The sixth annual Spirit Song Festival will be held in the capital city on November 17, 2018.
“We started doing Spirit Song to provide a venue for people to learn and experience Indigenous culture in a way that most people feel comfortable with, which is the arts,” Chris Sheppard said.
“With Indigenous art performance … it can help people understand the differences and commonalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
Sheppard described the festival as a “bridge-builder” for various communities, and that art was the perfect medium to use when building that bridge.
“The initial sort of development piece was about finding a way to bring together different groups of people,” he said. “Over the years, it’s evolved. It’s grown larger, and we’ve incorporated different sessions and workshops so people can have a more hands-on experience with Indigenous culture and performance and art,” Sheppard explained.
“For us, it’s a huge opportunity to build strong relationships and trust, and increase the comfort level people have when experiencing Indigenous culture,” he said of the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre’s role in the festival.
The festival continues to expand year after year, as more local people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, show an interest in celebrating the culture they may or may not be involved or familiar with.
“The diversity and uniqueness of Indigenous culture and people doesn’t get shown a lot, so when there is that opportunity, people get really excited – both in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. There aren’t a lot of venues where you can come into a safe and comfortable space to learn something that you didn’t know before, and to experience something together.”
In 2017, a series of workshops proved to be quite popular, giving attendees the “opportunity to have a one-on-one experience,” “to ask more questions,” “and to learn,” Sheppard said.
Thanks to last year’s popularity, the SJNFC strived to create a number of workshops to satisfy interested parties, hosting the events at larger venues to accommodate demand.
This year, there will be a throat-singing workshop with Inuit throat singers Jennie Williams and Tama Fost, a singer-songwriter workshop with multi-award winning musical duo Twin Flames, and a Ko’Jua workshop with Michael R. Denny, which explores ancestral dances and instruments like the Ji’kmaqn, a Mi’kmaw chanting stick, as well as the history of Mi’kmaw people.
Free of Charge
The workshops will be held at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, Eastern Edge Art Gallery, and the Cochrane Centre.
At the time of the interview, in mid-October, the workshops were already completely booked a month in advance, proving just how in-demand these workshops are. For those who would rather watch than participate, Spirit Song Festival also has a stage show, which is the festival’s main event.
The 2018 event boasts the talents of Jaaji, an Inuk Mohawk from Nunavik and Chelsey June, an Algonquin Cree Métis, who will be headlining as folk duo Twin Flames from Ontario.
Local All Nations Women’s Drum group Eastern Owl will be teaming up with Shallaway Youth Choir for a special performance, as well as Kilautiup Songuninga (Strength of the Drum) Inuit Drum Group and Michael R. Denny, who will be performing traditional Mi’kmaq songs.
The main stage show, like the workshops, are completely free of charge.
“It’s all about access,” Sheppard said. “As an organization, we try to remove as many barriers as possible. As a non-profit, it’s not easy to do things that have no cost, but we have great support, and great funders,” Sheppard said, noting that the SJNFC also uses some of their own resources to pull it all off.
“It takes a lot of time, energy and support to make these events happen, but I believe the majority of our supporters also support the idea of having events that are accessible, especially in the arts,” Sheppard said.
In discussing the accessibility of the festival, Sheppard and The Herald also discussed the changing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities’ relationships haven’t always been the best,” Sheppard shared.
“I think we can all appreciate that we have a lot of work do with education – what people learn in school, their understanding of the history of Indigenous people in this province, in this city, in this country. I think we’ve taken a lot of time to work on how we can build a relationship with the non-Indigenous community that is strong enough to have some of the more difficult conversations, to have positive conversations, and at the end of a day, have a friendship built on trust,” Sheppard said.
“The main goal is to always build trust and a relationship. Without building that, I truly believe that we won’t get any further ahead in overcoming our past. To me, doing events that are open to everyone is an important first step – for many people – in starting that relationship … This is how we move forward, together.”
Spirit Song Festival 2018 will be held from November 17 in various locations St. John’s. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/SJNativeFriendship.