Seven Indigenous performers of international renown gathered in Collingwood this week, drawn together by their passion for storytelling.
They were all in town because of invitations from Daniel Vnukowski, the artistic director of the Collingwood Summer Music Festival, an international pianist who believes in the power of the arts to tell a story.
“Where words fail, where words have a limitation … that’s where art can come in,” said Vnukowski. “That’s when the message can penetrate deeper into one’s psyche.”
Since the first festival in 2019, Vnukowski has showcased international talent with a goal to bring people together. This year, he focused also on truth and reconciliation.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “The history of the land extends much further, we’re putting that to music and art.”
Over two nights, the Collingwood Summer Music Festival showcased two documentary films produced by Stevie Salas, music by Jason Chamakese on Native American Flute, poetry by Dr. Duke Redbird, and dancing by the Red Sky ensemble – including Adrian Harjo, Ascension Harjo, and Jennifer Martin.
During a third evening performance, Cris Derksen, a Cree cellist and composer, performed her original works, including chamber pieces from her Truth Trilogy. She was joined by Mayumi Seiler on violin and Angela Park on piano. Together they formed the Powerhouse Trio.
Each of the performances and pre-show discussions highlighted the success and talent of Indigenous artists and their work to bring truth to light.
Salas started his career in music during high school. As a guitarist he played at Madison Square Gardens, he toured with Rod Stewart, played for Mick Jagger, and opened for Joe Satriani. Salas worked as a music director and consultant on American Idol, was a television host, producer, author, composer, recording artist, and, he’ll tell you, he is also an “Emmy loser.”
“I was brought up in the mainstream world of the arts, and who I was as a human being was my business,” said Salas. “I was a musician. I wasn’t an Apache guitar player, I was a guitar player who was Apache.”
He said he returned to “Indian Country” for selfish reasons, to regain balance and ground himself.
As executive producer for the film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, he found a way to give back.
The film is about the impact of Indigenous musicians on the development of rock music in North America. It lifts the veil on the truth about the roots of music in North America and the heritage of the people who were lifted up as heroes in the world of rock.
“I made a conscious decision not to make a race film,” said Salas. “I said let’s celebrate some heroes. Through that story you will feel and see what happened. But we’re there to celebrate heroes.”
The hero theme inspired a second film from Salas, who produced and helped write a 13-minute documentary called The Water Walker.
While helping to bring filters to get clean drinking water to a reserve north of Thunder Bay, Salas heard the story of Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe youth from Manitoulin Island who had taken on the mantle of her aunt as a water warrior. By 15, Peltier was appointed Chief Water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation. "
“I saw this little girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders,” said Salas. “She’s a miniature hero. She does the dirty work. She’s not getting to live the life of a 14-year-old kid … She doesn’t complain. She feels it is something she was born to do. I just wanted the world to see this girl.”
She was speaking all over the world and, perhaps most famously, at the United Nations alongside Greta Thunberg, to advocate for the protection of water.
"This girl inspired me and I wanted her to inspire others," said Salas. "I looked up to her … people need to see this person and see what she’s doing. And it might get other people to do great things too."
Salas saw Thunberg had the backing of her Swedish government, and he wanted to offer Peltier what backing he could.
In telling her story, Salas enlisted the star power of Graham Greene, an actor from Six Nations with a career that includes an Oscar nomination for his role in Dances With Wolves, a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album For Children, and lifetime achievement awards in film and TV.
“People trust star power,” said Salas. “I needed Graham’s stature to make people who may not bother to look at the film to look at the film.”
Greene said he didn’t hesitate to get involved, even with obstacles that included surgery and travelling to San Diego during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people in my profession carry a lot of weight … everybody does, it adds notoriety,” said Greene. “Some people have used it for good and some for their own personal gains.”
Greene narrated the documentary, and sent his fee to Peltier to support her travel costs.
He also attended Collingwood for the Summer Music Festival as a special guest, again in support of Peltier and The Water Walker film.
“This was one of those things where I would have dropped everything … this is something that matters … this is something that means something,” said Greene.
He said it is a gift to be able to tell a story, and with that gift comes a responsibility to the story and those who will hear it.
“There are other people telling the story along with you,” said Greene. “And if you don’t listen to what they’re saying, it won’t make any sense.”
Coming alongside Greene, Salas and many other artists at the Collingwood Music Festival this year was Dr. Duke Redbird, who has built a global career in the arts, particularly as a poet.
Redbird said his Indigenous heritage and the history, identity and culture of the First People have been the reason, weight and message in his art.
“It’s been my life’s work,” said Redbird. “The arts was a vehicle to get the word out.”
The word Redbird is spreading is truth, the facts of Indigenous history, of Canadian history, and of the lessons that can be learned from both.
“There are people, like Daniel Vnukowski, who say we have an opportunity to have some reconciliation. But let’s get the truth first and reconciliation second,” said Redbird.
Redbird is a member of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, and has built a special relationship with Collingwood through his involvement in the Awen Gathering Place.
Before it was built, Redbird visited the site at Harbourview Park with the town’s director of parks, recreation, and culture. Redbird shared his vision of the food forest that would have been there 200 years before, and helped the town design the gathering circle to honour the history of the area, and acknowledge the Indigenous land.
Redbird read several of his poems during the Collingwood Summer Music Festival, including one he wrote about beavers to introduce The Water Walker documentary. His poem warned of the bad traits of beavers whose dams change the course of rivers and streams into stagnant lakes, pushing away neighbours such as deer, fox, bears, and raccoons.
“Do not become a beaver and build for yourself a dam, for this is what modern man does with his brick and stone and sand,” recited Redbird. “‘Till his mind is like that lake filled with weird wicked wretches that give no peace. Then he cries to his Creator in desperation, please God, my God, deliver me from damnation.”
Vnukowski said he asked Redbird to be part of the festival because of the truth in his poetry.
“We have to start to bring out the truth and do it in a way people can understand,” he said. “There is a message of universality in Duke Redbird’s poetry that anyone can understand. Anyone can find these words moving.”
The Collingwood Summer Music Festival, which began on July 10 wraps up this evening with a concert featuring Lebanese-Canadian opera singer Joyce El-Khoury in the role of Scheherazade.
You still watch past performances, including Dr. Duke Redbird’s poetry, Red Sky’s dance, and The Water Walker online with a digital pass. You’ll find details on the Collingwood Music Festival website.