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Jeremy Dutcher on Amsterdam Roots: 'I think we can expect something very beautiful in the generations to come, as long as we keep singing our songs.'

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He is, in his normal clothes, a cheerful, spontaneous guy who meets me in the hotel lobby where we have arranged to meet. Jeremy Dutcher the Canadian singer who is one of the main guests at this year's Amsterdam Roots festival, hardly shows any traces of the jet lag he must no doubt have suffered from his flight, having arrived a few hours earlier. He is energetic and focused.

This is the translation and transcription of the interview which can be listened to here:

Once in the restaurant of the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, he enjoys the view of Amsterdam, like everyone else really. I decide to surprise him with a greeting in his own language. Because Jeremy Dutcher may be Canadian with a surname derived from Deutscher, but his mother is of indigenous origin. Dutcher is half Wolastoqiyik and he has dedicated his career to reviving that language. So, there I go:

Dan Kahk ula Kil, Jeremy!

'Dan Kahk ula Kil! I am doing very well. Actually this translates to: 'I am one with my spirit'. Okay, so that's how we say, 'How are you'. This is how we will often respond: 'I am one with myself'. So I would also say this: 'I am very happy to be here, the sun is shining here on the Amsterdam pier, I am looking at the beautiful water and talking to you. I enjoy being here.'

Jeremy Dutcher, we just had our first exchange in a language that some say is almost extinct.

Yes. We call our language seriously endangered. There are less than 100 good speakers left. Many people in Canada, in the media at least, talk about a dying language, but I don't talk about it that way. It's counterproductive. Just in the last 20 years, we've had a huge explosion of resources, books and records, music. We are now building our first school. So we are doing a lot of work to ensure that our language is passed on to the next generation. My work and my music are definitely part of that.

So let's talk about you. You didn't start out as a native speaker.

I always heard it growing up. My mother and my grandmother my aunts on that side of the family, all speak the language, so it was always there at home, but because me and my father didn't, he was English-speaking, it didn't get beyond 'Thank you', 'please go get that', 'please do this'. It was only six or seven years ago that I decided it was important for me to know this tangent better. Since then, I have always worked to reverse that tide of language loss, because it didn't come out of nowhere.

It happened within one generation. 

When my mother was young, everyone spoke the language. Within one generation, that has flipped 180 degrees. It's not just weird. It's deliberate. It's very deliberate. Children were taken out of local schools and put into Christian schools. The punishment for speaking your own language in those schools was not a bad grade or suspension. You got corporal punishment.

We but think Canada is an enlightened country.

And in some ways we are. I think if you compare us to our neighbours, we get a lot of good press. But is that how we want to measure our goodness, by how badly our neighbours are doing? Or do we want to achieve more? And I think that's why I like to tell Canada's true story. Many people, especially in the international community, have a very chastened view of our history. Even in Canada, many Canadians are only just coming to that understanding.

I took a personal journey to take back that language. With my mother, I can now speak and we text in our own language. We now have a written language. We didn't have one. We used to use these icons. I just show all the tattoos on my body that are of the old writing system. This is how we would tell our stories.

So that thing on your arm?

This means 'the woman of the eastern door' or 'the dawn woman'. I took this tattoo for a few reasons, the least of which is that our community is matriarchal. We have a lot of respect for our women. People often forget that. Especially English-speaking people in the western world are alienated from that. The last thousand years of patriarchal history has changed things, so this is my reminder that we have always been different.

We do have a chief in the community and many outsiders think it is the top. But there is a whole other level of government up there. They are called the clan mothers. They decide. The chief only listens. His only job is to carry out what the clan mothers want.


I think there needs to be a change now and we are doing that in our own communities, that is, moving from the colonial style of patriarchal governments back to our old traditional way of doing things, where it was always about the women leading the way. This is just a small example of how different things are.

We have writing now. My generation is the first generation we have written language. We have come a long way to preserve and protect that language. That has been a big part of my journey as an artist and musician.

