In Her Own Voice: Three Indigenous Women Preserving Their Heritage Through Music
For many Indigenous musicians, their art is rooted in culture and expression. Being an artist allows people to assert their ideologies and critiques — and that’s especially true for Indigenous women. The music of creatives like Elisapie, Raye Zaragoza, and Jayli Wolf demonstrates a commitment to advocating for other women and for social change while resisting oppressive and discriminatory actions. In both cultural and political contexts, these forms of expression have been used to mobilize and bring awareness to the hardships that women worldwide endure.
The messages of these three artists — made more effective by their emotive and electrifying music — empower and educate their audiences. They continue the legacy of resilient Indigenous women before them as they pass on the legacy to the next generation. MTV News talked to these three artists about their experiences as women, honoring their elders and ancestors, their cultural identities, and how it can inspire real change and unity in society.
Who she is: Singer-songwriter, documentary filmmaker, and activist from Salluit in Quebec, Canada
What makes her feel inspired: “I protect myself a lot, but once I go onstage, another side of me feels strong, almost powerful, almost inspirational. I realized that women were very sensitive to the issues that I was singing about, or even the way I was singing or talking. And people would come to me after shows, and when they saw me again, they would start crying because it evoked something so strong in them. That woman that wants to be free, that woman that wants to take her power and really use it and stop putting her life on the side and really start living and just being herself. I wanna sing to little girls from the North, the little girls, my little cousins. I want them to see someone who feels very free to be who she is and express who she is not.”
How non-Indigenous people can support Indigenous communities: “Some people come to me, and they're literally shaking, and they say, ‘I'm so sorry for what my people have done to your people.’ And I'm like, no, don't feel that way. I don't want people to feel sorry for us. We are strong, we're thriving, and we are not living in our misery, but we definitely need people to acknowledge our deep pain and suffering and the healing that we need to do. It's such an amazing place to be feeling all these things. Usually, I feel it more when I'm performing. People are like, ’Oh shit. She's fearless.’ I think the more you put Indigenous people out there, even if they're not as known, the more they will multiply. We are in an era where we are so pumped with creativity because we finally hear people saying they wanna hear us. So that is oxygen. And I always say it's like we wanna puke all the yucky that we have to face. It's a lot of guts that needs to come out.”
How she honors her elders and ancestors: “I was taught to just be silent and observe and listen whenever there was an elder around. That's just to say how powerful that is and how scary actually it is because you're like, that's your upbringing. And the elders are the center of our community. If there's an event, there's an elder. It's almost like their good luck charm. So when you have this view and this way of seeing art and community and gathering it through elders, I think you feel very humble and very strong, but you have a responsibility to learn the craft of expressing yourself in the right way.. I didn't get to where I am just by being myself. I got to where I am by paying attention to certain fears that were enabling me. Sometimes fears are good, also. They're a good force.”
Who she is: Award-winning singer-songwriter in Los Angeles who creates the music for Netflix’s animated series Spirit Rangers
How she navigates her identity through music: “I didn't feel American growing up because I thought that being American meant you were Shirley Temple. You were a cute white girl. I just felt like, OK, well, that's not me. But I also can't fully identify with any of my cultural or racial backgrounds because I'm cut into fourths. That was one of the things I journaled about most as a kid, and the things that I journaled about most are the things that I write about most now as an adult. If I could boil down the question I've been asked most my whole life, it would be, ‘What are you?’ It almost sounds like people think you're like an extraterrestrial or something. My music has been my way of figuring out how to answer that. I am everything that I am. I'm a little piece of this, a little piece of that. I'm proud to be the daughter of an immigrant. I'm proud to be the daughter of an Indigenous person. And I feel like if the alternative were to just say I'm American and never pay any tribute to my ancestors, that would not be authentic to who I am. That would not be authentic to what I truly believe in. My soul is who I am.”
How her ancestors artistically inspire her: “Being a member of all these different racial groups and being a woman makes it so I can see the world in a really beautiful way because I'm seeing it through the lenses of every single one of my ancestors and every single one of the women who came before me. I honestly feel endless gratitude every single day for the world around me. My ancestors fought so hard for me to be here, and when I'm onstage, I literally will say to myself, ‘My great-grandma would be stoked right now’ [laughs]. That informs my music and my art so much because I'm not the only one writing it. I'm not the only one performing. It's like this army of ancestors and especially my grandmas, my great-grandmas, and all the women who came before me. They are writing these songs with me and they're there with me.”
What she sees as the aim of her music: “Spirit Rangers has been so fun to write for. One song called ‘I'm Still Here’ is sung by a colocolo opossum, and everyone is telling her that she's not a colocolo opossum ’cause colocolo opossums are extinct. She's like, ‘No, I'm still here. I promise. Look, I'm right here.’ I cried when I wrote this song because I felt so, like, if my younger self could hear this song and watch it on a children's TV show, that would be such a game changer. The song just cracked my heart wide open, and I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to write it. I'm most proud of Spirit Rangers because it's directly for the youth, and empowering young people is my number-one goal.”
Who she is: Singer-songwriter, actress, Juno Award nominee, and filmmaker originally from Creston in British Columbia, Canada
How reclaiming her identity manifested in her music: “A lot of Indigenous people are displaced from their biological family. So for me to be able to find them and come back home was really healing for me. Very, very cathartic when I went to write [music] about that. Reclaiming my culture has definitely made me feel like I'm home. For the last four years, I've really worked on reclamation, and part of my identity has been coming through music. I just wrote a song using stories from my grandmother as well as my identity with my dad being a part of the Sixties Scoop. These things come out in music because they've been things that I'm trying to navigate. As we get to know ourselves more, the music is gonna change.”
What an Indigenous perspective offers: “All women in our society feel pressured to look a certain way and to fit into the beauty standards and to follow the fads. I think one of the biggest pressures that weighs on us, and something I've been thinking about a lot, is the anti-aging rhetoric. Like, it's just total bullshit. Society has taught us to think that it's ugly — as if it's a choice, as if it's not a blessing — to be here after [age] 20. I've been thinking about being an Indigenous woman and being a part of this culture that really respects our elders. We look at aging differently. I think of artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, an authentic female Indigenous musician who stands up for what she believes in no matter what. She brings her culture into her sound. She's shining regardless of whether she fits into the industry's boxes. She's getting older, and yet she's still rocking it. I can't speak for all Indigenous women, but no matter how much I reclaim my culture, I'm still walking in this world, too. When you go home, you have to remember the tradition. You gotta come back home to the truth. You have to come back home to yourself and everything that you've learned, and you have to shut out the noise.”
How her music is influenced by the land of her past: “I actually just bought my childhood farm. I always wanted to buy it. I always said I'd buy it. So when it came on the market, I was like, yeah, that has to happen. I've been here for two months and haven't told anyone. I had a lot of trauma on that land, and I thought I would buy it and burn certain things to the ground, but it's been really weird ’cause I'm just falling in love with the Earth. I'm falling in love with all of it and trying to make it beautiful. I've been collecting sounds from different parts of the land, different birds and trees falling, and trying to make that into songs. It's been cool because I had a family member down the other day, and I was like, who planted this? My grandmother planted this beautiful elm tree, and there are plum trees that my great-grandmother planted. I'm eating the fruit that they planted for me, which is really cool. Coming back here, I'm like, wow, I can just sit with nature. Life is so short, and I wanna get into that feminine energy and just let things come to me.”