How Edmonton-based Indigenous artists honour their identities through music
By Katrina Turchin | August 11, 2021
Shawnee Kish was always a performer, from standing on the tops of picnic tables to performing as a Shania Twain impersonator at 12 years old. Music is her purpose and medicine, and she’s using her platform to empower Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ youth. A self-titled EP was released in June.
Kish got her start in the music industry at the influential age of 20 years old. She experienced pressure from music executives to fit an overdone sugary pop star mould that didn’t feel authentic and was told to change her appearance.
“I remember going to a label, and they asked, ‘OK, Shawnee. So, tell us who you are,’ and I had my team around me at the time, and I looked at everyone, and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea anymore,'” says Kish.
Kish came out as a Two-Spirit person in her early 20s, and was told to make sure that when she’s singing and representing herself, she “invite[s] the boys” and not just girls. The assumption that she only appeals to women is appalling to Kish to this day, mainly because her brand is all about acceptance.
“First of all, everybody’s invited — it’s music,” says Kish. “Second of all, I am not some kind of symbol of whatever you think this is. I represent who I am. And whoever that speaks to is OK with me.”
Kish wasn’t always comfortable with her identity. She struggled with depression as a teen and knows how it feels as an Indigenous person to be told to look like someone else. The path to acceptance and putting societal pressures aside, Kish says, is to get back to your roots. She surrounded herself with family and rediscovered why she loves music. Some people do it for money, but Kish’s advice is to do it from the heart, which is how fellow Indigenous artist Celeigh Cardinal got her start in music.
At the age of four, Cardinal had her first solo performance at church which she describes as her jumping-off point. “Performing is an expression of love and connection for me,” she says.
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Two albums — including Stories From a Downtown Apartment, which won her a Juno Award in 2020 as Indigenous Artist of the Year — and a CBC Radio arts column are a few successes under Cardinal’s belt. Still, she looks to the new generation of artists for inspiration, including Kish.
“I am inspired by people who have to do things the hard way or who worked to get where they are,” says Cardinal. “It’s hard to be inspired by people who are marketable or create marketable music because that’s never been me, and I don’t see myself in them.”
As an Indigenous single mother, Cardinal faced barriers in the music industry, including being tokenized. Her music touches on the shame she felt as an Indigenous woman living in small-town Alberta, and she credits her resilience and strength for her success. Now, she’s using her platform to discover emerging artists who might not have a platform yet themselves.
Kris Harper, one-third of former Indigenous indie rock band nêhiyawak, agrees that the most important stories to tell are the ones often unheard, but he says sometimes there’s a disconnect.
“I feel like sometimes there’s gates put up,” says Harper. “And, it’s been a really important part of my career to try to shoo away some of the smoke that has been hiding some of the real realities in front of our eyes.”
Harper lists a few current examples, like the covering of the mural of Bishop Vital Grandin, an advocate for residential schools, from the Grandin LRT Station. Harper grew up looking at the mural every time he took the LRT, and it served as a constant painful reminder of the history of residential schools. The mural was covered at the beginning of June after 215 children were found buried at a former residential school site in Kamloops in May.
“But, that’s not to say that anything’s really changed, other than I think people’s ability to start considering other perspectives,” Harper says.
Harper’s previous music with nêhiyawak touched on many issues involving residential schools and what it means to be Indigenous. He notes that there’s more attention on Indigenous artists these days, but that isn’t the be-all and end-all. There isn’t enough Indigenous representation in areas like PR companies and labels for the industry to be considered well-rounded just yet, but it’s headed slowly in the right direction.