Let's go back to the beginning. You grew up in this community. Was it a big city?

Many of our indigenous communities live in what we call reserves. I grew up in between. I lived in the city. In New Brunswick. That's the eastern part of what it's called Canada today. I grew up in both the reserve and the city. I was always going back and forth, which provided an interesting perspective. You get to see both. Not many people have that.

Why did you go back and forth?

Because of my mother. That's where she came from. Even though my parents wanted to take us to school in the city because there are opportunities. There's music there, there's sports and theatre. All the extracurricular things didn't exist on the reservation. My mother wanted us to get an education in the city, but every summer we went back because it was very important to her that we understood where we came from and who we are as indigenous people.

How did you become a classical singer?

That was a journey. I didn't start out as a classical singer. I knew nothing about classical music until I was in high school. I was interested in theatre. I am the youngest of four brothers. The brother just above me auditioned for the high school musical and he got a big part in the musical. I saw him on stage and I thought, 'That would be fun. I want to try that'.

Classic disgust

The following year, I also auditioned and was accepted. I got bigger and bigger roles and also gained confidence in my own voice. I took singing lessons. I asked my teacher how I could take that to the next level. She said, 'classical. Have you thought about classical music?' I didn't know anything about it. So I started studying and she brought lots of books and music for me. Then I went to university to continue studying for opera singer. There I came across many things I really liked and many things I found disgusting.

Like what?

The way classical music puts walls around itself and puts itself above everyone else. 'Put on your tie'. The way I wanted to make music and the way I wanted to experience music was precisely as part of the collectivity I knew from my childhood with my traditions as a native. Music was always about coming together and sharing in the musical experience. So when I went to the conservatoire, it was just: you get up, you sing your song, someone is going to tell you something about how you didn't do it quite right and then you feel bad. I didn't want to feel bad about music because for me, music is the most beautiful human expression.

Laundry rolls

So I decided I wanted to go my own way. I wanted to bring my own native persona into the classical sphere. I brought together the things I learnt at school with the melodies I knew from a young age. We all know those songs we used to sing growing up. Then an older member of my community told me about the recordings on wax rolls, field recordings from 100 years ago, collected from my ancestors. None of the people my age and younger knew anything about them. They were lost, because 100 years ago they were stored in a museum thousands of kilometres away. How can people access that? How are we going to maintain that? This whole project, the whole purpose of my work was to bring those archives back to the people.

It's a journey that started about six years ago, when I first went to the museum to do research and then composed music around those melodies. It culminated in the album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which means The Songs of the People of the Shining River. I brought them forward and the reception among my people, from my community has been SO beautiful. They are SO excited. They love to see our culture in the public media and in the public debate.

Damn Italians

The image has always been inauthentic. In those Western films, those were damn Italians! They didn't even get our people to tell those stories. What is happening now in Canada and in America is that the indigenous people, are telling their own stories. People love to hear our music in our language. Now there are even some films. There is a real surge of activity and of new material in the indigenous language. This is really great. People are really excited about this.

I never thought that a modern civilisation managed to wipe out an almost entire civilisation within the time of one generation.

No, they didn't eradicate anything. We are still here and we are getting stronger. We have our own language, we have a dictionary. There are books made in our language and so we are now engaged in a battle.

How does mainstream Canada react to this?

I don't care about that. I don't really worry about how anyone outside my community thinks about this work. There is a phrase in my language that has always guided my work: 'All my people, this is for you'. This was a guiding principle for my project. Everyone out here, everyone in Canada, everyone in the Netherlands, or everyone around the world: I invite them to witness this conversation I am having with my community. But ultimately it's about that conversation. You can come and see it, but I only talk to my people.

The reception has been good.

That attention this project has received was never the goal. I was really focused on what I wanted to do with this music, which was to take it out of the archives and give it back to my people. If I end up succeeding, it will be a success. Just a few days ago, I got a video of young dancers choreographing a dance to my music. That music once lived far away from people, lay on the shelf, and now it works. For me, this is the only measure of success I care about.

