I can scarcely describe what I felt the first time I heard Tanya Tagaq Gillis sing. The sound begins from deep in the human spirit, with the bass of heartbeat and the pitch of songs sang eons before humankind, leaving reverberations of ancestral DNA. Indeed, the music of Tagaq is timeless, connecting centuries of Indigenous living and thought to this current moment. As she returns for her second visit to the Twin Cities, I had a realization: it’s perfect timing, personally for me and for the movements and causes she embraces.
I can easily reach back in memory to 2007 when I was attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for film and photography. I was exploring similarities in Indigenous cultures in music for my short experimental 16mm film Neinoo (Mother). While researching Tuvan throat singing I came across an article about Tagaq, an Inuk throat singer from the Nunavut community in Canada. She was featured on Icelandic musician Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla, contributed to writing “Ancestors” and performing on “Mouth’s Cradle.” I decided to intertwine “Steppe Kargiraa” and “Khoomei” from the album Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia and Tagaq’s “Breather” and “Sila” from the 2005 album Sinaa on the soundtrack for Neinoo.
I have always admired the growth and longevity of Tagaq’s artistic life and career because she has continuously stayed connected to her Indigenous roots, homeland, and people. What is to be respected the most is her commitment to speaking truth about oftentimes controversial issues that plague First Nations and Native communities in Canada and the US. She has utilized her status, fame, and notoriety to speak about issues not included in mainstream awareness and media.
Receiving the 2014 Polaris Prize for best album for Animism, the equivalent to a Grammy in the US, she used her performance to recognize and honor missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. She concluded her acceptance speech with honesty and strength: “Fuck PETA,” a protest against the group’s campaign against Indigenous peoples’ inherent rights to hunt seal, a traditional food and staple prior to European contact. Due to westward expansion and relocation, Indigenous people suffered loss of land and access to traditional hunting grounds. This prohibited many Indigenous people in the US and Canada from engaging in traditional food practices, such as hunting, gathering and farming. Instead, many Indigenous people were removed from their traditional homes, placed on reservations, and given rations of foods that didn’t contain even a fraction of the nutritional value of food eaten for thousands of years prior to the PETA campaign.
Many Indigenous artists have been engaged in advocacy around inclusion, accurate representations of identity, and visibility in the mainstream art world and in culture at large. It’s ongoing work to rewrite an art history whose inaccuracies go back in history to when picturesque landscape paintings of the romantic west often depicted Native/Indigenous people as noble savages and oversexualized Indian maidens. This continued with the advent of the printing press, which was used to advertise bounties on Dakota people’s scalps in 1863, a topic that found its way into countless Wild West movies the further perpetuated the false narrative of good cowboys versus bad Indians. And we still see it today, in sports mascots and documentaries written and directed by non-indigenous filmmakers that prey on and exploit our trauma and paint us as drunks and victims. In one, Of The North, Dominic Gagnon pieced together clips he found on YouTube, including some that show First Nation Canadians as drunks and impoverished people. Gagnon used Tanya Tagaq’s music without permission and had been submitting the work to film festivals around the world. Tagaq took to social media to enlist help from her fans in bringing to light this copyright infringement and the moral issues surrounding the film. She was ultimately victorious: Gagnon removed her voice from the film.
Around this same time, in late 2015, Tagaq had been touring with her band and performing a live score to Nanook of the North, a controversial 1922 silent film that featured clichéd images of Inuit life. In advance of bringing Nanook and her performance to the Walker, I was asked to step in as a community advisor to her residency. She was to spend a week in the Twin Cities and the Fond Du Lac reservation, connecting with the Native/Indigenous communities and sharing her life and art through school visits and intimate interactive lectures. We also held a welcome event at Two Rivers Gallery and a lunch with artists from the Native community. I value the time I spent learning more about Tagaq, a fellow artist, woman, mother, and ally. Humor and laughter is something that has always been a part of our traditional ways, and this was something that I saw in her. She has a gentle and kind spirit, as well as strength and passion when it comes to the inherent rights of Indigenous People.
She’s applying that passion to an issue that has gained traction here in Minnesota and across the continent: the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (and Children) or MMIW(C). Tagaq was one of the first mainstream Canadian musicians to use her notoriety and accolades (such as her 2014 Polaris award) to stand for the woman in her community and across Indian Country.
It is an honor to reconnect with Tagaq for her second visit to the Twin Cities and performance of her new album Retribution at the Ordway. I feel that this visit will be just as special as the last, but with a few surprises. To honor Tagaq’s advocacy and legacy by continuing her work for our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children, we laid the groundwork with our partner Two Rivers Gallery back in March of 2018 around its presentation of The REDress Project, an awareness-raising project by Métis artist Jamie Black that has sparked a community-driven movement where people interpret and hang red dresses in public spaces.
Prior to the 2018 Super Bowl, volunteers gathered in the art space of the Minneapolis American Indian Center to sew red dresses to be hung around the metro area and make LED signs to raise awareness of human trafficking during the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. On February 2, in below-freezing temperatures, members of the Indigenous community and our allies stood on Chicago Avenue overpass above Interstate 94 during rush hour holding up red and white LED signs that spelled out “MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN.” I stood alongside my sisters and bothers, waving at cars and at times holding multiple signs. It’s an experience I will never forget. We ended our night with an honor song on the bridge and then attending the powerful exhibition, Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island, at All My Relations Gallery.
The REDress campaign carried forward to to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s March on February 14, which began at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and traveled the streets of the primarily native Phillips neighborhood. Hosted by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, this march brought together many community members and others who support those of us who are survivors and those of us who have lost loved ones.
Tanya Tagaq’s show could not have come at a better time in the Twin Cities Native/Indigenous community. We have much to look forward to during her visit and performance, and we invite you to be part of it. On April 18, Two Rivers Gallery will host a community welcoming event for Tagaq that will include food catered by Gatherings Cafe. Tagaq’s performance of Retribution takes place April 20 at the Ordway. She’ll be joined onstage by the Ikidowin Youth Performance Ensemble and Lyz Jaakola with Oshkii Giizhik Singers. This performance will also honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Children). This evening will be like no other the Twin Cities has seen and should not be missed.