Reclaiming significance

First Nations throat singer Tanya Tagaq will bring her culture to Queen’s

Tanya Tagaq was enamoured with throat singing at a young age.
Tanya Tagaq was enamoured with throat singing at a young age.
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She was singing on her own long before she made a career of it.

Tanya Tagaq was born and raised in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a small town of about 2,500 people.

On Friday evening, she’ll be bringing her culture and heritage to Queen’s as part of the Tone Deaf music festival at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

The sounds of Inuit throat singing became a passion for Tagaq at a young age.

The art, she said in an email to the Journal, embodies her culture.

“I think anyone can throat sing, just as anyone can run,” she said, “but it is practice and diligence that can develop stamina.”

The technique, Tagaq said, involves circular breathing and a guttural, rhythmical sound punctuated with higher notes.

Although two women in a performance typically throat sing together, Tagaq had no partner when she began practicing — she’s self-taught.

“I had nobody to teach me how to sing,” she said. “[I] tried to emulate the sounds on my own because I had no partner.”

The art isn’t just captivating by itself.

The significance of culture to Canada and First Nations peoples is inherent in the music and reflective of a rich culture.

However, Tagaq said one can understand its relevance if one finds the first people of Canada relevant.

“Our culture is not dead. We do not belong in a museum,” she said.

“Canadian culture should herald the First Nations as a rich and inspirational representation of the land we live on.”

Throat singing is one way of doing just that.

1922 marked the year Nanook of the North was released. Considered the first commercially-successful feature-length documentary, Robert J. Flaherty aimed to capture the struggles of Nanook and his Inuk family in the Canadian Arctic.

The controversies surrounding the documentary focus on Flaherty’s portrayal of Nanook as pre-colonial and unnatural, and therefore an inaccurate representation of First Nations history with European colonialism.

Tagaq will be performing a soundtrack to the silent film.

“I am re-claiming it by having a ‘modern’ Inuk provide the soundtrack,” she said. “I stomp all over the Happy Eskimo stereotype by expressing my disdain through sound.”

It’s vital to expand the breadth of First Nations cultural awareness in Canada, Tagaq said, because of the racism still present.

“I know lots of well-meaning Canadians like to think of our country as a multi-cultural and accepting environment,” she said, “but all you have to do is go to the comment section in any news outlet concerning Native issues to see the underlying opinion of your fellow Canadians.”

Education, Tagaq said, will allow Canadians to face issues together and create the true idea of what Canada is.

Part of reclaiming significance is tackling the issue of First Nations students not identifying as such on campuses, which is occurring at Queen’s.

“It’s important to be proud of who you are,” Tagaq said. “Fuck the system.”

Tagaq will be performing on Oct. 18 from 8 to 10 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

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