The Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre have agreed to replace a Nisg̱a’a song misused in the Harry Somers opera, Louis Riel, which was recently performed has part of the 2017/18 season in Toronto and Ottawa.
The song will be replaced by a new song to be written by Métis and French-Canadian composer Ian Cusson.
The original “Song of Skateen,” is based on a Nisg̱a’a lament (or lim’ooy̓), and was first recorded by Marius Barbeau in British Columbia on the Nass River in 1927. The song was one of hundreds of First Nations songs recorded by ethnographers during the early 20th century. The songs were shared by first nations peoples so they could be used by future generations.
While preserving the songs was generally welcomed by indigenous peoples, the fact that the Canadian Government later encouraged the use of the sacred songs to be repurposed without permission has been a source of deep upset for many indigenous communities in Canada.
In the case of composer Harry Somers, the song was incorporated into the score in 1967, which opens the third act as “Kuyas” aria. It effectively contravened Nisg̱a’a protocol that their music must only be performed by those with the appropriate hereditary rights to do so. Furthermore, it is the belief of the Nisg̱a’a that to perform the songs is to release the song’s spirit, which when done out of context, results in a negative impact on the lives of singers and listeners.
“Our goal in taking these steps is to honour and acknowledge the process of learning and exchange by which we grow as a culture and as a community,” said COC General Director Alexander Neef. “Opera is a living, breathing art form that evolves through continuous dialogue and interpretation; we are proud to support that creative process as we reimagine opera’s role and relevance today and chart its course into the future.”
The process to remedy the misuse of the song was coordinated by Dylan Robinson, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University. In February 2017, Robinson joined Nisga’a dance group leaders Goothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli and Wal’aks Keane Tait to raise the issue directly with the COC, NAC, and Estates of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore. After two meetings held in Toronto and Ottawa, a resolution was reached to replace the lim’ooy̓ with a new commission composed by Cusson.
“This sets an important precedent for many other appropriated Indigenous songs that remain in contemporary compositions and arrangements. Indigenous songs are often forms of law, medicine, teachings, personal family history, and have life themselves,” said Robinson in a press release statement. “This means that their misuse is not only appropriation; for Indigenous peoples hearing this most cherished aspect of our culture ‘broken apart’ can be a traumatic experience.”
The new work will debut at a performance by the NAC Orchestra and music director Alexander Shelley, celebrating the work of many of Canada’s leading Indigenous composers, on September 19, 2019 at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall in Ottawa.