"Music is a huge part of who we are" - The JUNO Awards

Music has long served as a powerful medium for self-expression, cultural preservation, and storytelling. In the diverse landscape of Canada, Indigenous music holds a significant place, reflecting the rich heritage and ancestral wisdom of the country’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. 

Raven Kanatakta, one-half of the JUNO-winning husband and wife duo Digging Roots, emphasized the importance of music in Indigenous communities, stating, “If you look at cultures around the world, music is such a big part of it. For us, in our home communities, music is a huge part of who we are…Even before modern Powwow, all of our ceremonies had music in them. There’s always food, dance, and there’s music.”  

However, the path to freely express Indigenous cultural identities through music has been marred by a painful history. For many decades, the Canadian Government enforced assimilation policies that aimed to eradicate Indigenous languages and cultural practices including music.

Kanatakta’s family is one of many that endured the devastating impact of these regulations and the residential school system. He recalls a time when his parents were prohibited from playing their drums, an act that stripped them of an essential part of their identity.

“That was taken away from us and it was taken away from us for a very long time,” Kanatakta shared. “There was a time when we were not allowed to speak our language. There was a time when we were taken away from our families. I am the first generation in my family that didn’t have to attend residential schools.”

“If you believe in who you are, where you come from, your language, your identity, your culture it’ll take you to places you’ve never even dreamed of.” 
– Joel Wood

Fortunately, today, there is a growing abundance of traditional and contemporary Indigenous music as Indigenous artists seek to reclaim their heritage, culture, and language. “It was for such a long time that we were actually silenced and it’s through the arts and music that we are beginning to once again express who we are and our world views,” JUNO-nominated artist Cikwes told CARAS.

“Our music is just as beautiful and important as any other music out there. Our music, our traditional music, is the original music of this land that we know as Canada – Turtle Island.” shared Joel Wood, an artist whose JUNO-nominated album Mikwanak Kamôsakinat highlights the beauty and importance of the Plains Cree language.

“Personally, as an Indigenous man, as a First Nations man, as a Nehiyaw, as a Cree man, it’s very important to know who I am,” Woods continued. “Understanding who I am, where I come from, my identity. Language is one of the key components to that.”


Traditional approaches to music also inform the songwriting process of contemporary Indigenous artists such as Digging Roots. “One of the things we take inspiration from is something that we call ‘song lines’ which is about the contours of the land informing the rise and fall of the songs – the melody or the rhythm,” Digging Roots’ ShoShona Kish explained. “This is one of the ways we have been making songs since time immemorial.”

Looking to the future, Kanatakta expressed his excitement for younger generations who can now experience Indigenous music firsthand in their communities and beyond, “I firmly believe that the more that Indigenous music rises to the forefront of the media, the richer this land base will become. There is a huge amount of diversity as well, culturally between nations all across Turtle Island and there is nothing but positive things that can come from that.”

Celebrating Indigenous music in Canada is not just a means of acknowledging the unique artistic contributions of these communities; it is an act of embracing cultural diversity, fostering reconciliation, and cultivating a deeper understanding of the nation’s history while uplifting Indigenous communities everywhere. 

Featured image: Joel Wood and Tonia Jo Hall perform at the JUNO Honouring Ceremony, March 11, 2023 at the Amiskwaciy Theatre in Edmonton. Photo by: CARAS/iPhoto