'An act of reclamation and defiance': rising Cree star moves into new era

Montreal-based Cree singer-songwriter Siibii releases their first song and video under their new Indigenous name. Siibii means 'river' in East James Bay Cree. (Nicolas Gouin - image credit)
Montreal-based Cree singer-songwriter Siibii releases their first song and video under their new Indigenous name. Siibii means 'river' in East James Bay Cree. (Nicolas Gouin - image credit)

For Cree singer-songwriter Siibii, changing their name and reclaiming their Indigenous identity feels good.

"With my Eenou name, I feel so much more well-equipped. I feel pride and I feel a confidence," said the 22-year-old Montreal-based artist from the northern Quebec Cree community of Mistissini.

They used to perform under their birth name Angel Baribeau. On Monday, they released their first video as Siibii, a Cree word meaning "river." Siibii also intends to legally change their name to Siibii Petawabano, the Cree family name of their mother.

"It feels genuine, it feels so lovely, and it feels like an act of reclamation and defiance," they said.

Siibii identifies as trans, queer and non-binary and uses they/ them pronouns.

Vulnerable first release

The song is called YOY and Siibii said making it the first release of an upcoming self-titled album was a conscious choice to be more vulnerable in their art than they have ever been.

"I wanted a vulnerable look at Siibii and especially around my mental illness and reflecting on my coping mechanisms," they said.

Since releasing their debut EP, For Those I Love(d) in 2020, the 22-year-old has been gaining fans and winning awards with their breathtaking vocals and lyrics.

In 2021, they were the grand prize winner of Canada's Walk of Fame RBC Emerging Musician Program and won a Young Canadian Songwriters Award, presented by the SOCAN Foundation, for their song Love is up the River.

This year, they were a runner-up in CBC Music's Searchlight competition.

Nicolas Gouin
Nicolas Gouin

Dropping their birth name of Angel and performing and recording now as Siibii is an important step in shedding colonial trauma, they say.

"I realized I was uncomfortable with my name because it's biblical," Siibii said.

Gookum Eva

"Things that my own blood and family members have had to survive and how a religion became a weapon to them," they said.

Siibii is very close to their gookum [grandmother], Eva, a devout Christian, who went to residential school.

Eva only shared one story about her time at residential school, about a young girl and fellow student who stole cake to share with starving children after the nuns put them to bed.

"She would laugh [and say] 'oh, it was silly of her to go and steal cake', but for me the lesson of that story was 'oh, some brave little girl broke the rules so that she could help people who were starving'," Siibii said, adding the decision to sing under an Eenou name is part of the work that their grandmother did.

"For myself, that really means being proud as being Eenou. Something that's super important to me is representation. And for me that's representing Eenou youth from my nation," Siibii said.

Love is up the River

As Siibii's star continues to rise, they say their connection with Cree traditional territory of Eeyou Istchee keeps them grounded.

"I would have aunties and gookums and somebody's uncle come up to me and tell me what a song did for them or what a song meant to them, and I think for me that feels the most genuine. It feels the most lovely," Siibii said.

Siibii will also be the featured artist at CBC North's Cree unit anniversary, coming up on Nov. 24 in Montreal. Cree Radio is marking its 50th anniversary this year and Cree television is marking its 40th anniversary.