Turning hardship into music: How Indigenous performers want to reclaim their culture

Logan Staats, a Mohawk musician and activist from the Six Nations of the Grand River, says it's hard to talk about the time he was arrested while protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory in 2021. He says he takes difficult moments like these and turns them into music. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Logan Staats, a Mohawk musician and activist from the Six Nations of the Grand River, says it's hard to talk about the time he was arrested while protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory in 2021. He says he takes difficult moments like these and turns them into music. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

When Logan Staats sings about experiences rooted in hardship and pain, he carries the emotions to his audience through a tough, gritty voice filled with smoke and conviction.

His music, he says, is born from his experiences as an activist. One of his songs delves into the emotions he felt when he was arrested in Wet'suwet'en territory in 2021 while protesting the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline.

He recalls the arrest as violent and says it's still difficult to talk about. But when he picks up his guitar and sings, he does so without the slightest bit of anger. His demeanour is calm, and his tranquil energy remains even when he talks about some of his darkest moments.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

"All that stuff that had happened to me just kind of poured out in my music," said Staats, a Mohawk musician and activist from the Six Nations of the Grand River. "The whole movement is embodied in every chord I play, every note I sing."

Staats is one of many Indigenous artists who performed at the 10th edition of the Spirit Song Festival in St. John's. The festival, a weeklong celebration of Indigenous arts and culture, wraps up Saturday.

Staats says he knows music is a gift he's fortunate to share with others, although activism is at the forefront of his life right now. But music is crucial in his healing journey, he says, and he searches for power in moments of discontent and tries to turn them into something positive.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

"When I'm singing and I close my eyes and I'm tapped into Creator, it's just like, just such an important part of that reclamation process for me," said Staats. "Reclaiming my music, reclaiming my voice and, you know, the language."

It was the first time Staats performed in Newfoundland, and he says the audience experienced a wide range of emotions during his set, from laughter to tears.

"It was really great to play a show and to know that everybody's listening and everyone is really paying attention to the words in the song and what's inside the song," he said.

Time for reclamation

Reclamation is something Elder Maggie Paul says is of the utmost importance.

Paul is from the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine and lives at the St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton. This was her first time at the Spirit Song Festival, and she performed traditional songs with her daughter, Ann, before Staats's performance.

When Paul opens her mouth to sing, she releases powerhouse vocals filled with passion — she says she sings to uplift spirits, and says music and the emotions it evokes is something to be thankful for.

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

"This time now is the time that we have to take back everything," said Paul. "We have to take back our voice, take back our songs, our ceremonies, our everything … we gotta take back our names, who we are."

Paul says her role as an elder includes maintaining the importance of language and ensuring Indigenous children understand and celebrate their heritage. She says children need to be proud of who they are, and that this can only be achieved by reclaiming Indigenous traditions and culture, such as ceremonies, food and music.

"This is the time," she said. "It's time for us."

Jessica Singer/CBC
Jessica Singer/CBC

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