Harry Somer’s and written by Mavor Moore, Louis Riel (1967) created in celebration of the Canada’s Centennial celebration funded through the Centennial Commission and the Canada Council (LOUIS RIEL|Maclean’s|01 MAY 1967, n.d.; Simonot-Maiello, 2018). This is an important and unfortunately historic musical moment in Canadian music history depicting racist, pan-Indigenous and myth-making portrayals of Louis Riel and Métis people, and was (un)fortunately resurrected again at McGill Faculty of Music in 2005, UBC’s Opera Theatre in 2010 and Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017 (Clark et al., 2018; Braz, 2020; Elliott, 2018; Lee, 2018; Renihan, 2018; Simonot-Maiello, 2018). Scholars analysing Louis Riel have touched upon themes of musical aesthetics and analysis, decolonization and Indigenizing discourse, and myth-making historical truths but little delve deeply into the concepts of Métis identity, Peoplehood and Métis women. Most concerning is the misunderstanding of Métis by music scholars as indicated in Colleen L. Renihan’s chapter in Opera Indigene, “The Politics of Genre: Exposing Historical Tensions in Harry Somer’s Louis Riel”. Here, they use musical examples in Louis Riel to encourage aesthetic and historical discourse based on depictions of Louis Riel’s Métis identity as an ongoing decolonization project of Canada. Renihan points to the “Buffalo Hunt” as one example of musical tension where the original text, originally written by Pierre Falcon, was translated into English and further altered to sound more musically primitive using the racialized “hi ya hi yay a hi hi ya” vocal notation set to rhythmic notes (Karantonis&Robinson, 2011). Although they describe the ‘musical tension’ analysis as an “intersection of nationalist agendas and First Nations culture” to offer “an open and fluid site for reflection and debate”, Renihan instead perpetuates false narratives of Métis and excludes them from the very conversation they intend to create. For example, Renihan calls Riel a mystic and describes Métis in the footnotes as descendants from interracial marriages between Europeans and Indigenous people as a “mixed race” derived from the Spanish word mestizo. Further, they set their arguments of Somer’s Louis Riel opera as the conversational voices between First Nation and Western culture and further argues Murray Schafer’s personification of Louis Riel as the archetypal Canadian hero through “veiled tensions” of First Nations and Western culture. Renihan completely left Métis out of the conversation other than presenting their “mixedness” with no attempts to understand and position Métis relationality or Peoplehood therefore producing further epistemic plains of misrecognition (Anderson, 2014). 

Prominent Scholars within the field of Métis studies surround dominant discourse in Métis (mis)recognition, Peoplehood, and recentering of Métis women. Peoplehood specifically explores external relationships and provides a valuable framework for exploring historical and contemporary Métis sociality that requires attention to the specific existing power relations (Adese & Anderson, 2021). Therefore, exploring the relationship of Métis musical works within a Peoplehood framework serves as an analysis of how artists narrate Métis relationality as it intersects Métis (mis)recognition and (re)centering Métis women. This research resists contextualizing the Métis experience through a pan-Indigenous lens depicted in musical works that do not affirm the complexity, resiliency, agency and sociopolitical contexts of Métis experiences but instead affirms the social relationships, memory or emergence of distinctive and complex forms of Métis identity (Anderson, 2014).  

Li Keur: Heart of the North, a departure from Louis Riel (1967), transcends, reinterprets, and addresses Métis historical and contemporary narrative of (mis)misrecognition, Peoplehood and recenters Métis women in historical and contemporary Canadian contexts. Li Keur, set in the early 1870’s, tells a story of Riel’s missing years while in exile south of the medicine line in Montana (Heart Of The City Festival, 2021). As the title suggests, this musical work speaks to Riel’s love of the heart of the North and inspired from the writings in his 1885 journal: 

“L’Esprit de Dieu m’a fait voir un quart plein de marchandises. Sur le fond du Quart étaient écrites les paroles suivantes: “Les entrailles du Nord.” O mon Dieu! Accordez-moi, la grâce de c onquérir le Nord et de Maîtriser tout ce qu’il a: donnez-moi les entrailles du nord: – The Spirit of God made me see a crate full of merchandise. On the bottom were written the words, “The heart of the North.” O my God! For the love of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Saint John the Baptist, grant me the grace to conquer the North and to master all within it: give me the heart of the North. (Riel, 1985). 

