'Diving into my culture': After historic Juno win, Crystal Shawanda reflects on journey

·2 min read
The singer from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ont., is now working on a personal project - an album of Indigenous music, or storytelling songs, as she calls them. She is also recording a new blues album. (True North Records - image credit)
The singer from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ont., is now working on a personal project - an album of Indigenous music, or storytelling songs, as she calls them. She is also recording a new blues album. (True North Records - image credit)

Ojibwe singer Crystal Shawanda says she was shocked and surprised to win for Best Blues Album of the Year at this year's JUNO awards and feels like she's living a "full-circle" moment.

The 37-year-old from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ont., won for her album, Church House Blues, at the awards broadcast on CBC Sunday.

"I really, honestly did not think I was going to win," said Shawanda.

The 50th anniversary of the Juno awards were hosted from Toronto, but included live and pre-recorded elements from many other locations. Shawanda watched the show with her daughter and family at her side from Nashville, where she is working on her next album.

This was the first time an Indigenous artist won in this category.

Growing up, I didn't see anybody that looked like me on TV. - Crystal Shawanda, JUNO winner for Blues Album of the Year

"It's always been very important to me to try to break through the barriers into mainstream circles. That's always been a mission of mine, since I was a kid," she said.

"Growing up, I didn't see anybody that looked like me on TV. And even as a kid, I recognized that, like, why aren't we seen everywhere? Why are we invisible?"

Shawanda said she started singing "as soon as she could make a noise" and got on stage for the first time when she was six years old. She recorded her first album at the age of 13.

"My parents were very supportive. I started getting paid to sing when I was 10 years old and I just never looked back," she said.

At the beginning of the Juno awards presentation, Buffy Sainte-Marie acknowledged the hurt that many are feeling after the remains of 215 children were found at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Shawanda repeated part of Sainte-Marie's message, that Indigenous people have grown up hearing these stories for generations.

"We knew these things were happening. We had a cousin in my family who didn't come home," she said, adding that is part of why she continues to push to break down barriers with her music.

"I don't want us to be invisible. I want our voices to be heard because we're speaking up for those children who don't have any voices," she said.

Shawanda is working on her next blues album, but is also working on a personal project — an album of Indigenous music, or storyteller songs, as she calls them.

She said she feels she has come "full circle."

"To the place where now I am diving into my culture and embracing it and wrapping my culture around me," said Shawanada.