Panel 2: Artists’ Conversation

As part of Hokkaidō 150, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC hosted Indigenous Music from Hokkaidō and British Columbia on March 14, 2019, featuring Ainu singers Mayunkiki and Tomoe Yahata from Hokkaidō, and Haida singer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Bill Henderson, Claire Lawrence, Jodi Proznick, Saffron Henderson and Camille Henderson from British Columbia. The performance explored the workshop theme through music and collaboration. None of the research about global Indigeneity would be possible without collaboration with Indigenous peoples themselves, and recognizing the importance of their practices. The performance and conversations by Indigenous musicians acknowledge the importance of presenting their unmediated voices. What follows is an excerpt of conversations among Mayunkiki, Tomoe Yahata and Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson about their practice and collaboration, moderated by Fuyubi Nakamura. Maiko Behr acted as interpreter. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Fuyubi Nakamura: First of all, I would like you to introduce yourself and tell us what you do.

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson: I’m from the Skedans Ravens from Haida Gwaii. I am a singer and I sang my first Haida song publicly in 1978. I am also a lawyer and have represented my Nation in Canadian courts since 1995. I am looking forward to exploring this collaboration, and am so grateful to have the opportunity to sing with these Ainu musicians.

Tomoe Yahata: Irankarapute or “hello” in Ainu. I am a curator, working for the Foundation for Ainu Culture. I will be working as a curator at the National Ainu Museum, opening in April 2020. My responsibilities include researching Ainu cultural objects found across Japan, as well as streamlining the museum collection database. I am also responsible for running programs for those with Ainu heritage below thirty-five years of age to learn Ainu language and culture. I worked as a dancer for five years before I became a curator, which is why I performed with Mayunkiki yesterday. I look forward to this session.

Mayunkiki: I am a member of Marewrew, a female group singing traditional Ainu songs. I usually perform with this group but the other members were not available this time, so I asked Tomoe to come and sing with me. Mayunkiki is my Ainu name. My Japanese name is Mai. Apart from my musical activity, I also work as an instructor of the Ainu language. I train the younger generation how to teach the Ainu language. Last year, I also started researching traditional Ainu tattoos. I look forward to your comments and questions later.

FN: Can you please discuss the usage of the term “Indigenous music, art or culture” and how you think it affects your artistic and musical practice and its reception?

TWD: “Indigenous” is a new term in Canada, and it’s not a term that I have identified with, except for in relation to the practice of law. I identify myself as a Haida musician, and music is an important part of our culture. I find often that using broad terms like Indigenous can be dangerous in making assumptions that we are all the same. Even though we have commonalities, we also have differences among Indigenous Peoples here in British Columbia and across Canada. As this term has become more popular, it also has necessitated reflection of the growing recognition of the history of Indigenous Peoples here in Canada. I recognized this morning in the workshop many commonalities between what our parents and grandparents went through with hidden identities, not recognizing that they were Indigenous. It seems like a long time ago now even though it has been very recent. And, I’ve also noticed the change in music to reflect a change in our recognition as Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

I learned songs in a very traditional format and have sung these songs publicly for twenty-eight years. I realize that globalization has impacted young people and wanted to reach them in ways that would be relevant to them today. I wanted to fulfill the responsibility to keep the songs alive and worked on a project to digitally restore over a hundred recordings that could be a resource for young people. Once that responsibility was met, I wanted to find a format for the music—still very traditional, but in a contemporary format—to reach young people and also a broader audience, so that others who are not Haida, could have an insight into Haida art and culture. I think that that project would have been impossible without also a growing recognition of the importance of Indigenous culture in Canada.

I’ve also been greatly influenced by the art practice of my husband, Robert Davidson. He has taken very traditional Haida art, and interpreted it in new mediums, at a very high level of extraction. His motivation to do his art is to affirm that our culture is not static and always growing and is relevant to people today. I’ve also been motivated by my own observation that Canadian courts are always wanting to freeze our identity and freeze our practices, so that if we’re not doing exactly as it was at contact with Europeans, then it may not be rights that would be legally protected today. Ultimately, I really want to ensure that the songs are also continuing to evolve and keeping continuity with past practices.