In response to the SSHRC Future Challenge “The Erosion of Culture and History” Li Keur is a work committed to Indigenous language “vitalization” featuring five languages: two dialects of Michif, Anishinaabemowin, English and French with an online database of active translators and translations of the libretto (Government of Canada, 2012; Heart Of The City Festival, 2021; Welcome·Riel, Heart of the North-Archive & Language Database·Canadian Mennonite University, n.d.). Li Keur positions English and French in subordinate roles through seventy percent of the text written in Indigenous languages and therefore representative of the linguistic soundscape reminiscent in the 1870’s. Li Keur resists the victimhood narrative of Louis Riel and is written in a non-Eurocentric and non-historically masculinist narrative presenting themes of love, interconnectedness of generations, the identity of Métis as they are forced into diaspora, and the cultural milieu of a continent in turmoil. Most importantly, Li Keur recenters Métis women at the heart of the story as the social and economic backbone of the nation. Inspired by the work of Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette’s dissertation, Sewing ourselves together: clothing, decorative arts and the expression of Métis and Half Breed identity, Métis women are shown as the spiritual caretakers, and the sewers and menders of Métis peoplehood as seen in the words of Marie Serpent’s aria in Li Keur (Farrell Racette, 2004; Heart Of The City Festival, 2021). This aria, in Anishinaabemowin, demonstrates the (re)centering of Métis women who are figuratively and literally sewing Métis culture back together. Translation by Donna Beach and Debra Beach Ducharme, Marie Serpent sings as she sews the wounds of the men after two buffalo brigade boxing matches:

Ni mayagenimaak, [I find it strange] 

Ni naaitoon ka ki inaapininde [I repair his wound] 

Taa pi skoo makode nanaaitoan [Just like I sew a dress]

Ni mayagenimaak, [I find it strange] Ininii wak [the fighting of men]

Zaka’ayang nookwezan we we ni ikwanaamon, [I light the smudge, breathe deep]

Oo weh Manitoo mashkikiwan, oo shi toon, Aki taa koo niinaan da wind bezig eta goo. [Creator’s medicines, Oh sacred smoke, make the world and us whole again]

Ikwewak niinawind, ninanaan da wii kemin, meh en do taa mung. [we women, this is what we do]

Ga Gashkiwaaso min, shi koo ni nookwezomin, di zhitoomin yah ka maanaaduck chi onizhishing [sew and smudge, make the ugly beautiful,]

Oo taa pi naan, webin nig aa naan, oo shi toon mino pimatisiwin. [take scraps of life and create (a good life)]

Ni mayagenimaak, [I find it strange] 

Ni naaitoon ka ki inaapininde [I repair his wound]

(Louis Riel Heart of the North, 2020).

The creators of any body of work, whether textual or performative, need to keep in mind they are signaling which genealogies matter and what can be de-emphasized (Windchief & Pedro 2018). Li Keur: Riel Heart of the North centers language vitalization as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action to address reconciliation and redress the legacy of residential schools in Canada. Li Keur is particularly important in this process as post-structural theorist Michael Foucault points to understanding how, at historically specific points, language, power and institutional practice come together to produce particular ways of thinking, understanding, being and doing (Brown & Strega 2015). Language holds vital knowledge of worldviews, cultures and perspectives (McGregor 2018, Anderson & Obrien 2018), reminds us of who we are, and is deeply entwined with personal and cultural identity (Kovach 2009). Language is a deeply rooted archive, and accessible only to those willing to devote themselves to learning (Anderson & Obrien 2018). The power of language is real and often overlooked. The concepts and worldview contained in language, much of it which cannot be explained, is rather a deep understanding that transcends the vernacular of other languages. Take for example the Ojibwe word akiwenzii. In English, one would simply translate as old man, but when the word is broken down it means keeper of the earth. Now, I do not think Ojibwe speakers think about it literally when they speak the word itself, but rather it is an embedded concept of respect and connection to the land and world view not readily explained. Perhaps this is what Brown & Strega meant by saying that language is a constituent of discourse, discourse tells language what to do and a specific way of thinking that is regarded as normal and does not need explanation (Brown & Strega 2016). 

Li Keur challenges the classical music hierarchy and Eurocentric aesthetic that is common practice within Indigenous performance works and narrates Métis history through unpacking Peoplehood, addressing Métis (mis)recognition and recentering Métis woman by situating it within the dominant discourse of Métis studies specifically. Importantly, it signals to the classical industry that this is a normal part of creation ethics. I am hopeful this work will signal further discourse in Indigenous studies and language revitalization to further emphasize the resurgence of Indigenous cultures in a performance educational context that has often presented Indigenous People as relics of history than a living breathing People.


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