Music educators of the future
Who they are
The Inuksuk Drum Dancers, founded and directed by Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis, is a performing arts ensemble from Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit, Nunavut. The group performs traditional Inuit music, which includes throat singing and drum dancing, and contemporary Inuit songs from across Nunavut.
Throat singing—historically, a game that was played by women during the long and cold hours spent in the iglu—involves the creation of sounds deep within the throat that usually emulate the sounds of nature, such as the wind, birds, dog teams, snow crunching, polar bears, wolves, and mosquitoes.
Drum dancing includes drumming, dancing, and singing songs that carry stories of personal experiences, humorous anecdotes, and traditional Inuit morals and values. At times, the group veers away from tradition to create innovative musical renditions that incorporate both traditional and contemporary musical styles.
The Inuksuk Drum Dancers represent Inuit culture from rural Nunavut within the urban context of Iqaluit. The group chooses to present traditional symbols of their Inuit culture with aspirations of making it visible to a wider audience. Through this commitment to presenting Inuit culture in their performances, the members strive to reinforce Inuit traditions and values and advocate the use of Inuktitut.
In Iqaluit, the Inuksuk Drum Dancers have performed in concerts with the Gryphon Trio, the Ensemble Made in Canada, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. At all these concerts, the finale numbers were arranged by Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis so that southern professional musicals could play Inuit music with northern students. They have travelled to share Inuit music and culture in Alaska, Greenland, Ottawa, Toronto, Charlottetown, Grande Prairie, Puvirnituq and more.
In 2015, the Inuksuk Drum Dancers embarked on a collaborative musical and cultural adventure with Nipiit Katittut-Voices United. This ongoing multi-year endeavour has connected Inuit youth with young people in Ottawa who share culture through singing. Two new Inuktitut choral pieces were commissioned for these groups to sing jointly: Inngiqtut, written by Mark Sirett in 2015; and Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma, written by Looee Arreak and Laura Hawley in 2017.
The ensemble has two albums: Inuit Inngiqtingit/Inuit Choral Music I and II, produced by Chris Coleman at Nuvu Music in 2016 and 2018, respectively. These albums can be found free on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/Rc6ZZJFbUFG3oBw48 and https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/u72xwYYt3kVmk5uH9. Their third album will be released in the fall of 2021.
Their music education philosophy
The Inuksuk Drum Dancers’ musical space is a place where artistry intersects with social activism: music education as social justice. In this group, music is used as a portal to Inuit culture, language, and identity. Students gain musical skills on their respective instruments (guitar, Inuit drum, and voice) by working with Inuit musicians and language specialists, receiving group lessons from music instructors and tradition-bearers, and attending classes.
Unlike other music programs in southern Canada, the music of Nunavut is honoured in music curriculum so that students can connect with Elders, the land, Inuktitut, Inuit culture, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit-traditional Indigenous knowledge, and each other. The performance and study of music created by Inuit artists provides the springboard for discussions about current issues important to Inuit. Students learn how music is related to Inuit identity negotiation and how it can be a powerful vehicle for delivering important life messages to a wide audience.
Themes discussed include: (1) Music as political resistance: this includes defying stereotypes, resisting cultural oppression, reinforcing historically and rooted traditions and values, and insisting on simultaneously living in two cultures; (2) Connections to land/place; and (3) Music as social action: this includes healing, telling history from an Indigenous perspective, pride, social empowerment, and relationships with people, animals, the spiritual world, and the environment.
In practical terms, this philosophy plays out by engaging students in social activism through discussion, performance and creation of Inuit music, and participation in the decolonization process. For instance, within the community of Iqaluit, the Inuksuk Drum Dancers participate in real-life events that leave influential marks on the lives of everyone present. Each year, students participate in the Montreal Massacre Vigil on December 6. Music students choose and perform Inuit music that addresses the issue of violence against women and children: bringing recognition to the lives of those who have been hurt, solidarity and help for those who continue to live in abusive relationships or conditions, and awareness and openness for discussions about violence. See video of Inuksuk Drum Dancers’ Arnaup Nallinninga (Special Love of a Woman).
In 2016, members of the Inuksuk Drum Dancers participated in a reconciliation project with the National Arts Centre. Students collaborated and wrote a song in response to the poem “I Lost My Talk” written by Mi’ kmaw scholar, Rita Joe. It is based on the historical and ongoing effects of the residential school system in Canada. Many of the students interviewed their Inuit Elders who attended residential schools. The song, Uqausira Asiujijara (I Lost My Talk) is heartbreakingly beautiful and has touched the lives of those involved. It continues to make an impact on those who hear it and is used as a springboard for discussions with students all over Canada about forced relocation of indigenous peoples, residentials schools, and reconciliation. See video of Uqausira Asiujijara (I Lost My Talk) at: https://youtu.be/hWbXYn2Kgf8.
Since 2008, the group has participated in the annual “Sisters in Spirit” ceremony held in Iqaluit. The “Sisters in Spirit” initiative is a program led by the Native Women’s Association of Canada which honours missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and shows support for their loved ones. Please see the excerpt from the 2020 vigil held in Iqaluit on October 4 at: www.facebook.com/748720647/posts/10164014958020648/?extid=0&d=n.
Music educators of the future
Vision, passion, and forward thinking created the foundation of the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. The ensemble is a place where Inuit music, culture, and language are honoured and promoted; an environment that understands the natural desire of human expression through singing; one that nurtures musical and artistic development of young voices; and where integrity, empathy, and self-confidence forms part of the development of each young person.
Many of the members of the Inuksuk Drum Dancers have gone on to be junior instructors at the Iqaluit Music Society’s annual music camps. Others have helped teachers at Nakasuk, Joamie, and Nanook Schools to teach Inuktitut songs to young children. Several are professional performing artists, and many are employed with Qaggiavuut: Nunavut Performing Arts. Young people want to share their talents, skills, and knowledge—thus, recently, training in how to be a successful music educator was added to the group’s curriculum.
As part of their musical training, each member now participates in a music leadership component that uses Inuit music, culture, and language as its foundation. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit-Traditional Inuit Knowledge is at the core of this component. Music pedagogy suitable for early childhood educators, how to collaborate with Inuit tradition-bearers in the music classroom, and entrepreneurship: music business management are included. The vision is that members of the Inuksuk Drum Dancers become Nunavut’s music educators of the future.
Submitted by Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis, Director of Music, Inuksuk High School, Iqaluit, Nunavut.