Stories articles Indigenous Sovereignty

Gathering outside the Seattle City Center Jeremy Dutcher and Nia Tero Fellows

Musician Jeremy Dutcher, Nia Tero Creative Fellows, and Kin Theory members gather together at KEXP at the 2023 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Photo courtesy of Michelle Hurtubise.

October 5, 2023

Indigenous Language is Land, is Sovereignty

Michelle Hurtubise

Kin Theory brings musician Jeremy Dutcher and Nia Tero Fellows together with KEXP at the 2023 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

September 2023, Seattle, WA (Coast Salish Territory) – We were gathered outside the Seattle City Center on a beautiful, sunny day in May having an invigorating discussion with acclaimed Two Spirit musician Jeremy Dutcher (Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, and a classically trained composer and ethnomusicologist), when the crows joined us. Making space for their cawing reverberations, Dutcher paused, then said, “I want to acknowledge that my clan just showed up.” How true. We laughed, then dove back into conversation, speaking over the airplanes and nearby construction, but pausing when necessary for the birds, for our Kin, making space for the many relations creating this thriving Indigenous soundscape.

Highly attuned to sound, Dutcher speaks, sings, and works to revitalize his highly endangered Wolastoquey language. With his mom, Lisa Perley Dutcher, they started Kehkimin, a Wolastoquey Language Immersion School at home with their People of the Beautiful and Bountiful River. This is important, Dutcher explained, because “Native languages are an ecological statement” as they come from the land and are formed by it, and so this language immersion program is by nature also a land-based school. Wolastoquey words sprang easily from Dutcher and sounded at times like the very interactions that the beings had with each other, where the sipsisək birds whisper and whisk through the wəcawson wind near the frisky pəlam salmon – who seem very much to plop into the water and on one’s breath in a lively and plosive way.

When Dutcher sang in Wolastoquey, our bone marrow vibrated. In Dutcher’s first album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, he layered in archival wax recordings of his people, blending Indigenous forms, classical western training, and songs that liberate ancestors’ voices from the archive. Managing Director of Storytelling at Nia Tero, Tracy Rector, described this resonance as “a collaboration of spirit.” Dutcher agreed, saying this creation is a conversation that transports, where “song is time travel with ancestors into the future.”

Our conversation with Dutcher was done in the colonial language of English, but many Indigenous Peoples and languages were coming together, learning how to continue the resurgence of their distinct Indigenous practices. Whatever medium these creatives were working in, there was a kinship and shared struggle because, as Dutcher said, “Indigenous language is land, is sovereignty,” and the stories shared and created were part of many aligned movements and lifeways.

Joining our circle that day were members of Nia Tero’s Kin Theory, which serves to connect Indigenous creatives with each other and the media industry, and two cohorts of 2023 Nia Tero Indigenous Creative fellows. The Storytelling Fellows are seasoned Indigenous creatives working globally in multiple mediums on projects rooted in culture, environment, and story, and the 4th World Media Lab Fellows are emerging and mid-career Indigenous filmmakers who receive training and gain film industry exposure through three film festivals: Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, and Camden International Film Festival. There were also Nia Tero fellowship alumni, mentors, and friends, all coming together right before Dutcher’s live KEXP session with host Gabriel Teodros (which is also streaming in collaboration on our Seedcast podcast). We were the first live audience ever for a KEXP recording, and the walls hummed with the significance of this global network of Indigenous presence on Coast Salish land.

Dutcher was first told to look into Nia Tero by renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma. So, when Kin Theory project lead Jessica Ramirez reached out to Dutcher about coming to Coast Salish territory during SIFF, Dutcher was excited given Yo-Yo Ma's enthusiastic endorsement, but clarified he is not a filmmaker. Ramirez said they wanted to talk about practice, and Dutcher heartily agreed, “we can talk about practice.”

At the gathering, there was a wellspring of inspiration shared, including ways of leading with Indigenous values and intersectional intentionality, such as when 4th World Fellow Adreanna Rodriguez (Lakota/Chicana) said they were “moving at the speed of trust.” Many of the fellows, who are also working with archival materials, on their lands, with elders, with other creatives, and with their Indigenous languages, strongly resonated with the teachings that Jeremy shared with the group. All of these Indigenous storytellers connected with what Dutcher’s newest album, ᒣᑏᐧᐁᓓᓄᐧᐁᒃ Motewolonuwok, sings out:

“Tan qiniw iyuwok wasis kpomawsuwinuwok, 'tankeyutomon-oc kihtahkomikomon.”
As long as there is a child among our people, we will protect the land. - Jeremy Dutcher

In this present moment, the world is in desperate need of these Indigenous land defenders and water protectors, who bring healing to life through their artistic practices. Acknowledging this, Rector gave the 4th World Media Lab its name by following the wisdom of an Elder. Rector recounted their conversation in a recent Seedcast podcast episode, saying that for their Peoples and for many others, there is “a time when the world would be in need of healing, because the environment would be feeling the unbalanced impacts of humankind. And it will be Indigenous stories that bring this necessary healing forward into the world for the health of the planet and all beings. This space and time is called 4th World.”

Dutcher also acknowledged this need for Indigenous healing, saying, “we are not in an environmental crisis – we are in a human crisis,” and in “this moment we find ourselves in – the moment of crisis – the logics that found us here are not the logics that will get us out.” We need Indigenous language and storytellers to find new ways forward. Dutcher also said that “the limits of our language are the limits of our mind,” and to heal, we need Indigenous stories and songs because, “Indigenous People will save the world.”

Dutcher’s latest album, ᒣᑏᐧᐁᓓᓄᐧᐁᒃ Motewolonuwok, is releasing in full on October 6, 2023.

Check out more Indigenous excellence through our Kin Theory Indigenous media makers database, Nia Tero’s Creative Fellowships, the Seedcast podcast, and see Jeremy Dutcher live on tour now.


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