M: I feel the word “Indigenous” is such a nuisance as far as art or music is concerned. I’ve been practicing music for eleven years. At first, people would say “it’s good because it’s Ainu”. But now over the years, my music has come to be appreciated in the music scene completely unrelated to it being Ainu music. I am happier for it to be recognized that way, so I’d say that the category of Indigenous is a nuisance! Having said that, it’s not that I am uncomfortable being Ainu or with things getting categorized as Ainu, but I have issues with the tendency that people appreciate our traditional crafts and cultures simply because they are Ainu. It’s not that Ainu things themselves are bad. My group’s style is to embrace and perform classical and traditional songs just as they are, without making any changes or our own arrangements. We do that because we are aware that we cannot go beyond their standard.

When I listen to old recordings, they are so cool that they send me into a kind of trance. As I listen, my head spins as if I were high on drugs. Well, drugs are illegal in Japan and mind you I’ve never tried any! But those old music pieces are so powerful and make me feel as if I had a “trip”. At home surrounded by deep snow and nature in Hokkaidō, we have a lot of time to kill and nothing to do! So, people get together and sing night after night, and it has a trippy effect. I feel it’s just natural that happened. I want people to feel the same through music when we sing, so we consciously keep the traditional songs are they are without modifying them.

I practice Ainu music because I just love Ainu music. Just like a teenage boy who starts a band after hearing rock music, I thought Ainu music is so cool. But when it’s categorized as Ainu music by other people, I feel uncomfortable. But there isn’t much we can do about it, because after all it is Ainu music. Just like we listen to Japanese music as Japanese music. As discussed earlier, there is a danger of categorization. People often have stereotypical ideas about Ainu culture, often relating it just to nature and deities, or seeing it as solemn or fleeting, and we have to get rid of these preconceived images of us when we sing. For instance, there are far more nuisances to deal with than when doing J-Pop or regular music. I guess I said “nuisance” again. What I mean to say is that they are actually not nuisances but there are many other things we need to get rid of when I work with my music. Our music is prone to elicit certain images. I don’t like to be pigeonholed into a certain category. It’s not just for our music but also for culture and art. When it comes to art in particular, the category of “Ainu” alone somehow can make art better recognized and more valuable in the art market, and it could adversely affect the developments of skills of artists. I would say we need to be careful about such categorization.

I’m losing my train of thought, so I will wrap up. It can be very hard to get rid of those categorized images and stereotypes, whether of art or of music. I still get questions like, “You live in the mountains and fish salmon, don’t you?” Of course not. When I perform with Marewrew, I go on stage barefoot, and I get asked, “Oh, so Ainu people don’t wear shoes?” Of course that’s not true! But we get these sorts of questions all the time. A lot of nonsense, I would say, this business of categorization. I understand we need it for certain matters but as far as fine art and music are concerned, I don’t think we need it. For research and study, we probably need to categorize things, but when we work in art, I don’t think we need to categorize what we do. Many things have influenced me, including Ainu culture. But just like you, I grew up watching TV and listening to radio, and I have been influenced by myriad things. It’s not that I only listen to Ainu music or live with Ainu culture, and for the past thirty-six/thirty-seven years since I was born, I haven’t led my life just as an Ainu person, so I get offended when people tell me “Because you’re Ainu”. Well, I feel annoyed, rather than offended, to be more precise. Some people say “Mayunkiki, you’re Ainu and that’s why you say such a thing,” but I would say they are just not very smart and ignore them.

TY: My story won’t be as amusing as Mayunkiki’s… As I am involved with establishing the National Ainu Museum, I often work with the category of Indigenous culture, art and music. One issue facing Japanese museums, as educational institutions, is that they are expected to be politically and religiously neutral. But whenever we work with culture, there are many times when we must consider the religious perspectives and values embraced by particular ethnic groups. And as a national museum, there are certain restrictions as to how much we can incorporate those perspectives and values. This is the background for the emergence of those stereotypes that Mayunkiki pointed out earlier.

As we work on establishing our new museum as a place where visitors can rethink Indigenous culture and rediscover Indigenous values, we must take into consideration religious and ethical perspectives if we want to create a space or contribute to a society where Ainu feel they are proud of being Ainu. Personally, I don’t really understand music or art, and from now our local culture will be my main research area. But as someone who’s involved with the training program at the museum, I would like to work from within museums and academic institutions cultivating Ainu identity and do I what I can to help create a new sense of values for Ainu people, even if I might not be able to contribute much to the artistic side of things, like Mayunkiki.

FN: The next question is kind of related to the first question, but can you please discuss the multiple identities related to your work and self-representation?

