For many of us, music—listening to, discovering, writing, playing—is inextricable from the meshwork of other things that form our core values and identity. Inextricable from every other outlet we find that moves us, in some unique way, toward a deeper engagement with this world. It often matters little the style of music, the stance or tone of lyrics or performance, or the aesthetics of the sound and dynamic movement—you simply know by feel when you have been struck by an artist whose music evokes a deep and vast web of consciousness, experience, and interrelatedness; a web of community, ancestry, pride, trauma, suffering, language, the earth and its scales of time. And you can’t help but be ensnared. Perhaps this seems lofty. Sure, but it is only because, as an artist curating the work of other artists, I am drawn toward some other plane of consciousness when I find, am struck by, and give in to music whose gift of immersion offers me a new world to experience with the senses, and also a newly informed sense of how to navigate this world. How to be in these diverse communities, in this body, with this blood and brain, with the gifts that are its ethical considerations, anxieties, privileges, burdens, opportunities for growth.
Recently, I have had the extreme privilege of connecting with such a musician whose work spans genres and styles with as much sincerity as musical dexterity, with as much humility as urgency. Kris Harper, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, and vocalist, from amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory, which in English is called Edmonton, Alberta, joined me for a virtual discussion about his past and current musical projects.
From 2017-2020, Kris played guitar, sang, and wrote lyrics for nêhiyawak, a genre-bending three-piece act whose debut record was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s biggest music awards. With him were Marek Tyler on drums and Matthew Cardinal on synth and bass. Kris has since been collaborating with Jason Borys, together composing, among other stunning recordings, the soundtrack for the documentary miniseries “Voices on the Rise.” Also with Jason Borys and Courteney Morin, Kris contributes to a rich tapestry of ambient music under the banner Ag47. In their most recent project, Ag47 supplies the swirling, meditative backdrop to a man named Mr. William Quinn, a nêhiyaw elder and artist, as he gives a sweetgrass smudge and orates about his life, experience in residential schools, and, among other things, the urgency of passing on ancestral knowledge to younger generations. Kris also collaborates with bUDi, a.k.a. Nick Dourado, who has made music with Aquakulture, Fiver, Beverly Glenn Copeland, Kathleen Yearwood, and many others. bUDi’s new record, /WORLD/GO/DUH/, on which Kris contributed to the mix, was released a little over a month ago. I am humbled and delighted to share our conversation with the Shouts! community.
Nathaniel Youmans: nêhiyawak’s first and only album, nipiy—the nêhiyaw word for “water”—was shortlisted for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize. At times the lush shoegaze sound (or, rather, “moccasingaze,” to salute a growing genre tag used by contemporary Indigenous musicians who are forging distinct, compelling, reverb-drenched musical paths rooted in Indigenous identity and worldviews) sweeps listeners away to the vaulted halls of post-rock. Yet, there is such a driving, grounding urgency in the chime and propulsion of rhythms, such evocative emotion in Kris’s vocal aerobics, such a sense of larger community in the band’s sound, that there is never a dull moment on this amazing album, except at the moment it ends and there is no more. nipiy is difficult to place with shorthand descriptors of genre and style—one of the many ways in which Kris’s work reminds me that English is an insufficient linguistic and cognitive framework. This is a concept our conversation often returned to. On Indigenous language and cultural preservation, on his approach to music, on fighting erasure and decolonizing our minds, Kris spoke at length.
Kris Harper: I myself grew up in a home where my mother spoke nêhiyawēwin, but I was never spoken to. It was like when my mom would switch to nêhiyawēwin talking to relatives on the phone and such, she would kind of turn away. It was always a strange thing, because within my mom’s family, among her siblings, she was the only fluent speaker. Funny enough, I grew up in an environment where my mother was working for the government and my father was a carpenter, so I went to this other family’s house in the mornings from the time I was about eight months to five years old. They were Iranian, so I ended up learning Farsi as a child and learning all about that language. More recently, I took some university classes in 2013 and have done all kinds of reading and learning about linguicide. I’ve also taken some nêhiyawēwin courses and am still learning how to write syllabics.