As the bird flies

Our words and our language come from the land. So the word for a bird sounds like how a bird flies: cizik. There is movement in that. It is so connected to the land. There should be no separation between the land and the language. They are very closely linked. My album has been well received, but for me it doesn't matter so much. The only purpose was for my people to hear it. I never want to exclude anyone. That's not what my work is about. I invite but also want to be direct about who I want to talk to. That's why I didn't translate this album. It's all in my language and no translation is included. This was the best way to make sure they knew it was for them and no one else.


I hope that is clear. We have to get back to the situation where we are not making music for the market. We don't make music to make money. As soon as you want to appeal to everyone, you lose it. I like to be very direct about my intention, who it is that what I do is for. And that's why that phrase 'O my people, this is for you' was such an important signpost.

What are your inspirations? I recognised a bit from Anoni.

As a singer, I am obsessed with voice. Not like the pop voices you hear on the radio, but a unique voice. That to me is a story. And so people like Anoni, people like Jeff Buckley or Buffy Sainte-Marie, or Nina Simone.

Rufus Wainwright? 

Oh my God Rufus Wainwright. Yes. All those incredible voices. I've never tried to model myself after them, but there is a freedom in their voices. They are voices that are unleashed because there are no limits to how they express themselves. And there is such a range in them: big loud tones, soft and sensitive tones. That's what I want to hear and that's what I want the words to go with.

Five notes

Those pop singers who sing five notes and that's it? It's like: what are you telling me now? This music is kind of empty. I'm never afraid to use the extremes of my voice, even if it doesn't sound nice. I actually don't care, because that's just human. That's human nature. I look for that. Opera taught me how to breathe to sing those notes. It's a very particular form of singing, but I take all the time I need to take what I want from those classical music lessons and I forget the rest. I mean: self-interest, that long history of musical colonisation that has spread around the world. I take the beauty I see, how those melodies are, and discard that which is not good.

Indigenous songs have utilitarian origins. A canoe song is one you sing while rowing in a canoe. 

The songs have a purpose, and it is all connected to an action. So when I sing a canoe song, I sing it when I go down the river. And that is ultimately why it is so important to bring back these songs, because when we bring back the songs, we are bringing back more than that music. We are bringing back a whole lifestyle that is connected to our country of origin. The government and the church and all these people have been trying to take us away from that country for a very long time. And what music does is: it forces us to go back and say we've lived here for a long time. Canada may be 150 years old. That's cute. But we've discovered arrowheads from 13000 years ago in our area. So what is 150 years? Our songs have been echoing in that valley for thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years.

How fast has the language thing changed? 

That is why I am so serious. When we lose a language, we don't just lose words. Language is nothing more than our way of conveying ideas. Those ideas are really important. If we are walking down a street and we see a bunch of trees and you say, look, a tree. So you might see trees. What I see is keqsimusiyik. To me, that is a tree-being. It is not a thing. A tree is not a dead thing that we are going to cut down. It is a spiritual being that we have a relationship with.


As indigenous people, we have always moved through the world in a different way. One that respects every living being and does not put human beings above any other human being. We are all connected. That is why it is so important to ensure that our languages continue to develop. It is the antidote to every problem we have now, with ecological catastrophe just around the corner. We are the people of the earth, the indigenous people who should be leading the way forward, because we have been listening to the land for a very long time. It is the answer to the environmental catastrophe, it is the answer to all these different problems that we see in our society. I think there is an answer in the indigenous way of life. We joke about it now. We downplay it because we are all scared as hell. But then it is too late.

One of the prerequisites for a language to flourish is its ability to adapt. Is your language developing?

Absolutely. Language is always evolving. Language is never fixed in a moment and so I think language is just who we are. It is our way of expressing ourselves. Indigenous people are modern people. No, we don't live in tepees anymore.

But modernity came with English and then you have to speak English and you can make new words for new things. Do you do the same in your own language? 

