How Jeremy Dutcher Keeps His Ancestors’ Language Alive

Fewer than 10,000 Wolastoq people live in First Nations communities. The twenty-seven-year-old sings their songs

Colin Dutcher playing piano with room with high-vaulted ceilings
Photograph by Matt Barnes

At the turn of the twentieth century, William Mechling, an anthropologist, travelled to New Brunswick to study the Wolastoqiyik, an Indigenous group in the region. Between 1907 and 1914, he collected more than 100 wax-cylinder recordings of people in Neqotkuk (also known as the Tobique First Nation) singing traditional songs, while, in the background, others from the nation spoke in Wolastoqey and played the drums. These soundtracks of the community’s culture would end up in archives for more than a century, unavailable to the very people they had been extracted from. And, over time, as the landscape of New Brunswick changed and the Wolastoqiyik were displaced from their territory by government, the community saw its music and culture begin to slip away.

Nearly a century later, Jeremy Dutcher, a musician who grew up in Negotkuk, listened to Mechling’s wax recordings for the first time. Maggie Paul, a Wolastoqiyik elder, had found the recordings in Ottawa and, in 2012, encouraged Dutcher to study them. One song in particular stood out to him as he went through them one by one: “Pomok naka Poktoinskwes”—according to Mechling’s labelling, “The Fisher and the Water Spirit.” Dutcher grew up “around the drum, in community with our traditional songs, being raised by song carriers,” and he recognized “Pomok naka Poktoinskwes” from his childhood. When he listened to it, he was grateful to hear that the songs from his ancestors, many of which had been forgotten, were still alive.

For Dutcher, the accessibility of storytelling and language are vital causes to champion. Today, based on available information, there are fewer than 10,000 Wolastoq people living in First Nations communities in New Brunswick, Maine, and Quebec. And, according to Dutcher, fewer than 100 people are fluent in Wolastoqey; the 2016 Canadian census counted fifty who identified Malecite (a different name for Wolastoqey) as the language they spoke most often at home. Most people in Negotkuk today don’t remember the melodies or the words of the songs that Mechling recorded more than a century ago, Dutcher says.

So, at twenty-seven years old, Dutcher released his first full-length album, sung entirely in Wolastoqey. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was released this April under an independent label so that Dutcher could keep creative control over his work. The eleven tracks feature Dutcher’s voice alongside the voices of his ancestors, using Mechling’s now digitized recordings. The album is an art project rooted in Dutcher’s life and work, but it is also a tool for keeping his nation’s language alive, helping it to thrive. Dutcher hasn’t made an English translation of the album available yet, though he eventually will, along with a video showing Wolastoqey pronunciations. “This is me having a conversation with my community,” he says. His priority is not “to translate [for other people] what I want to say and be concerned about that gaze.”

Still, the mainstream world has noticed Dutcher’s breakthrough album, which has received glowing reviews in Now and Exclaim! and been featured in the Globe and Mail. He is touring across Canada this summer, playing shows from Vancouver to Halifax. And so Dutcher’s music—based off recordings that were made by an outsider—is gaining recognition far wider than the Wolastoq community.

To see a work of music that is so deeply associated with a First Nation’s identity be absorbed into mainstream culture, especially while Canadians are still having conversations about history and reconciliation, can be both satisfying and difficult to process. In the past couple of decades especially, Indigenous artists have had to grapple with the duality of wanting to create work for and about their communities while working in a non-Indigenous industry with a largely racist past. As Angela Marie Schenstead, an artist in Saskatchewan and member of One Arrow First Nation, wrote in a recent essay for Canadian Art, “the dichotomy of honouring family and culture while pursuing professional goals and having to be an advocate for Indigenous rights within a Western-dominated art scene can be an exhausting experience for Indigenous arts professionals.” While Dutcher knows that non-Indigenous people have and will be welcoming of his work, he doesn’t necessarily consider this a conflict. In becoming widely popular, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has also found success as a kind of cultural tool for non-Indigenous listeners: a means of education about the worth and diversity of Indigenous music in Canada.

Dutcher, who lives in Toronto, is at a particular intersection with his music: his current work is rooted in his community’s traditional songs, but his career was originally centred around the Western classical canon. As a child, he performed in musical theatre, and in 2013, he completed a degree in music and social anthropology at Dalhousie University. His classical-voice performances in school were formal; an operatic tenor, he would wear a tuxedo, straighten his posture, and clasp his hands together as he sang. (Even when he talks about his opera performances now, he intuitively assumes this position.) Dutcher created this first full-length album as a way of “trying to figure out how I fit into both of those systems,” one of which is rooted in the forests of what is now New Brunswick and the other in classical opera. “Finding a way to marry those two worlds or, at least, turn them in on each other, and, you know, gawk at the absurdity of how sort of different these are.”

Dutcher thinks a lot about what qualifies as “Indigenous Canadian music.” Still today, he says, there is a common belief among non-Indigenous people that Indigenous communities are homogeneous. Historically, members of marginalized groups in North America have seen their music tokenized—edited to be more digestible, the cultural aspects toned down. This has contributed to the overarching false impression that all Indigenous cultures look and sound the same. And to that end, in Canada, “certain styles of what Indigenous music sounds like” become more prevalent, Dutcher says. “Not a lot of people know what East Coast songs sound like because, you know, we didn’t have the big drum that you see at a lot of powwows—what you hear in A Tribe Called Red’s music.”