A lot of nêhiyaw people will still refer to themselves as “Cree,” which comes from a French word. The name for the band nêhiyawak was very intentional: we went to our parents, who would all be considered elders. We said we have these songs, and they’re all trying to share experiences that were for the most part personal but of course rooted in indigenous issues. We asked them if there was a name that they thought would fit. It was Matthew’s father who said we should call it “nêhiyawak.” That is the word for all nêhiyaw people, and it’s also a word that a lot of people have a hard time saying. We wanted to put that word in people’s mouths so they will be forced to deal with it linguistically. A lot of that inspiration too, personally, was from The Ethiopians. That band in Jamaica pretty much went to their Rastafari elders when they were looking for a name for their band. These are old words with much deeper meanings than anything in English.
NY: Kris and Jason Borys collaborate on gentle, soothing electronic soundscapes for the documentary series “Voices on the Rise,” which follows Eli Hirtle, a nêhiyaw man based in Victoria, B.C., on his journey home to reconnect with his culture and language. It is a beautiful and highly-relevant miniseries that puts in very clear terms the deep crisis that can result from the separation from one’s heritage, language, ancestral words and knowledge of and upon the earth itself. Kris elaborated on this story of revival and reciprocity, and his role in this kind of work.
KH: It’s been a cool process to get these conversations building with other creative people, like in “Voices on the Rise.” Eli’s been in Victoria for quite some time, where we met. I didn’t know there would be this story about Alberta and language revitalization, but he came to me right away and asked if I’d be interested in doing the music. Jason Borys and I were already working on a recording, and I was like “for sure!” It’s really amazing that when you watch “Voices On the Rise,” you’re seeing this nêhiyaw artist and creative, Eli, going back to this community in Alberta, but then on top of it, there’s us from here as well, making the music. It becomes very holistic.
I’ve heard from Reuben Quinn, an elder from here who is featured in the documentary, that our language loses about four words per year, and almost everything else is becoming short-form. You see it happen every year. Our language actually links to the stars, and there are concepts and notions less understood by any other framework that can’t afford to be lost. Reuben offers nêhiyawēwin classes through this place called Center for Race and Culture. There have been people from Australia and from all over the world taking these classes. This is another great way that technology lets a global community kind of peep in on deep, heavy–duty conversations.
NY: I am grateful for the way in which you talk about where you are from: amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory—in contrast to the almost comical “Edmonton, Alberta,” a city named after a London borough and a province after a British princess with no ancestral ties to the land. A prime example of how naming is essentially synonymous with claiming in a colonizer mindset. But such a reductive name falls so incredibly short of articulating anything about the complexity of lived experiences in such places. I guess what I am really interested in is something like “psychogeography,” especially how language shapes our positionality within a wider world of relations, ecosystems, and power structures. We could dissect this forever, I suspect. What are your thoughts?
KH: English absolutely has come to be echoing in this region, so there is always a conscious effort for me to talk about names, like “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” which is the North Saskatchewan River. This is an old, old word, and it would have likely echoed in these valleys for thousands of years. Then after a while those words are never being used anymore. All this work couldn’t help but be about language revitalization, even within our own lives. This is important because there are so many words that don’t have an easy meaning in English, which speaks to how Indigenous languages can be broken apart and were broken apart by colonialism and residential schools, for example.
I want to mention, too, that on the track “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” we timed that track to the river itself. Not every part of the river flows the same. Here, it’s about 90 bpm.
I have often felt scared or hurt or put off in Alberta and the prairies in Canada when I hear them being called “empty prairies.” You often hear the way people talk about them as just that—like they’re sitting there, empty, with nothing there. But you go out there and you feel that wind and you hear the birds and you know that at one time, if you would have stood there, 60 million buffalo would have just churned you into hamburger and you wouldn’t even know what happened. And, of course, there have been people there for such a long time. This is totally about erasure, whether people know it or not. Taking part in these linguistic tropes is actually doing violence. Working against this has always been my intention with the “moccasingaze” stuff, and it has only gotten deeper, not in a little way, but in a way that says, “Let’s not accept this anymore. Let’s put all this aside.”
