Native North America, Vol. 1

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo: Sugluk: Regional treasures such as Arctic rockers Sugluk have been preserved in Native North America Vol. 1, including lyrics in Inuktitut.

• It’s a privilege to recommend music that ticks all the boxes and adds more. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 does just that.

It’s a transcendent, stunning, eye-opening compilation of unheard, undocumented, unavailable Canadiana. From original inhabitants across the upper reaches of the continent, it spans languages and cultures – near extinct – which thankfully have now earned their rightful dignity and a more prominent place in our collective soul and history. It’s also a revolutionary mix of political testifying, pain, native-language incantations, cross-cultural fusion and reservation-life storytelling.

It’s curated by Vancouver DJ Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, who previously produced the much-loved 2006 collection of reggae, Jamaica to Toronto. Howes also worked with Seattle-based, Light in the Attic, the folks who brought us the wonderful Oscar-winning Searching for Sugarman.

Fifteen years in the making, Vol. 1 comprises 34 tracks on three LPs – with 120 pages of brilliant, meticulous, comprehensive and illuminating liner notes, artist interviews, compelling archival photos and lyrics – or two CDs in a 60-page package. It’s a vital, almost-lost legacy and inspiring foundation – beautiful, tragic, impassioned, bold, honest and unflinching.

It’s been reviewed simultaneously in various Vancouver media, music mags, blogs, the Guardian, CBC and Rolling Stone, which raves, “… rings with brilliant garage-rock fuzz, pedal steel-laced heartache, singer-songwriter Earth love, radical politics, wah-wah heroism and the occasional lyrics in Inuktitut.”

Like an adept archaeologist, the insatiably curious and fiercely dedicated Howes unearthed fascinating clues to aboriginal culture in obscure, homegrown, regional vinyl. “I started digging through flea markets, record and thrift stores, driving back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, to remote places, wanting to learn more,” he recalls.

“It was like immersing myself in a degree in aboriginal studies, looking for forgotten small releases, then literature, in archives and libraries. There’s almost nothing on the Internet so I went right to the source, to the artists themselves, producers, family, sometimes making requests through community radio stations in native languages.”

The stories he heard and shares include the likes of Willie Thrasher, robbed of family and heritage by the residential school system, resiliently rediscovered and celebrated in We Got to Take You Higher, members of Sikumiut living on the streets of Montreal and Willy Mitchell, shot in the head by a trigger-happy cop – for which he received a meagre $3,000 settlement – after friends had taken lights from a Christmas tree.

It’s a remarkable cross-section of diversity. From The Chieftones – “Canada’s All Indian Band” – which opened for The Beach Boys a week before Pet Sounds was released, to Sugluk, an Inuit band from just outside the Arctic Circle. It includes Arctic garage rock from northern Quebec, melancholy Yup’ik folk from Alaska and hushed country blues from the Wagmatcook First Nation reserve in Nova Scotia. There are echoes of Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, spread by radio, word of mouth and vinyl to far corners, including First Nations, injected with Native consciousness, storytelling, poetry, history, ceremony and pride.

Re-mastered in Vancouver by Greg Mindorff – 13 tracks were buried in CBC vaults, threatened by Stephen Harper – Howes says the essential compilation scratches the surface. “The music has as much meaning and relevance today, if not more so with land claims, rights and environment issues. It’s timely and just the beginning. We’re sending it out to libraries and cultural centres and now there’s something on Google and YouTube.”

Ask for Native North America (Vol. 1) at independent record stores or order it from A companion set featuring the US and Mexico is currently in production.

The Ballad of Crowfoot

CrowfootWillie Dunn – where to start? He passed on before it was completed, but the spirit of Willie Dunn soars through Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 from the stage-setting I Pity the Country to the dedication, in memoriam.

If the terms “Renaissance Man” and “national treasure” still mean something, they certainly apply to this Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish descendent. A singer/songwriter, filmmaker, poet, playwright and one-time NDP political candidate (1993), Dunn created Canada’s first music video – and one of our best – The Ballad of Crowfoot.

He was awarded a UN medal for service in the Congo during a three-year Army stint, set Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to native drumming and chants and recorded the full-length albums, Willie Dunn, The Pacific, Metallic and Son of the Sun. And he’s reported to have whispered into the Queen’s ear during her 1971 visit to BC, “We are not your children any more.”

His film credits include These Are my People, The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company, The Eagle Project, The Voice of the Land and Self-Government. His music includes the soundtracks for Incident at Restigouche, about a 1981 police raid and Okanada, documenting the 1990 Oka, Quebec, standoff.

The Ballad of Crowfoot belongs in the pantheon of protest ballads, in the company of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier or Neil Young’s Ohio. Dunn was reclaiming a voice for native people, he said, because optimism and hope hadn’t brought change.

Set against his impassioned performance, the NFB film juxtaposes archival photos and footage with newspaper clippings, exposing brutally inhumane, unjust treatment. It earned seven international awards, including a Gold Hugo (best short film, 1969 Chicago International Film Festival). The Ballad of Crowfoot was screened in schools across Canada and Kevin Howes, who credits the experience as an ongoing inspiration, is among those who will never forget it.

Wonder why Canada’s First Nations are Idle No More? Everyone in this country deserves to spend the 10 minutes at

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

Leave a comment