Traditional music in Alberta is having a moment at the 2023 Juno Awards.
Four of the five nominees in the Traditional Indigenous Artist or Group category — Joel Wood, Northern Cree, the Bearhead Sisters and Cikwes — were from the region. The only non-local artists who were nominated are throatsingers Iva and Angu from Nunavut.
The Bearhead Sisters, Trina, Carly and Allie, won the Juno after their first nomination this year for their album Unbreakable.
Carly Bearhead said the sisters, from Paul First Nation, 66 kilometres east of Edmonton, used to practise by singing backup to other artists' songs. Now they are nominated next to one of them — Northern Cree.
"To be able to jump on the stage and stand beside a lot of these big artists and to represent our people — and not only our people, but our women — it means a lot to us," Bearhead said.
As an all-female group on the traditional circuit, Bearhead said the group has had to deal with some difficult comments about their singing.
"We've heard comments that it [the traditional music] belonged to the men… There was a time when it kind of held us back."
The group turned to their mother and grandfather, Leonard Bearhead, for guidance. With their advice, Bearhead said she and her sisters learned to overcome their fear and doubt.
"We broke through that and we kept singing," she said, adding that she hopes it inspires others, too.
The Bearhead Sisters focused on language and identity on their album in the hopes of helping young people connect to their culture.
"A lot of people look at our music for healing and it brings happiness and hope to them and gives them strength," Bearhead said.
'Waking up our languages'
Joel Wood, nominated as a solo artist and as a member of Northern Cree, said it's great to see traditional music recognized at the Junos since "it's the oldest music of this land."
Wood, from Maskwacis, 90 kilometres south of Edmonton, and Saddle Lake Cree Nation, said the title of his album, Mikwanak Kamôsakinat, is also his traditional name. It means the one who picks up feathers, or feather pick-up man.
The album, entirely recorded in the Cree language, "focuses on waking up our languages and being proud of who I am," he said.
He's eager to share teachings from his mentor and father, Steve Wood, who founded Northern Cree more than 40 years ago.
"That drum that we stood around, it's got a spirit like you and I. When you take care of your instrument and your drum, your drum is going to take care of you," he said.
Wood, who hoped to reach young people with his album, said he's gotten messages from people of all ages saying his album has helped them.
"I [feel] like I've already won, because the album has done much more than I could have imagined for our people," he said.