Heartbeat of a People

Indigenous music, once suppressed, inspires resilience and change

By Dave McLeod
Published: January 30, 2024 Updated: February 27, 2024

Close-up on a group of people wearing beaded jackets and vests performing on stage. In the centreer, a man wearing glasses, a hat, and a large, beaded medallion sings into a microphone. Partially obscured.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Timothy Matwey

Story text

Why does Indigenous music matter? The fact that Indigenous people are still here firstly needs to be recognized, and that music by the people is still at the heart of who they are, as it has been for millennia.

First Nation, Inuit and Métis music has demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability throughout history. The determination of the people has ensured the survival and continuation of Indigenous music, allowing a spirit within the sound to not only survive, but thrive and evolve in the face of adversity.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ Elder‐in‐residence, Robert Greene (Anishinaabe), reminded our team during early discussions of the Beyond the Beat exhibition that the “concept of music” was introduced to him within creation stories, which informs us that music has long existed as a powerful entity, even before humans existed. This directly connects to the field of physics, where vibrations and oscillations are observed in natural phenomena, such as the movement of celestial bodies. Vibrations are truly a fundamental aspect of the universe.

For thousands of years prior to colonization, Indigenous music served multiple purposes that reflected unique beliefs, values and traditions. Music conveyed historical narratives, creation stories and legends passed from one generation to the next. Traditionally, music also accompanied important life events such as birth, initiations, partnerships and crossing over into the spirit world. Music also created sacred and transformative spaces, particularly during ceremony.

A woman with long braided hair sitting on a chair and singing into a microphone while playing a small hand rattle.

Alanis Obomsawin is well known as an award‐winning Indigenous filmmaker. She is also an accomplished musician and performed internationally throughout the 1960s. 

Photo: York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC17406

I attended a mainstream music induction ceremony a few years ago and was introduced to a well‐known Canadian music artist. I was introduced to them as a person who works within the Indigenous music community. They reacted to me by stating “Music is the same for everybody.” I was truly taken aback by the comment because it hasn’t been the same for everybody, particularly for the original peoples of these lands. There was a period where simply singing with a hand drum could land a person in jail, I thought. 

My memory sped through the thousands of Indigenous musicians I’ve met over the years, first‐hand accounts of musical challenges which are often overlooked or unknown within the mainstream world. Many of their stories connect to immense colonization and assimilation efforts which actually occurred within a relatively short period of time historically, that sought to silence a musical heartbeat… Music has not been the same for everybody. 

Walls of musical suppression

Indigenous music was often seen as a threat to colonial authorities, who sought to control and suppress Indigenous cultures. This led to the banning and even censorship of Indigenous music during periods of assimilationist policies. Indigenous communities were forcibly displaced from traditional lands, disrupting cultural practices and music‐making traditions.

The Indian Act, for example, had a significant impact on traditional music among Indigenous peoples in Canada. Enacted in 1876, this piece of legislation aimed to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro‐Canadian society. It imposed various restrictions and regulations on First Nation communities. Under the Indian Act, traditional music was discouraged, suppressed and even banned, with jail time as a consequence for “breaking federal law.” This was usually overseen by Indian Agents, police and church clergy.

This legislation prompted ethnomusicologists in North America throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s to venture to remote communities with the intention to record and document music in order to preserve traces of a “disappearing race and culture.”

Simultaneously, more than 130 residential schools began to be constructed across the country, impacting over 150,000 students – which systematically led to a massive decline in the transmission of Indigenous languages, traditional songs and dances, and a deep sacred connection to music, affecting generations to come.

A person with short hair singing, while wearing a black cape and holding up a feather.

Jeremy Dutcher’s singing in Wolastoqey powerfully resists colonialism and inspires Indigenous cultural resurgence.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Tijana Martin

It was during this period that music was utilized as a way to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro‐Canadian culture. Traditional music was forbidden within institutional walls and was replaced with a Western understanding of music with underlining purposes, be it gospel hymns or a national anthem.

I met an Elder in the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba in the early 1990s (I wish I recalled her name), who shared with me that she was forced to kneel on pencils for long periods of time as a punishment for speaking her language or singing in Néhinaw (Cree). She told me she quietly hummed Néhinaw songs her mother taught her when the nuns weren’t close by, particularly while washing school floors by hand, in order to not forget them. She was determined that her future grandchildren would sing her people’s songs. The Elder showed me scars from the pencils still visible on her knees – to leave no doubt that her story was true. And yes, with a smile, she shared that her grandchildren did learn the songs she carried through from one generation to the next.