TLWD: I’m just finishing a master’s degree in law, and until I started that study, I didn’t think of identity in that affirmative way. I see myself primarily as a Haida person which comes from my deep connections with my great grandmother. When I was a very young girl she called me “the one who really loves me.” After she died, I started—very much like Mayunkiki—learning all of the songs that she knew. As a young girl, I really committed to keeping our culture going and to keeping the cultural fires alive. I realized how important it was to keep our cultural alive, having seen how my father was affected by attending residential schools in the lower mainland here.

That background, Haida culture, drove what I did as a teenager. Later I realized that because our culture is intimately tied to the health of the land and sea, that I had to do something more, and that is what led me to go to law school to protect the land and sea. I realized that if the land and sea are impacted, we won’t have our rich culture, we won’t have the songs that reflect the Supernatural Beings present in our territories. Many people mentioned in the workshop this morning the term “animism”. That concept provides a linkage between us and the Ainu peoples. The word “Haida” is an Anglicization of the word in the Haida language that means “people.” We see everything as being people: such as the herring people and the salmon people. We see ourselves as one and the same. I don’t particularly like the term “animism,” but I like this idea that we are all part of, and related to, the land and sea.

In 1996 we brought a case to protect the old growth forests of Haida Gwaii. We brought it to the Supreme Court of Canada and successfully challenged Weyerhaeuser’s logging and the liquidation of the old-growth forests of Haida Gwaii. In 2002 we filed an Aboriginal title lawsuit and I’ve been working on that lawsuit since then. Through that litigation we started commissioning expert opinions in every subject area: art, archaeology, anthropology and history. We developed a multi-dimensional way of seeing the world: our entitlement to Haida Gwaii, and how we protect Aboriginal rights. Lately, legal scholars have recognized that there isn’t just Aboriginal law (Canadian law about Indigenous Peoples), but there are Indigenous laws, as it’s come to be called, or in our case, Haida laws. These laws have a place in Canadian courts. All of this has influenced my desire to tell a story about the “peoples” of the land and sea—the herring people and the people of the oceans—so that we can articulate a different way for the court to see the world.

I became obsessed with trying to find different mediums to convey that story and then wrote the book about Supernatural Beings and depicted them as performance art, the same way that people depict these beings at potlatch, putting on certain regalia and face paintings so that the children would be able to recognize Supernatural Beings as our grandparents did. Like my husband, I’ve reached a point in my life where I worry about what we’re leaving to the next generations, how they will see the world, and emphasizing the importance of seeing the world from a Haida perspective, and changing the way the Western world sees the land and sea.

The final thing I’ll say is that of course in Canada, we have dealt with terra nullius. In my legal work I see that the Canadian state really tried to implement terra nullius in every aspect of our lives. Not just the taking of the land, but also the taking of the art to institutions around the world, the taking children to residential schools, and trying to take our identities. All of this really affirmed for me the need to say that “I define my Identity”, and I can define it through whatever means is available today. I really see the importance of returning back to our traditions, and ensuring that our traditions are alive and growing. And I would like us to really hold up Mayunkiki and Tomoe for continuing the traditions of the Ainu peoples.

M: In Japan, as Tomoe also briefly mentioned, people don’t appreciate being different so much. But, whenever Ainu do something, people expect us to be different. Japanese expect Ainu to be different because we belong to an ethnic group different from their own. I myself also identify as Japanese, so my sense of identity collapses. I just live and work normally, and my work happens to involve teaching the Ainu language, singing Ainu songs, and researching the Ainu tattoo tradition. I am just doing things I like doing as my work, but I am somehow often expected to do something interesting, and have a different life style or way of thinking. I enjoy the same things that everybody else does, so I always wonder why I am expected to be different. Since people always expect me to be different, I have developed a rather unique personality. And while I am happy about that, it is a personality that has been shaped by other people’s influence. But, Ainu isn’t the only identity I have, and just because I am Ainu, I also struggle with my identity as Ainu. The word “identity” is not easily translated into Japanese, and so I avoid using this word and talking about it!

As Terri-Lynn mentioned, I recognize that there are many important issues such as history and land rights, and we need to speak out about them. At the same time, I don’t want to tell the younger generation, “You have to live as Ainu because you’re Ainu.” Everyone should have a free choice. In my case, I grew up knowing I am Ainu all my life, but identity should be more flexible. As we live in Japan, I don’t know why we have to struggle with our identity as Ainu, and why we even have to think about our identity—of course history is a different story. It would be much better if we could talk about Ainu more comfortably without worrying about identity issues. We are seen as special just because we’re Ainu, but if we can go beyond that and just normalize Ainu, it will become easier for everyone to learn about our history and rights.

