WABISKE KINEW IKWE
Words: Brittany Curtis / Photos: Joseph Visser
Raven Hart-Bellecourt welcomed us into her home with the warmest and most reassuring of smiles. There were ribbons on her skirt. The room was filled with lamplight and the smell of burning sage. The windows were covered by ivy and the walls were adorned with hand drums.
We sat in her living room, Raven with her drum. Conversation started easily, as oftentimes happens in Winnipeg, with our mutual connections. However, soon she began to tell us about herself. She had a lot to share. And we wanted to hear everything.
Raven is a residential school survivor. As is her mother. And her grandmother. They lost three generations of culture and language. Bearing these losses, her grandmother struggled with alcoholism and mental illness. Her mother fought back and started to learn her culture again. In turn, she taught it to Raven, along with spirituality. Raven’s Anishinaabe father grew up in the United States where the policies were different for indigenous people. He was a human rights defender, helping to found the American Indian Movement. Her family’s resilience, their strength, was instilled in Raven. She is continuing on her mother’s path of relearning her culture and language. Community, ceremony and music are her way of life.
Raven: The first time I sang was in a peyote ceremony in Wisconsin. I was four years old. It was at night. There was a beautiful fire in the middle that everybody was sitting around. Everybody, even the kids ate medicine. It’s kind of a hallucinogenic, but what I remember is how naturally these songs came to me. By the time it came around to my turn to sing, I already knew the song. I was singing with a rattle and it was so natural. I loved it. After that, every time I went to ceremonies, I would learn the songs. Or I’d be attracted to the drum at a pow-wow and stand right next to it. I remember one time when I was really little; some Oneida Longhouse people came to our school and community. They came and brought their rattles and hand-drums, but they also brought a big drum. At that time, it wasn’t right for a woman to sit at a big drum. I went and sat there anyway, and started hitting the big drum. When I had my son 14 years ago, we were part of an all-women’s drum group, which was very controversial. It was empowering. I’d never felt the sense of something so right, yet it was not right in the community. A lot of people thought that was a man’s place to be. I grew to something else, being with those ladies. Sometimes the men would stop singing at the end of the song and let the women sing. The feeling, the acknowledgement was so emotional and beautiful for me. I thought, “This is how I can teach my children about the beauty of who we are.” My mom changed what could have destroyed us into something that has bettered our family. My dad and my mother are really my connection to this drum. When my mother and father gave me the drum, they said, “If you take care of this drum, it’ll take care of you.” I was around 13. The more I started singing, the more places I would go.
Muddy Water: Where are some of the places you’ve visited?
R: I sang in Libya when I was 15. I danced with my jingle dress at the Al-Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights Awards. That was my first connection to Human Rights. I’ve travelled to Germany. I’ve sung all over Canada. I’ve sung all over the United States, but mostly in Minnesota because that’s where my roots are. My Dad is White Earth Anishinaabe Nations. We’re Chippewa Anishinaabe. My mother is Nehiyew from Nelson House in the Cree Nation. I make my home here.
MW: Did you grow up in Winnipeg?
R: I grew up in Winnipeg. My mother and father split up when I was about six and we moved to Winnipeg. I’ve made my home here ever since.
MW: Who did you live with growing up?
R: My mother. She raised me as a single mother in Winnipeg. That was hard, but she picked ceremony life in which you keep your life as pure as possible. You live without drugs and alcohol and you fast and you meditate. Any time you struggle in life, you go out into the bush and you think about what you need. You go without food and water for four days. You can imagine how close you are to the spirit world. I think that’s part of the strength in my singing, my connection to Mother Earth and the community.
MW: When you leave the city for a period of time like that, where do you go?
R: We usually go to ceremonies, all over. Our last ceremony was in Spruce Woods Provincial Park. My son Freedom, who is 14, started Sundances at age 11. All of these drums and what we do in our life, our children are learning it. We’re turning around what happened with my grandmother and mother and myself. We’re relearning our ways and our culture. It feels really good.
MW: When were you in residential school?
R: I went to the last one in Canada. They say in the books that it closed in 1996, but I know I graduated in 1997-98. It was in Saskatchewan, called White Calf Collegiate. I don’t know why I ended up in residential school. We knew it was bad, but my mom wanted me to be able to learn something that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate otherwise. I didn’t realize the suffering that Indigenous people in Canada went through. I was naïve and I took things for granted. After I went, I developed a deeper understanding of people, and indigenous people.
MW: How old were you when you were there?
R: I graduated when I was 19. I was there for three years. I went back to visit my best friend and she suggested going to visit the school. There was nothing there. There was a brick on the ground. They tore it down. I think it was different from when my mother and grandmother were there, because our school was run by the community instead of by the churches. When I experienced it, it was different, but it was still assimilation and segregation. You were still away from your community and your family. You weren’t learning your language or about the drums. But I really love education. Even in residential school, I excelled. I was the top of my class when I graduated. I’m a book nerd. I love learning everything. I ask questions. I want to go to law school and study human rights law and indigenous law. One of the things that help me achieve all of that is singing. It’s like meditation, my own ceremony.
