Akwesasne Notes and the late Willie Dunn
Every composer or performer makes a choice as to the style and type of music by which they will be defined. For aboriginal artists it can be a difficult one as they balance culture and commercialism. What sells? And how to reach a market which is widely ignorant of indigenous musical styles and content?
Some do make the deliberate choice to use contemporary technologies to compose songs which seek to put into music their experiences as Native artists and to become politically charged. As we know music is often the best, most powerful means of protest. Listen to Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” or Neil Young’s “Ohio” and one appreciates the inherent power in ballads.
A generation ago there were very few Native musicians who actually managed to express their support for aboriginal struggles while creating a national audience. The mainstream recording companies did not understand this kind of music nor were they willing to give it a voice with the exception of Buffy Ste. Marie and Redbone, both of who managed to have popular success without compromising their political views.
Other performers were placed on the margins, but they did find an outlet with smaller, regional record labels and from there toured endlessly in Native urban centers, on reservations, schools and at national aboriginal conventions. They forged a distinct place for Native music and all indigenous musicians who pick up a guitar or set lyrics to melody are in their debt.
These original artists are rightly in the legendary status: Floyd Westerman, A. Paul Ortega, John Trudell and the extremely talented Willie Dunn.
Willie Dunn died on August 5 in his 71st year, but he made his mark as a musician as the inventor of video music in Canada. Before him no one had thought to set images to song but he did so as a 26 year old working at the National Film Board. His “Ballad of Crowfoot” is not only historical but remains without parallel in its effect as an outstanding act of defiance and a reminder to all Canadians about their government’s “treachery” in their relations with Natives.
Willie worked at the NFB with Akwesasronon such as Mike Mitchell, Glen Lazore and Tom Porter. He came to Akwesasne to film the blocking of the international bridges in December 1968 and recorded the efforts to assert Mohawk jurisdiction over our islands in the short film “These Are My People”.
It was a natural step from there to having Akwesasne Notes, then the most powerful and respected Native news source, agree to produce his stunning “Willie Dunn” album. This collection of songs demonstrated his exceptional songwriting skills as well as his deeply moving vocals. He was able to compose such standards as “Charlie Wenjack”, “Ballad of Crowfoot”, Schooldays”, “I Pity the Country” and the haunting “O Canada”.
Nothing in that album is dated or qualified by time. They all speak to current issues about the survival of Native people as distinct cultural, linguistic and political entities while remaining the conscience (perhaps guilt) of a nation which continues to exist on aboriginal resources while placing the first peoples on the distant margins.
For those who do not remember, Akwesasne was the center of Native politics and protest from the late 1960’s until the 80’s. With Akwesasne Notes as a voice, the Mohawk Nation defined the aboriginal rights movements of that era, taking it from local protests such as the bridge blockade to Alcatraz (the voice of which was our own Richard Oakes) in 1969, the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover that same year and on to Wounded Knee in 1973. Notes was there along with Willie Dunn’s music.
Willie had many friends at Akwesasne; he in turn never forgot how the Mohawks gave him an opportunity to establish himself as Canada’s foremost Native musician.
He passed into the spirit world as a trailblazer and an irritant in the otherwise complacent Canadian attitude towards indigenous peoples. When I served as a volunteer deejay at Radio CKON in the early years I took the late shift, ending our broadcast schedule deep into the night by playing Willie’s “The Pacific”. It was then, and is now, a perfect song.