TY: I have a mixed heritage as far as my identity is concerned. I have Ainu and Japanese heritage and also Korean heritage. However, when I think of my identity, I identify myself most strongly as Ainu. My work involves working with Ainu culture, individuals, and associations or groups, and I try to contribute to enhancing the understanding of Ainu culture. I am most invested in training the younger generation. I’ve been involved with running the training program for eleven years. When I started this job, I realized that it’s not easy to live as a minority, as someone different, in Japanese society. When I started the training program, those under thirty-five years of age who applied for the program had Ainu heritage but they didn’t know much about Ainu culture or could do anything related to it.

On the contrary, the applicants from two years ago were already actively involved with various activities in their communities, and I feel an increasing number of applicants are now looking for opportunities to develop or nurture their knowledge and skills of the Ainu language, crafts, or rituals further. Even in the last ten years, such a short span of time, I’ve learned that sense of values among the younger generation in Ainu communities is changing, and it’s become easier for them to participate in such a program and learn about their heritage. I particularly make conscious efforts to make opportunities available for the younger generation to gain knowledge and skills to live those with Ainu heritage in society. We invite guest lecturers from various regions or send our Ainu program participants to other communities to learn and facilitate creating networks for people from different regions to connect.

Ultimately, I’d like them to nurture their perspectives as Ainu. It relates to my own heritage and family background. My parents told me I am Ainu when I was a child, but I started identifying myself as Ainu when I was twenty-two during my fourth year at university. I’ve been involved with Ainu activities for a relatively short period of time, as I am now thirty-five. But, when I was in university, I wasn’t interested in getting involved with training the younger generation and I went through difficult times. Because of my experience, I don’t want the younger generation to go through the same kind of experience. I care about these matters when I do my job. I have Ainu heritage, and Mayunkiki has Ainu heritage, and the other Mai, Mai Ishihara from the morning session, also has Ainu heritage. This alone demonstrates the diversity of Ainu, and I’d like you to recognize that we are diverse. For future generations and children, I aim to offer many choices and opportunities.

FN: Do you have any questions for each other?

M: I mentioned that the key for me when I started to study music was hearing that and thinking that it was something I wanted to respond to and practice that myself. Is there any particular occasion or a specific something that inspired you to get into music, Terri-Lynn?

TLWD: I mentioned that my father went to a residential school and he and others came back singing and performing songs from the Big Band era, songs with saxophones and guitars; Frank Sinatra songs. I have always grown up singing. But it was my love of my great-grandmother who only sang and always sang in the Haida language, that fueled my desire to learn Haida songs. And then if I could quickly go on to another comment. As wonderful a translator as you are, Maiko, this is to be a conversation among us. But yet I find that it is stilted compared to last night. We’re trained as singers and musicians to instantly see patterns, in our songs and we’re able to sing and join in. Music is a stronger way to communicate to an audience because we join together in music, and connect with the audience in a much easier way than through spoken words. [To Mayunkiki] I wonder if you feel the same?

M: As I don’t speak much English, it’s difficult for me to communicate with the audience when I perform overseas. I do want to interact and communicate with them, so what I do is that, through a workshop and singing, even when I say a few things in Japanese, say, “Can you sing this?” and almost force them to understand me. I find it wonderful when we are eventually able to communicate and unite with each other, and go beyond national borders and languages.

TLWD: We have to believe that we can talk as long as we sing.

Notes on contributors

Mayunkiki Born in Asahikawa, Hokkaidō, Mayunkiki is a member of Marewrew, a female Ainu quartet singing traditional Ainu songs since 2008. She is also an instructor of the Ainu language.

Tomoe Yahata Born in Shiraoi, Hokkaidō, Tomoe is a curator at the National Ainu Museum (to open in 2020) as well as a singer and dancer, who is committed to introducing Ainu cultures.

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson Born and raised in Haida Gwaii, BC, Terri-Lynn has dedicated herself to the continuation of Haida culture. She is a Haida musician, artist, and lawyer, well known for her work in aboriginal-environmental law and as a recognized keeper of traditions.

Hokkaidō 150 takes place on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people, and is made possible through the generous financial support of the Consulate-General of Japan in Vancouver and the Japan Foundation-Toronto; the Centre for Japanese Research, the Department of History, the Faculty of Arts, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia; and the David Lam Centre for International Communication at Simon Fraser University.