MW: Are the songs you sing written down anywhere or were they passed on to you?
R: They were passed on to me. Also, a lot of the songs I sing are my own. I could be sitting at home at night, all by myself, either feeling really relaxed or really lonely and I’ll hear a melody and sing it. The words come later on. Sometimes they’re in English and sometimes I’ll know that they’re supposed to be in the Anishinaabe language. I have yet to do a Cree song.
MW: Do you write them down?
R: I just know them.
MW: They’re just part of you.
R: They’re just part of me. That’s how our culture is. It’s oral history. I think an elder explained it like this, “Could you imagine if we carried around everything we knew with us like a ton of books on our back? How would we get around? That’s why we kept everything, from our ceremonies, to our prayers, to our songs, we kept them here (points to heart).” He talked about how our history, our culture, our language and our songs are all written in our DNA and passed on. I could be somewhere and hear a song and recognize it. That’s how I pick up songs so easily. Someone in my bloodline sang those songs. I already know them. Song was a gift of somebody in my ancestry and I’m just picking it up again.
MW: Do you find different songs that you hear or learn or find familiar will spark different emotions in you?
R: Yes, I find that when I sing prayer songs, they make me want to cry. That’s when you have to be the most honest. Some people have animal spirit guides. We call them grandmothers and grandfathers. They listen to you more when you cry. They see what you are genuinely feeling and what you really want in your life. When I sing those prayer songs, they make me really emotional.
MW: You’re vulnerable.
R: Yeah. And it’s hard to be vulnerable sometimes, especially in society. The thing is, I could sing a song and be happy and it’ll make people happy. Or I could sing a song on a day that I’m sad and people will start to cry. They might not know what it meant, but they feel what I’m feeling during that song. I (recently) sang at the Rotary Club. One of the ladies - when I started singing - she just sobbed. I could tell it was uncomfortable for her to cry in front of these people, but that’s the natural reaction that she felt. When she came over after, she told me she’d like me involved in this garden she was planning. She connected with me through my song. I love and appreciate that. I want to sing you two songs now. I’m going to sing you a prayer song and then I’m going to sing you a social song, for fun and celebration, for bringing people together to have a good time. My adopted sister Tasha, who is my harmony, always sings with me with the rattle, but she couldn’t be here tonight. I always hit the drum four times and that recognizes all our grandmothers and grandfathers in the four directions.
She sang two songs and we were lost with her. In her cosy home with its wood-panelled and painted green walls, with its ivy-covered windows, we were lost. The closest we could be to the escape to the bush that she spoke of.
Though we knew Raven’s family to be home, we heard not a peep from them until after that first song when Freedom, her teenage son, called out, “I love you Mom.” She shouted her love back and then brought our attention to which drums on the wall belonged to her children. She also pointed out a photo of her father with her when she was a baby. She told us how he dressed in ribbon shirts and wore braids every day, ensuring that people knew he was connected to his roots and culture.
MW: Do ribbons stand for anything?
R: They’re the most beautiful things in the world. In our culture, they’re often given as gifts. When you wear them it’s a way of recognizing your femininity. My father has inspired me to wear my ribbon skirts and dresses when I go out. I also rock my moccasins all the time.
MW: Your parents sound like incredibly strong role models.
R: They are. My mom is really ill right now, and not even 60 yet. She’s always in pain. I’m always thinking of her, when I sing especially. I’m going to sing one more song for you. And this one is for my mom.
MW: I had wanted to ask if when you sing, you pay attention to your audience, but it appears that maybe not. It really seems like you’re someplace else. With the music.
R: My brother has asked me that lots of time. He says, “You need to open your eyes!” But I can’t. It’s how I sing. It’s my style.
MW: Do the songs tell stories?
R: Yes, they tell a story. They teach you how to live in a good way, and how to have fun in a good way. Some of the songs are for games.
MW: British, Irish and French music have all had such an influence on Canadian music heritage. I studied music my entire school career and I didn’t study Aboriginal music. Do you think that the study of Aboriginal music should be added to the Canadian music curriculum or is it too spiritual?
R: I think there’s a niche, an important space for it. If you think of some of the most amazing artists right now - Buffy Sainte-Marie and A Tribe Called Red - (they) use our beats and drum song to make people dance! Music is universal. It brings us all together. I think now more than ever there is a place for Indigenous music in Canada, but especially in Winnipeg. It’s booming. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is having its grand opening, and I think two or three of the performers are Indigenous. They have Buffy Sainte-Marie and A Tribe Called Red coming in.
MW: And you have a big event coming up this fall?