There needs to be a deeper want within our community as a whole. This would include all people in our community. I feel like this is where we’re at: on one hand, indigenous rights have been taken away and indigenous people have experienced so much erasure and genocide and linguicide, and on the other hand, our very understanding of who Indigenous people are, we have to admit, is colonized. We’re still talking about the same key figures in a story that seemingly lines up, if you accept the European colonial history. But if you question it at all it becomes really strange. For instance, on a status card in Canada, it says “Certified Indian.” You are a “Certified Indian.” There are members of my family who have much more melanin than I do, who have been off reserve for generations. These people are not even allowed to call themselves Indigenous. Obviously, no one questions the fact that they are, but when it comes down to paying for a dental bill? Nothing. This idea of “certified,” this stuff isn’t really there. Neither is the “Nation.”
What we’re being shone a light on is the fact that this is one story: all of these nations and borders. We didn’t create that. Somebody else did. We are not the enemy. This should be about uplifting and always trying to challenge these status quos.
We’re in a cool spot where we can talk about these issues in art and music, even though the reality is that a lot of our world is still something that we could refer to as “garrisons,” or “war camps” in some cases. These names could more accurately sum up the legal jurisdiction these places continue to have over Indigenous people. They can assist in us understanding the deeper consequences of how it is that the oppression of Indigenous people plays into all our lives and how we can break out of it. It’s not easy, but, again, I think we are actually at a beautiful point where we can not only learn these things, but embed them into our work as artists. It’s important to see how we can break out of a colonial mindset especially by supporting other creatives.
NY: All of these projects exude tremendous consideration, generosity, compassion, and respect. The many collaborations Kris is a part of seem inherently meant to be out in the world because they are so rooted in both personal and communal experience that they have such a multifaceted ability to reach the listener/viewer on multiple interpretive and emotional planes at once. There is absolutely a conscious effort toward a frequency-shift discernible in Kris’s work. He elaborates:
KH: A lot of us are just using music for healing. For a lot of people, a lot of my friends—the concepts of addiction and trauma have been really soothed by the ability to have an outlet, one that you can be very addicted to but in a way that is only giving, only about healing and building.
With Nick, I met him in 2018 or 2019 at the Folk on the Rocks music festival in Yellowknife. Ever since, there has been this ongoing conversation about music and focusing our work and energy on supporting communities of anti-abuse. Essentially, looking toward communities who are open and receptive not only to re-determining their colonial history, but also getting down to the basic question of “how can we live with less violence in our lives. Period.”
I also think that all of this stuff is about vibrations, truly, and the intentions of human beings and lifeforms. The fact that we’re putting our intention into any of our language and movements in this world allows us to continue to do this honest work without forcing ourselves into what is actually a colonial concept of understanding language. We do have to get there, but there are no shortcuts, so we have to be pretty patient with ourselves and this world, and how it’s opening and changing and how people are looking at it. Language aside for a moment, the vibrations within bUDi’s record—that stuff is as meaningful as any words, to me. There is so much being said in that work. Really, every recording, with Nick and Jason and nêhiyawak, I’ve just felt so cool with because they have all felt so honest each time.
I’ve always dreamed that, with a band like nêhiyawak, or any kind of group, it would be amazing to have a situation where the band is nêhiyaw and all the management is nêhiyaw—or, let’s just say Indigenous, because there’s something about having all the moving parts working as a team, and I feel that that whole team should not just be people from inside the industry, but the actual community. Let’s just say your managers are a group of six or seven elders, and they really decided which shows were good for you to play. And they get, say, 15% off all the shows? That would be great!
Part of this, too, is breaking out of the individual. The idea of the “individual” has to be crushed to a certain degree because the fact is, the tastes and interests of so many individuals have been so horribly repugnant in the historical record of humanity that to me it doesn’t seem worth it. But more than me, this is about everyone. We all share this thing called consciousness that supposedly some of us are “up on” and some of us are “less on”—whatever, we all share it. Everything we’re doing is what we’re doing together. And I’m glad there are folks like you who call me up and take the time to ask sincere questions. It’s cool as hell!
Cover photo by Levi Manchak
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