Playing with Yo-Yo Ma, hanging with Joni Mitchell: Is a Juno win next for Jeremy Dutcher?

Jeremy Dutcher describes the last year as a “whirlwind.”

He’s still basking in the success of his first album, WolastoqiyikLintuwakonawa. It won him a Polaris Prize last year, and a Juno nomination for Indigenous Music Album of the Year.

“You know I’m living kind of a dream, like the wildest dream … I’ve gotten to collaborate with some of my favourite artists and people that really inspire me,” Dutcher told Unreserved.

“I played a concert in Montreal with Yo-Yo Ma a couple of months back, and I got to sing at Joni Mitchell’s birthday party — these bizarre little happenings that little old me get to go and be in the presence of greatness.”

But through it all, Dutcher said he’s kept humble by his connections to his community in Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.

“Home is always … a really special place,” he said.

“I’ve been living in Toronto for the past five years … but to be in my territory where I can go and hear my language, and sit with my elders and talk to them and hear their stories … this is what feeds me and it’s why I create [my music].”

Jeremy Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is nominated for a Juno for best Indigenous album of the year. (Matt Barnes)

Dutcher immerses himself in his family’s native language Wolastoqiyik language, which also appears in his music.

For Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher sampled archival recordings of traditional Maliseet songs.

“I think language isn’t just words, it’s relationship, and for me our relationships have been broken,” said Dutcher.

“In my mother’s generation, everyone spoke Wolistoqiyik. This was the language of every day. It was the only language that she knew.”

Dutcher hopes his music can help in the efforts to rebuild the connection between his family and community to the language that was severed by the residential day schools.

“I think in this moment of revitalization and resurgence, what our languages can do is provide a pathway forward for us, and hidden in those languages is how we are to relate to each other,” said Dutcher.

“Language, at least for me, has unlocked a whole new understanding of how to be in relationship with the place around you.”

Dutcher is a member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, and his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has him singing alongside music and vocals made on wax recordings 110 years ago in the now-dying Wolastoq language. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Dutcher’s music is not only a project of language reclamation; it’s also political.

The song Sakomawit uses an archival clip of a song sung when a new Wolastoqiyik chief is brought in. Dutcher said the song was informed by the swearing-in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015.

He said the song is a reminder to the federal government that it plays an important role — much like a chief — and that Indigenous people are watching, making sure Trudeau and the Liberals live up to what they promised.

“This government had a lot of talk for what a renewed relationship with Indigenous people was going to look like, and thus far we have not seen [results],” said Dutcher.

“Reconciliation does not look like buying pipelines, it does not look like taking militarized police forces into the unceded territory of peaceful protesters just trying to protect their lands.”

“This song … is that challenge to our leadership to say that you need to do better for the people and you need to think about all those generations to come.”

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