Miziwe… What musical world are we entering? How will we respond to its haunting strangeness?
Tomorrow our Pax Christi choir has an extra rehearsal – one of a number of extra rehearsals. The oratorio “Miziwe” is one of the most challenging pieces of music I have sung. We will perform it March 31 at Koerner Hall – the world premier performance of this brand-new oratorio by Barbara Croall, an Odawa First Nations musician from Manitoulin Island. Part of the difficulty of the piece for us singers is that it is in the Odawa language. Even more challenging is the musical style. It is beyond anything I have ever sung before. It tone-paints the sounds of nature. Its rhythms are incredibly complex.
And yet I am totally intrigued by it. For one thing, it reflects the language, spirituality and place of our son-in-law who, together with our daughter and three grandchildren, lives on Sagamok First Nations land in Northern Ontario – an Ojibwe nation. We have visited there a number of times, always enthralled by its beauty and its hospitality. There we have heard the sounds of the natural world this oratorio captures. There we come face to face with our long Canadian history of colonialism and white supremacy.
My wife and I are part of a long and troubled history. We were, unwittingly, part of the now infamous “sixties scoop” (a government sponsored, church encouraged, program to adopt indigenous children into white families with an underneath motive of “taking the Indian out of the Indian”). We adopted an indigenous daughter from the Siksika Blackfoot nation in Alberta. (She and her husband bring together two indigenous worlds – Blackfoot and Ojibway). We were very naïve. Why wouldn’t our daughter just grow up accepting our “white-Mennonite” culture and spirituality and way of life like our sons would. We now know it just isn’t that simple.
Maybe the complexity of the oratorio for me mirrors the complexity of that relationship between settlers and indigenous folk. We are learning, sometimes painfully, to engage each other in new ways - in ways which respect and honour identity formation that is not our own. We cherish our First Nations family. We have been so warmly welcomed onto First Nations land and into First Nations spirituality – powwows, sweat lodges, ceremonies and sacred dances. And to pick blueberries there. But these relationships are very complex, and we stumble along the way. And sometimes cry together.
Miziwe… (Everywhere) – I enter a new musical world, and a new cultural and spiritual perspective. It challenges me. I feel privileged and honored to have this opportunity to enter them. So, come to Koerner Hall March 31 to enter this amazing First Nations world yourself.