As a musician and teacher, Sherryl Sewepagaham is deeply aware of the potent nature of musical expression.
Of Dene/Cree ancestry from the Little Red River Cree Nation in Alberta, Sewepagaham holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Alberta and a Bachelor of Music Therapy from Capilano University, a healing art that she has been practicing now at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton for almost four years.
Last year when COVID-19 created barriers between the healer and her patients, Sewepagaham switched focus and joined forces with Canadian music education charity MusiCounts to create a new teaching curriculum program called Kanata: Contemporary Indigenous Artists and Their Music.
Aimed at youth attending classes between grades 7 and 12, the Kanata program focuses on the music of three critically acclaimed musical acts, Tobique singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher, Inuit electro-throat-singing group Silla & Rise, and Haisla hip hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids.
The music education program is designed to be inclusive to all teachers, fresh and seasoned, regardless of whether they be working in small remote communities or affluent urban centres.
“I wanted to make sure that if a teacher didn't have a music background that they wouldn't be scared of teaching this,” said Sewepagaham. “So it’s very hands-on and very interactive so as to allow any teacher to teach this regardless of a music background.”
Sewepagaham has been a member of the award winning Indigenous music trio Asani for more than 20 years, and as a solo artist she composes and records traditional and contemporary drum songs, some of which can be heard on her solo debut, Splashing The Water Loudly. She’s also been an elementary music teacher in Edmonton. In addition to her work as a music therapist, she is a creator and co-creator of three teacher resources for the National Arts Centre Music Alive Program.
It was this diverse background in music performance and music education that inspired Sewepagaham’s interest in creating the immersive educational curriculum exploring Indigenous music, both from a historical as well as a contemporary perspective.
With the backing of MusiCounts, Sewepagaham assembled a team of educators and cultural consultants with the goal of creating the curriculum that explores the history of Indigenous music in Canada, the censorship of Indigenous music culture by colonists, and the rich and diverse Indigenous music scene that has burst forth in all directions as a result of the digital revolution.
MusiCounts was created to address the noticeable decline in music education for students across the country. It funds grant programs and scholarships for students, as well as supports the development of music teaching resources for both educators and parents.
Sewepagaham enlisted the input of several cultural advisers, including Indigenous performing arts activist and manager Elaine Bomberry, Indigenous music advisor Sarah Pocklington, Métis singer-songwriter and visual artist Cindy Paul, and Inuit throat-singer Kathy Kettler from the duo Nukariik.
Working together over the past four months in consultation with a five-member resource development advisory committee, Sewepagaham and her crew worked diligently to develop the Kanata program. Providing opportunities for educators in music, arts, social studies, Canadian studies, and Indigenous studies, according to the curriculum, the Kanata program’s goal is to present teachers with “Indigenous resources that are authentic, respectful, culturally appropriate, meaningful, informative, and features the music of Indigenous artists in Canada.”
The Kanata program explores the history and evolution of Indigenous music in Canada while addressing the culture destroying agendas of the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, while demonstrating the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report published in 2015.
The Kanata program utilizes behind-the-scenes video interviews created exclusively for the curriculum with the featured artists addressing questions relevant to the course material while also offering students a glimpse into their creative process and how they explore and address important issues through their music.
“What I'm really learning about Indigenous artists of today is that they're so immersed in and so passionate about things that matter to our people. Pipelines, climate change, land defenders, water defenders, spurred on by people like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sylvia McAdam, Idle No More, Elijah Harper. People who paved the way and did a lot of the groundwork in saying the way you're treating this land, the way you're treating our people, is not okay. And so what the artists are doing now is they're writing about it.”
The Kanata education program will culminate in a final capstone project that will “invite classes to complete an artist profile on an Indigenous artist from their province, territory or region.” Classes are encouraged to submit the final project by May 24 to MusiCounts for the chance of winning one of ten $1,000 grants to support music education in their school.
Sewepagaham admits that in its infancy the program had to be streamlined for a certain age group, but she views Indigenous music education as a massive subject that can easily be expanded for students of all ages.
Teachers can access and download the Kanata: Contemporary Indigenous Artists and Their Music curriculum for free by visiting the MusiCounts website at MusiCounts - Keeping Music Alive Across Canada
David Owen Rama, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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