Centering Indigenous Voices through Choral Collaborations

National Native American Heritage Month is celebrated in November in the United States to honor and uplift indigenous communities, their heritage, and history. On September 30, Canada observes National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to bring attention to the painful history of residential schools and honor the indigenous children, families, and communities affected by those institutions.

As an open letter from the second iteration of the Canadian Indigenous Classical Music Gathering says, "We have work to share beyond June 21 and September 30! The process is the work.” The collaborations in this blog post are examples of projects that uplift the stories, practices, and voices of indigenous communities across Canada and the United States.

Elektra Women's Choir, "Snewíyalh tl'a Staḵw (Teachings of the Water)"

Elektra Women’s Choir premiered Snewíyalh tl'a Staḵw (Teachings of the Water), a music video project in collaboration with First Nations artists, on June 9, 2022. The 28-minute project developed in the span of three and a half years centers indigenous knowledge, language, and traditions to explore water stewardship and relationality in First Nations cultures.

Co-curators Morna Edmundson, Elektra Women’s Choir’s artistic director, and ethnomusicologist Jeanette Gallant approached Métis composer T. Patrick Carrabré, language keeper Tsitsáyxemaat (Rebecca Duncan), water protectors, and other indigenous community members to bring to life the five-movement a cappella work performed in the Squamish language.

Elektra Women’s Choir provided a deep dive into the development of the collaboration with a Listener’s Guide. The spoken video featuring the project’s collaborators shares insight into the cultural context and creative and learning process of the project. A Squamish Language Pronunciation Guide video diving into the text of the work was also released in tandem with the premiere and listener’s guide.

All three components can be accessed for free on Elektra Women’s Choir’s YouTube channel.

Chronos Vocal Ensemble, Notinikew: Going to War

Chronos Vocal Ensemble launched its tenth season earlier this month with Notinikew: Going to War, an oratorio by composer Andrew Balfour, who is of Cree descent. The piece, first premiered in 2018 by the ensemble Dead of Winter, where Balfour is the founder and artistic director, tells the story of the indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada in the First World War and were later denied rights and freedoms upon returning home.

The oratorio, which incorporates choral singing in Cree and English, narration, and traditional drumming and singing, was described by Balfour as “an Indigenous identity piece – a tragedy that speaks […] about all wars and all Indigenous soldiers.”

On performance day, Balfour shared that he sees the year-long project as a reconciliatory action, stating, "We're going very deep into a very deep, complex, tragic issue. But I also feel safe in this place because I do feel the importance of storytelling is a safe place. And we haven't been safe – my people haven't been safe – for a long, long time. So, I feel we are being able to build up the bridges to being safe again. I do it through choral music."

One Voice Mixed Chorus, ReMembering: Singing Water

ReMembering: Singing Water is a concert film released in late 2021 from One Voice Mixed Chorus in collaboration with Ojibwe water protector Sharon Day, puppeteer Sandy Spieler, singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen, and performers Kymani Kahlil, Tara Tanaǧidaŋ To Wiŋ, and the Ikidowin Youth Acting Ensemble.

The project combines choral music, spoken word, animation, and life-size puppets to tell stories of immigrants, Dakota and Ojibwe nations, and LGBTQ people in Minnesota.

The film is now available to watch at no cost. More details about the collaborators, accessing the film, and the issues discussed in the film can be found here.

Share More Projects with Chorus America

We welcome you to share other collaborative projects that uplift and highlight the experiences of indigenous communities with us. If you would like to share details about projects we did not include here, please let us know at [email protected].

Our partners at Choral Canada were instrumental in helping to collect stories for this blog post. Resources on amplifying and supporting Indigenous peoples can be found in Choral Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation blog post, released to coincide with the 2022 National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.