Music created and consumed by Indigenous people has followed a similar path to popular Canadian music over the years: older generations, especially of Inuit and Métis artists, gravitated toward rock, folk, and country. Today, young Indigenous music makers are consuming and producing genres like hip hop, rap, and electronica—as well as a multitude of hybrids and subgenres. Artists of this new generation are also finding ways to preserve and promote their cultures. Reclaimed, a CBC program hosted by Jarrett Martineau that is dedicated exclusively to Indigenous music, is a good introduction to the “next wave” of Indigenous music, which is created by a new generation of artists who are working to emphasize the diversity of voices. Collectively, they are introducing their work to the mainstream while preserving the sounds of their respective identities.

A Tribe Called Red, an Ottawa outfit whose original members are from Ojibwa, Cayuga, and Mohawk communities, have an eclectic arrangement of electronic beats mixed with powwow music—and on their recent record Halluci-Nation, they feature artists such as Lido Pimienta, an Afro-Columbian performer with Wayuu heritage, who recently won the Polaris Prize, and Maxida Märak, a Sami performer from Sweden. Buffy Sainte-Marie is an older artist, an icon of 1960s folk rock, whose sound is shaped by her Cree background and life in Saskatchewan, but she also took home the 2018 Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq’s unique throat-singing performances are energetic and visceral, and her music has also earned her a Polaris Prize. Snotty Nose Rez Kids, from the Haisla Nation on the West Coast, produce thoughtful, exciting hip hop with lyrics that address stereotypes about Indigenous people. Iskwé, a Cree and Dene pop and electronic artist from Hamilton, Ontario, sings primarily about community and the future.

Dutcher’s songs fit into this recent wave of Indigenous talent, and he was especially well received during the New Constellations tour, a cross-country show put on last year by the Basement Revue series and the record label Revolutions Per Minute. Onstage, during the tour, artists like Pimienta were singing Dutcher’s praises. And, during Dutcher’s New Constellations performance in Toronto, he says he could see Leslie Feist side stage, watching him with appreciation. It is a sight to behold; Dutcher singing crouched over his piano—the straight posture of his classical days mostly gone—often leaving his audience silent and shaken.

Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa opens with “Mehcinut,” a song about the impermanence of death: a celebration of cycles. After attending two family funerals in close succession some years ago—one Indigenous and one non-Indigenous—Dutcher says he noticed the differences in the two communities’ approaches to mourning. “In Wolastoq worldwide, our passing between states of being is a sacred and celebratory one,” Dutcher says, and “‘Mehcinut’ is part of that sacred celebration of Indigenous cultural continuity.” In the song, Dutcher’s vocals soar on the track over the piano and slowly build to an emotional climax of layered strings and wind instruments.

The songs on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa are theatrical; they evoke a particular grandness that, through Dutcher’s operatic vocals and stinging piano, demand attention across musical genres. “Qonute” sounds like a dubstep chamber pop piece, airy and gentle, elevated with quiet horns. “Koselwintuwakon,” the album’s final piece, includes minimal instrumentation and a chorus of voices slowly building on Dutcher’s. The singer’s process making the album was intuitive: some songs sound similar to Mechling’s recordings, featuring the drums and shakers that traditionally accompany the music, while others have been more interpreted and modernized. “The process around writing these pieces was…listening to those archives over and over again, getting those melodies in my body and my head,” he says. From there, the songs would take shape on their own, with Dutcher composing piano and string accompaniments.

Dutcher’s producer, Bufflo, added electronic flourishes to the album as well: “Ultestakon,” for instance, begins with simple piano before introducing layers of vocals, strings, clapping, and drum percussion. The song envelops the listener; Dutcher’s harmonizing is the sonic equivalent of sunlight peeking out behind a cloud, subtle but illuminating.

By including chamber music instruments as well as electronic elements, Dutcher reshaped the music of his ancestors and brought it to a new generation of modern Wolastoq music listeners who also appreciate contemporary pop. “It was about that reorientation of who is this work for,” Dutcher says. “And are they going to connect with the work as just a classical kind of thing or do I find ways to let it speak to our youth in the community? Or, you know, elders in the community or anyone in the community? To give them a chance to be let into that musical world.”

Dutcher says he is grateful that Mechling collected recordings from Negotkuk, no matter the anthropologist’s original intent. Without this archived work, some aspects of Wolastoq culture might have been lost. But when Dutcher performs songs from his album, he is reclaiming his community’s history and reinforcing the roots of Wolastoq language and culture. “When we lose [the people who speak Wolastoqey], we’re not just losing words,” Dutcher says. “We’re losing entire ways of seeing the world. That’s what language is.” Dutchter opened his album with “Mehcinut,” a song about death, as a way to confront the notions of so-called dying languages. In fact, through his album, he hopes Wolastoqey will find new life.

During a performance in Halifax a couple of years ago, Dutcher’s mother, who also grew up in Negotkuk, saw him perform songs from Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa for the first time. “At the end of the show, people stood and were really excited about it, applauding—she sort of sat there,” Dutcher says. She seemed pensive, quiet.

“What? You didn’t like it? What’s wrong?” he asked her.

“No,” she answered. “I thought a lot about my childhood and the kinds of shame I carried around about being Indigenous, and our songs, and our practices.” For a long time, Indigenous artists were largely shamed and ignored. The contrast between this past and the attention that Dutcher’s music has received today can still be jarring—especially for an album that pays tribute to a community and language that have faded over decades. “To sit here in a room comprised of almost solely non-Indigenous people that were standing up and applauding—and proud!” Dutcher says about his mother. “I think that is still a little unbelievable to her.”

Sarah MacDonald
Sarah MacDonald is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Noisey, Now, Fashion, and the National Post.