R: I’m pretty sure it’s confirmed, we have a gathering in September of the Canadian Women for the Women in Afghanistan. It’s a human rights conference. I sang for Sally Armstrong a month or two ago. I’ve been getting a lot of really cool singing gigs and meeting amazing people doing it. I often get asked to sing for human rights events.
MW: Why are you studying Human Rights?
R: I think I was born into it. I come from a family of really amazing, strong, resilient people. My mom and dad were such strong leaders in the community. My mom was on the board for Winnipeg Harvest. My dad fought so we could practice our ceremonies and culture and language because at one time it was illegal. If you think about that kind of life and being born into that, it was just natural. My dad didn’t just fight for indigenous rights, but for human rights all over the world.
MW: You’re so busy. You go to school, you work, you have a family...
R: I’m also the co-chair of the University of Winnipeg Aboriginal Student Council, and I’m also the Aboriginal Director for the University of Winnipeg Students Association.
MW: How do you manage all of it?
R: Music! Singing. It’s like I have to. It grounds me. It helps me keep from going insane. Sometimes the kids tell me I’m not paying attention to them. I do get emotional when I think about that. It’s because my head is buried in my books or my computer. I see that.
MW: It’s also very obvious that they look up to you though.
R: They’re amazing. My son is really bossy and tells everyone what to do all the time. He’s probably going to be a chief. My younger daughter loves to perform and sing and dance. My older daughter is an artist. She loves to paint. I’m a matriarch. The women make the decisions in our culture. We raise the babies and we decide who is going to be what. My partner has really had to adjust to that because he came into a family where all the women are the bosses. That’s one of the things that my family has never lost. My house is like that too. But it’s cool because my partner does a lot of the sewing and the cooking and taking care of our garden. I take care of the community and the family. I know that in our community, I’m going to continue to be a strong voice. And at our university too. This year, we’re rolling out having a mandatory Indigenous requirement for all students. All first years will have to learn something about Indigenous culture.
MW: That’s amazing. That’s how we move forward.
R: Yeah. Our president has been really supportive of that. He thinks I’m a pain in the ass, but respects and loves me for it.
MW: You’re making changes, and that’s what’s important. So of all the things you are - mother, student, singer, student council chair, is there something that you identify with the most?
R: A leader. I make things happen. It’s hard because sometimes you feel like you’re alone. And sometimes you have to say things that not everybody wants to hear. It can be really uncomfortable to stand on your moral truth. One of my closest friends is a leader in the community. She’s a Muslim woman. We’re so strong in the public eye, but sometimes we just fall apart. We’ll console each other and then go back to what we have to do. We spoke at International Women’s Day about the importance of community and the importance of supporting each other, even in our differences. And maybe not understanding those differences, but learning about each other, and how important that is.
MW: Everything you do seems to have such significance or history. Do your tattoos connect you to something or were they for fun?
R: (They’re) significant too. This is wheatgrass. It’s one of our most gentle medicines. I’m really strong, but it’s a reminder that not everybody is where I’m at and I need to be gentle. The eagle represents love. They mate for life. So there are two feathers. The stars represent the universe, and the bear paws are walking through the constellations. The bear paws are my clan, so it’s where my family belongs. One of the things we know of how we govern ourselves as indigenous people is that if you know your spirit name - mine is White Eagle Woman, and you know your clan, you know your purpose in life. So the Bear Clan are predominantly people that take care of people. The White Eagle - live your life as clean and healthy as you can, is what the white represents. And the eagle represents love. Lead with love. I always knew that that’s what I was going to do. These are just for fun, but they are Ojibwa beadwork. If you ever go to a pow-wow - on jingle dress dancers they have a beaded yolk. That’s what it represents. And if you look at all these little cuts on my body - all over - those represent giving something significant that is not materialistic culture. Your spirit and soul belongs to God and everything else is materialistic. The only thing you really own is your body and your flesh, so at our Sundance ceremonies, you give a little piece of yourself for others.
MW: You introduced yourself to us as Raven. You have an Ojibwa name as well?
R: Boozhoo, Wabiske Kinew Ikwe Nitisisnikas. Mukwa Totem. Ga wa gaabi gani kag indoonji shigo Nisichawayasihk idoonji. That means hello, my name is White Eagle Woman. My people come from White Earth Anishinaabe Nation and Nisichawayasihk (Where Three Rivers Meet). So that’s basically how I usually introduce myself when I perform, but I also introduce myself like that when I go to meetings cause it really freaks people out.
MW: Yeah, I’m not going to repeat that.
Before we left, Raven’s daughters joined her in song. They were shy at first, but trusting their mother, they sang for us. Or rather, eyes locked on Raven, they sang for her.
Wabiske Kinew Ikwe is one of those people who inspire you to want to do more, to be a better person.
She is a drum singer, a mother, a partner, a student, a sister, a daughter, and an activist. She is a leader.
It’s what she was born to be. Like the music, it’s written in her DNA.