Sure. But it's cool now, because we make words for something like chips. We never had a word for crisps. Now we say, 'It's the thing that comes out of the earth that you slice very thin'. That's what it means. Or we just say chips. We borrow words and combine them. There are countless words we don't have, so we just borrow what we need and leave the rest.

As with your music. 

Exactly, it's all connected.

Now you are a success.

So what? Success means your performance means a lot of people come and it's my livelihood. You can make a living, it may not have been your goal, but it is a reality.

Something else: I was just in your hotel and I asked an attendant where you would be and I couldn't ask in Dutch because people were all speaking English.

They were not speaking Dutch?


How do you feel as a Dutchman in your own place?


This is how I feel every day. I'm in my own country and I have to speak your language. And it's mostly English. It is the history of colonisation. It's the monoculture taking in all these other cultures. I think you understand that feeling very well.

We can sit and be frustrated about it all day, but we can now talk about our emotions in the same language. 

And yet there is still something we will never know about each other. Something unspeakable between Dutch and English. There are things we can never say to each other. And that is why it is important to keep and keep these traditions alive, because our languages are that representation of who we are.

So what will you do next?

I didn't use all the wax rolls from the museum on this record. I picked about 11 songs and made my interpretation of them. There are still more than a hundred left. So I could make three more albums based on the archive. But I'm not going to do that. I think it would be very easy to get pigeonholed as 'the archive creator'. My future work? I will keep telling the stories, because there have been so few indigenous people who have entered this big scary world and talked about our culture, our language, our land.


We are the first generation to have a written language. I work on books to create source material in my language. Things outside of music. But I'm also working on a second album. Part of it is in English. I'm writing in English and telling stories to a wider audience. But also some more material in my language. There are so many stories that haven't been thought about yet. Many of the stories we think of as indigenous come from outside. The German example is so classic.

Karl May?

Yeah, I don't actually dare go to Germany. There are a lot of people there, they call them hobbyists and they are German people, but on weekends they dress like Indians and do pow-wows. I really want to stop that and say to them: you don't know who we are. Because Karl May never even went to North America. It was all made up and this becomes the dominant idea of who we are. No, that's not right.


My next project is about telling authentic stories about who we are and if that means in our language then that's what it's going to be. Like opera, people don't understand the language, yet they get moved. They are told a story and they don't read the subtitles. Maybe they catch a word here and there so they can understand the context, but there is something in music that transcends language. It transcends language because music can move people without them understanding it. And this is something I have noticed all over the world. I sing the same songs and yet people in every language come up to me and say, 'thank you'. It moved me. As long as I know the intention that I give to the music and market it, it will connect with people.

I don't worry about accessibility and make sure I sing in English so I can be understood. If I want to sing in English, I will sing in English. And there is a very good reason for that. But only then will I do it. With this last record, some people said: 'Well, do you think you should do some in English? If I am called to do it, I will do it. I'm not making anything out of this to put on the radio or to create success.

Maybe it's contagious. Are more people becoming self-aware now?

My work is part of a movement where indigenous people are taking back what was taken from us: our languages and our songs and our connection to the land. The history of the colonisation of North America is a short one. I can sit here and I can speak English with you and I can also write well. But I think we realise that the more we adopt this kind of Western European way of thinking, the more we give something up.

There are a lot of young people now saying that we don't want to lose our language in our songs. That's who we are, and that's what we've always been. There are a lot of people now making music again in their language that I really like. And then we'll see where it goes. There are more than 250 peoples in what we call Canada. What we think of as indigenous music is expanding all the time. When I was growing up, I knew one indigenous singer, Buffy St. Mary. She sings mostly in English, but that one representation allowed me to think that maybe I could do it too. Now I look at all the other young people doing it in their own way. Like what about the generation they will raise. I think we can expect something very beautiful in the coming generations as we continue to tell our stories and sing our songs.

Jeremy Dutcher plays at the BIMHuis on 10 July. 

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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