Aboriginal entertainment doing just fine thank you very much

They may not have broken through to the mainstream yet, but Canada's indigenous entertainers no longer really care

WINNIPEG, MB, Jan 30, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Back in 1982, the only Indians we saw on TV were either dancing pow wow, protesting at some government office building or down and out on “Main Street”. Modern or “contemporary” Native entertainment on mainstream TV and live theatre or concert stages was few and far between.

There were exceptions like Buffy Sainte Marie and Ray St. Germain but they were rare.

The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, with more intimate ties with the talent which was going unexposed, backed a live theatre production called “in Deo,” which toured western Canada presenting 500 years of history through folk, rock, blues, ballet, classical music, modern dance and opera. Tomson Highway played piano while his brother Rene danced; neither had thought about writing or staging their own plays at this time. This is indicative of the talent which was going under-exposed at the time.

“in Deo” was a breakthrough, gaining widespread critical acclaim and attracting decent-sized audiences, but it didn’t make a major dent in the public perception of Indians.

In 1987, Native Multimedia Productions of Winnipeg produced a television variety show which featured a stand-up comic (Oneida Charlie Hill), Buffy Sainte Marie busting out of her folk/Sesame Street role with her hard rock tune “Starwalker”, and comedy sketches such as Tonto and the Lone Ranger making a comeback in “Hero’s Heaven” (Tonto wants to use complete sentences, wear the white hat and “get the girl”). Kind of an “Indian Carol Burnett show”, Indian Time was broadcast on the full CTV network at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and you can’t get any more prime time than that.

Underlying all of this work was a goal to break through to the mainstream and showcase a wealth of First Nations and Metis talent that was just as professional and creative and artistic as those who were selling a million records. The hope was to break an Indian Bryan Adams or an Indian Guns ‘n Roses. That has not happened, although many First Nations and Metis entertainers have made a dent in the mainstream.

Another big dream was an “Aboriginal Invasion”. Similar to the British invasion of the 1960s, this movement would expose the unique harmonies and beat of traditional First Nations music like Motown did for black entertainers. Traditional native songs can be microtonal with notes between the standard notes and sometimes the drum beat can drift into 9/5 time. Buffy’s “Starwalker” is a good example of this blend but this so-called pow wow rock has not taken over the discos.

And now that we see the success of so many native rap groups, it is obvious that young First Nations and Metis acts have decided to go the hip hop route.

No matter how things evolved, it is obvious from shows like the Aboriginal Peoples Music Choice Awards that First Nations and Metis performing artists have achieved the top levels of contemporary entertainment, with staging as good as you will find anywhere. Along with Manito Ahbee’s pow wow at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Canada’s indigenous people have revived their culture, preserved it, enhanced it.

Perhaps it is a shame that more non-Aboriginal people don’t come out to events like this and experience the talent and showmanship which is on par with any of the mainstream shows, like the Junos or even the Grammys (Really, there isn’t that much difference in these shows at this level, except name recognition and star power.)

But that hasn’t been what it’s really all about all these years. While some may lament or belittle the fact that all those “Best Recording” and “Best Rock Group” and “Best Song” awards that Eagle and Hawk have won have come from Aboriginal awards shows and the only Juno an Aboriginal act seems to win is “music from Aboriginal Canada”, First Nations people don’t really care.

Aboriginal performing artists have preserved traditional culture and blended some with contemporary music and dance styles to create stunning entertainment. They have bent over backwards to share this with mainstream Canada (Manito Ahbee is a “show for all Nations”), but it doesn’t make or break them if they don’t get a big response.

There is plenty of incredible First Nations, Metis and Inuit entertainment which is just as good, if not better, than popular music in the mainstream and on the playlists of radio stations and music video shows. If other people want to join in and celebrate and enjoy it, fine, but indigenous music and entertainment is doing just fine on its own, too.

Troy Media’s Eye on Manitoba columnist Don Marks is a Winnipeg-based writer.

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