Due to these genocidal measures, ceremonial practices that included dances, songs and instruments were forced to go underground from the late 1800s until well into the early 1950s, primarily due to the Indian Act.

Two people holding microphones performing on stage. One is looking straight at the camera. They are bathed in blue light and with green stage lights in the background.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids make Indigenous hip‐hop that foregrounds racism, decolonization and youth culture. 

Photo: The Canadian Press, Chris Young

In the mid‐20th century, the Canadian government also implemented policies aimed to assimilate Inuit communities into mainstream society. This included forcibly relocating Inuit people from their traditional lands to settlements where they were expected to adopt Western lifestyles and abandon their cultural practices. As part of assimilation efforts, traditional Inuit music was discouraged and suppressed. For example, Inuit throat singing – a unique vocal tradition practiced primarily by Inuit women – was particularly targeted. It was seen by non‐Indigenous authorities such as the church to be culturally inappropriate or indecent, and its practice was banned in schools and public spaces.

Métis communities were also marginalized and faced pressure to assimilate into society. Historic uprisings, like the Red River Resistance (1869–70), sparked federal pushback, which fuelled discrimination that discouraged and devalued traditional Métis cultural practices including music.

The Sixties Scoop also had a significant impact on Indigenous music and cultural expression. The term connects to a dark period in Canada, which took place primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, where an estimated 30,000–40,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and placed in foster care or adopted by non‐Indigenous families. This removal of children from their culture and community had a profound impact on many aspects of culture, including music.

Voices of resilience and change

Beginning in the mid to late 1960s, Indigenous movements like the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Red Power movements were on the rise. Artists like Willie Dunn, Redbone, XIT and John Trudell were all at the forefront of using their music and words to form powerful platforms for raising awareness of Indigenous rights, social justice issues and even environmental concerns. These artists and many others sparked important dialogues. They created a sense of unity and shed much needed light to challenge the status quo. They formed a collective force that pushed boundaries, fostered empathy. They were activists, warriors for change.

A plethora of Indigenous music artists today are carrying the musical torch from those who came before and are now making significant contributions within the music industry. A few examples that are showcased within Beyond the Beat include:

Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained operatic tenor and composer from the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) Nation who incorporates traditional Wolastoqiyik songs and language into his music, blending them with contemporary arrangements and opera.

Elisapie Isaac is an Inuk singer‐songwriter who showcases her Inuit heritage, culture, language and traditions through her music, bringing Inuit voices and stories to a broader audience. She has also utilized her platform to bring awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids are a hip‐hop duo from the Haisla Nation in British Columbia. Their music tackles social and political issues with a hip‐hop flare that addresses topics such as racism, inequality and environmental degradation. Their music also contributes to dialogues around decolonization and Indigenous empowerment.

A woman singing at a microphone, gesturing widely with her arms. She wears a dark red, sheer dress with long sleeves.

Elisapie (Inuk) performing “Darkness Bring to Light” and “Arnaq” (ᐊᕐᓇᖅ) at the Polaris Gala in Toronto, 2019.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette

These artists are examples of contemporary artists who are a part of a continuum that connects with audiences and offers important social and political commentary. They also invoke healing through their music, particularly for younger audiences.

We must also acknowledge that Indigenous music has become an industry onto itself, as it offers a growing economic component. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s National Music Impact Study in 2019 determined that Indigenous music contributed $78 million to Canada’s economy and supported as many as 3,000 full‐time positions.

Music is a blessing

The award‐winning Alberta‐based pow wow group Northern Cree received a seventh Grammy nomination in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category for It’s a Cree Thing in 2017. Northern Cree performed at the pre‐telecast of the Grammys in Los Angeles before a global music industry. Their performance broke barriers, challenged stereotypes and served as a reminder that Indigenous voices are very much still here and are deserving of recognition. It was magical, it was meaningful, it made history.

Yes, the impacts of colonization have been profound and continues to shape Indigenous communities today, but Northern Cree reminds us of our peoples’ resilience, adaptability and a determination of an ensured continuation.

There is so much more… Indigenous music thrives today in many forms, connecting to tradition, language, protocols, reshaping the present and empowering new generations to create sonic pathways towards beautiful, surprising and even challenging soundscapes.

Indigenous music is being celebrated and recognized more and more on major festival stages and within major music award shows, not necessarily because the artists are Indigenous, but because Indigenous music is so damn good, it can’t be ignored. 


Dive Deeper

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Suggested citation

Suggested citation : Dave McLeod. “Heartbeat of a People.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published January 30, 2024. Updated: February 27, 2024. https://humanrights.ca/story/heartbeat-people