Festival highlights Aboriginal culture, achievements

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MONTREAL, QUEBEC ? The importance of native cultural festivals cannot be understated. Such gatherings keep traditional ways alive and educate everyone in native culture, outlook and beliefs. The wisdom and perspective inherent in Indian culture, in cooking and crafts, in music and dance, and in more modern media like film are on display for all peoples, Native and non-Native to see and enjoy.

The First Peoples' Festival is organized by Land InSights, a Montreal-based society founded in 1990 and dedicated to the protection and promotion of aboriginal culture in North, Central and South America. This year's festival, the group's twelfth, took place between June 10 and June 21 in Montreal and presented an outstanding display of creativity and talent, reminding us of the resilience, perseverance and ability of native people. The First Peoples' Festival featured a wide variety of Native artists and artistry in music, film, storytelling, dance and the visual arts.

While a cold, steady rain forced cancellation of several outdoor activities, including a parade of dancers and cooking and craft displays, the festival still offered a slew of musical, artistic and cinematic experiences for the visitor.

Indian Country Today's visit to the Festival is chronicled on this page. For further information on the festival and its organizers, log onto the Land InSights web site at http://www.NativeLynx.qc.ca.

Native music in the big city

The First People's Festival showcased a plethora of native musical talent performing in a pair of live shows.

"Indian Country," was held outdoors on June 14 amidst the tipis and lean-tos at Emilie-Gamelin Parc. An enthusiastic crowd of several hundred enjoyed this highly charged performance featuring great stage presence, songwriting and musical virtuosity.

A bevy of headliners, singing in English, French and various native tongues, took turns performing in front of the evening's "house band" Country Connection, a tight five-piece outfit featuring drums, 5-string bass, keyboards, electric fiddle and a guitarist doubling on the pedal-steel.

First up were Vern Cheechoo and his wife Karen Pine-Cheechoo. A Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario who now resides in Saskatchewan, Cheechoo has been playing guitar and writing songs for as long as he can remember.

"I have a picture of myself as a child in which I'm sitting in a chair and my feet can't reach the ground," said Cheechoo after the show. "I'm struggling to get my right arm around the guitar so I can play it."

He has performed at Native festivals across Canada for years. His 1999 release, "Touch the Earth and Sky," won an award for the best-produced aboriginal recording that year and was nominated for a Juno, Canada's equivalent of the Grammy.

Cheechoo played acoustic guitar, while his wife sported a traditional hand-held drum. Their beautiful vocal harmonies soared over the crowd and blended easily with the solid backing band. Most in the audience probably did not realize this was the first time that the Cheechoos performed with Country Connection.

"We only rehearsed once for about 45 minutes," Cheechoo said. "But it came out pretty well. We had a lot of fun on stage."

Other featured performers included Claude McKenzie, ?mile Gr?goire and Bourbon Gauthier, each of whom brought his own distinctive songwriting and singing style to the stage. Guitarist Jeff Smallwood lent his talents to all of the performers, providing a biting yet melodic set of electric and acoustic leads to complement Country Connection's fiddle and pedal-steel.

Gr?goire's storytelling and joking, Gauthier's upbeat almost rockabilly sound, McKenzie's Innu-language lyrics, Smallwood's Clapton-esque guitar playing, the Cheechoos' vocal virtuosity and the solid foundation of the backing band added up to an outstanding evening of music.

A second show the next night featured more musicians with comparable chops. The "Rez White and Blues" show at the Montreal Spectrum featured not only the blues, but also several other contemporary and eclectic native musicians to the delight of the packed house.

Guitarist George Leach, a member of the Sta'atl'imx Nation in Lillooet, British Columbia, opened the show with an energetic four-song set. Playing with a bare-bones rhythm section of bass and drums, Leach used a slide and a pair of Gibson electric guitars, to produce a wide range of sounds and styles. Sounding at various times like Jimmy Vaughn, Muddy Waters and Lenny Kravitz, Leach and his band were aggressive; not "in your face," but not shy either. At the 2000 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, Leach took home prizes for "Best Male Artist of the Year" and "Best Rock Album."

Evie Mark and Agnes Sivuaraapik came as close as anyone could to stealing this show. The duo, from Nunavik in Northern Canada, performed a style of music called "throat-singing." Mark said later that this style, in which the two singers face each other while singing, evolved from a traditional game in which her nation's women would try to make each other laugh. Singing sometimes in unison and sometimes in an alternating rhythm, the pair produced music the likes of which is not often heard. A droning, gutteral hum formed the foundation upon which other sounds ? grunts, breathy words and scraps of melody ? combined to create an almost indescribable sound that left the audience awed.

The final performer, Joanne Shenandoah, capped the evening in style. With her sister and daughter providing supporting voices, drum and rattle, Shenandoah, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation of New York, clearly displayed the singing and songwriting skills that have won her such acclaim. The Shenandoahs sang exquisite three-part harmonies, in English, Oneida and Ashinabe that only family could produce. In Joanne's words, they "dance counterclockwise, the direction the earth moves, not against it."

Other performers included folk singer Richard Desjardins, Innu vocalist Kathia Rock, and cellist Jorane.

For the finale, the entire lineup joined the Shenandoahs onstage for Joanne's "The Eagle Cries." Leach lent some tasty acoustic slide licks, while Mark and Sivuaraapik's rhythmic sounds kept pace. The audience, which got its encore after some enthusiastic applause, left the building very impressed and highly satisfied.

Art to open people's eyes

"Art is a non-threatening way to get people to open their eyes and get them to look at what's going on," says Mohawk painter Katsi'tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The diminutive, soft-spoken artist noted that her people are tenacious, with language and culture surviving after almost 500 years of contact. Several of Gabriel's paintings were on exhibit at the Arts N.D.G. gallery in Montreal in conjunction with the First People's Festival.

Gabriel is a Mohawk of that tribe's Turtle Clan who experienced firsthand the 1990 siege at Oka, Quebec. Images of that crisis, during which protests over plans to build a golf course and parking lots on sacred land culminated in violence and a several-week-long siege of the reserve by Canadian police, appear starkly in her work.

Cinema awards

The festival's film jury awarded prizes in two cinema categories, Communities and Creation. The Communities category seeks to give "the resistance of small communities threatened with disappearance" a means to tell their stories. These awards were presented by the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation whose namesake, an outspoken leader of Guatemala's Quich? Maya people, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. The Teueikan prizes are named for a sacred Algonquin drum that serves a means to communicate with the spirit world; they were awarded in the Creation category.

Communities category:

First Prize: "Shomotsi" 42 min. (Brazil - 2001) directed by Vincent Carelli and Valdete Pinhanta Ashenika.

Second Prize: "Rocks With Wings," 113 min. (US - 2001) Directed by Ricky Derby.

Third Prize: "Boomtown" 75 min. (US ? 2001) Directed by Brian Gunnar Cole.

Creation Category:

First Prize: "The Doe Boy" 83 min. (US - 2000) Directed by Randy Redroad.

Second Prize: "Yada Yada" 8 min. (US - 2001) Directed by Bennie Klain.