The dramatic musical production of Riel’s Heart of the North had its world premiere on March 9th, 2019 in Regina, Saskatchewan. This creative work by Métis poet Dr. Suzanne Steele (Gaudry) and composer Neil Weisensel tells the story of Louis Riel (Métis) and in particular “focuses on the beauty and love of the homeland and of its people, the heart of the north”. In the programme for the performance, Dr. Suzanne Steele refers to drawing inspiration from the Métis feminist scholar Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette’s (2004) doctoral dissertation “Sewing ourselves together: clothing, decorative arts and the expression of Métis and Half Breed identity”. Dr. Suzanne Steele’s (2019) creative work highlights the important role of Michif women in “sewing together” our country. Steele notes: “I devised the central themes of this work—the creating, the mending, the sewing, of the wounded of this world, but most importantly the beauty that comes from the love our women’s hands – this I celebrated.”
A significant aspect of Riel’s Heart of the North is that the oral narration, chorus and opera are in Michif, Saulteaux, French, and English. Hearing and singing in all of these languages was very powerful. The choir was composed of members of the Métis and Fransaskois communities, invited by Dr. Jesse Archibald-Barber (First Nations University) and Dr. Dominic Gregorio (University of Regina). When I first heard about the choir and opera, I was very excited for the opportunity to sing in these languages and to learn more about Métis culture, language and history. It was intriguing to hear the songs in the Michif language that includes words in French and Cree. As a French language education professor, and learner of the Cree language, I was very interested in seeing the connections between French, Cree, and Michif languages. This was a beautiful opportunity to learn from one another, to form friendships, and to be a part of a multilingual experience honouring Indigenous languages.
Prior to beginning the choir rehearsals in February, we received vocal tracks and lyrics, along with translations of the choir lyrics by Dr. Jesse Archibald-Barber. During our rehearsals, all the singers were warmly welcomed and accepted into the circle. In addition to singing, we had conversations as a collective regarding how singing in all of the languages of the performance was a way of respecting the languages and cultures of Indigenous people, to honour the history of these lands, and to work together as a community towards Truth and Reconciliation. We also worked carefully on pronunciation of the Michif words. Michif language speakers from the SUNTEP programme at the Gabriel Dumont Institute were involved in the process of preparing for the choir to ensure that we were learning the words as the language is spoken by the local Métis community. Métis singers in the choir also helped others to learn the pronunciation of Michif words.
The songs of Riel’s Heart of the North paint a picture of the way of life of Michif people during Louis Riel’s lifetime with imagery of women sewing and beading wild roses (kashki kwashonan lii rosh farosh), men singing the buffalo herd (nakoman lii baan de bufflo), kinship and family (wahkootawin, li famille, love (shakiihiwaynaan), et bien sûr, les bon temps (li bon taan kineweytamihk)!
The community choir was a part of the much larger dramatic musical production with the Regina Symphony Orchestra, as well as narrator Riva Farrell Racette, opera soloists Melody Courage, Marion Newman, Rebecca Cuddy, James Mclennan, James Westman, and fiddler Jordan Daniels. It was breathtaking to see and hear all of the pieces of this artistic work come together to tell a story. We were swept away by the magical blend of songs, Métis fiddle, and Regina Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gordon Gerrard. This is a vitally important creative work featuring First Nations and Métis talent and languages. It was a heartwarming experience to be a part of the choir and to feel the interconnectedness among communities. I am quite certain that Riel’s Heart of the North, including Indigenous languages, will inspire many more Indigenous multilingual artistic productions across Turtle Island. Riel’s Heart of the North will be presented in 2020 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. li bon taan kineweytamihk!
Farrell Racette, S. (2004). Sewing ourselves together: clothing, decorative arts and the expression of Métis and half breed identity. Doctoral dissertation. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
Regina Symphony Orchestra (2019) Riel’s Heart of the North. https://reginasymphony.com/riels-heart-north
Riel Heart of the North (2019). http://www.rielheartofthenorth.com/