The Aboriginal Turn: Analysing Tagaq’s Animism and the Changing Relationships between Canada and its Aboriginal Populations

By Alex Polley

Please note that this was originally a term paper submitted in December, 2014 for a graduate-level seminar in my MA in Music and Culture.

Aboriginal and First Nation communities across Canada have been mistreated for over four-hundred years (Atleo 2008, 31).  Lack of respect for treaties, the creation and continued use of the Indian Act of 1867, and the current conditions of many aboriginal communities, which have been described as “third world” by some, all support this claim.  Marlene Atleo’s assertion of negligence by the Canadian government is most accessible in the following quote:

Over more than a hundred years, federal Canadian government policy favoured settlers and excluded Aboriginal people from legal, social, political, and economic life in ways that privileged the Canadian majority while disadvantaging and assimilating Aboriginal people (Atleo 2008, 32).

Such disadvantaging and assimilation of Aboriginal people, Atleo further argues, created a sense of fear and helplessness (Atleo 2008, 33-4).  Similarly, in a panel discussion in 2005 by John Kloppenborg, Cora Voyageur argues The Indian Act deprived Aboriginals of enfranchisement, land ownership, and movement. Additionally, it made employment difficult, transforming reserves into ghettos (Calliou, Voyageur and Kloppenborg 2005, 88-89).  Moreover, I argue that by prohibiting Aboriginals from exercising their rights and forcing them to live in ghettoised communities, the Canadian government took away their voices at the individual and community levels, inasmuch as their opinions and the issues relevant to them were marginalized.  Entire populations of people were no longer heard until they received the right to vote in 1960 and arguably remain unheard in comparison to the majority of Canadians who do not live in the above conditions today.  

In recent years, a movement called Idle No More was launched to end such mistreatment of Canadian Aboriginal people.  In their “Manifesto”, they demand that the previous treaties be upheld and that they receive appropriate funding for housing (Idle No More 2014).  Furthermore, Daitsman and O’Brien have argued that, “Idle No More has successfully encouraged sharing of information about sovereignty and environmental protection and galvanized people to stand up for themselves and the land” (Daitsman and O’Brien 2013).  This is also reflected in contemporary music by Aboriginal musicians such as the group A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) and soloist Tanya Tagaq.  Animism, an album by Tagaq, protests previous actions against First Nations and Inuit communities, who have lost aspects of their identities and large swaths of land due to government control and appropriation.  This is supported by Robert Everett-Green from the Globe and Mail, who reviewed Tagaq’s album when it was first released in May 2014:

She hopes to make [the strong political aspect of her music] a bit more obvious with Animism, which is both a hymn to the spirit in all living things and a manifestation of the indigenous activism that gave rise to the Idle No More movement (Everett-Green 2014).

He also points out that Tagaq’s family was one of the many relocated in the 1950s from Quebec to Resolute Bay. He also discusses Tagaq’s time in residential school, where she separated her from the experience of throat-singing until adulthood (Everett-Green 2014). 

The Idle No More movement has received attention from large media companies such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and CTV Television Network, as well as public support from politicians and community leaders, and others, which is indicative of changing concerns amongst the Canadian population.  This is supported by recent advances in popularity by Aboriginal artists including A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) and Tanya Tagaq, who have secured Juno Awards and the Polaris Prize, respectively over popular white artists (Kinos-Goodin 2014) (Newman 2014).  In part because of Idle No More and the attention it has received, I believe we are witnessing a changing relationship between the Canadian government and the Aboriginal communities within its borders.  For example, the current Canadian government has begun installing new water treatment plants, a project that I took part in advocating last year, since the movement’s inception in 2012.[1]  Furthermore, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized for the boarding schools that Aboriginal children were forced to attend, where they were often physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused (Government of Canada 2010).  

As mentioned above, this transformation in Canadian/Aboriginal affairs is also reflected in contemporary music by Aboriginal musicians.  For instance, Everett-Green argues Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq brings many aspects of Inuit culture to listeners and challenges a variety of Canadian beliefs (Everett-Green 2014).  This can be seen in her most recent album Animism where she questions our separation from nature and our acceptance of extracting oil through use of pressurized steam, known as hydraulic fracturing, colloquially shortened to “fracking”.  Her most recent album, Animism, also won the Polaris prize, an award for Canadian musicians bestowed upon a musical artist by a large number of journalists and media critics.  This is important because it thrust issues relevant to her into the national spotlight and meant an increased awareness of Inuit spirituality and culture. The messages conveyed by Tagaq’s Animism are indicative of the changing relationship between the Canadian government and Aboriginal people, because the music requires listeners not only to hear her opinions, but to hear them through the utilisation of a medium that is culturally relevant to her community – throat singing.  By using throat singing she challenges our previously-colonial government and amplifies the voice of many by expressing her opinions on her own terms.  This is also apparent in “Fracking,” a piece that questions a contentious topic among Canadians, particularly in Aboriginal communities.  I will explore the conditions created by legislation such as the Indian Act, which lead to a loss of spirituality and voice for many Aboriginals on both individual and community scales.  Subsequently, I will explore pertinent aspects of Tagaq’s Animism, including how it restores the voices of Inuit communities and how that is reflective of the goals of the Idle No More movement.  Finally, I will conclude with an analysis of the song “Fracking” in order to support my arguments.

The Idle No More website claims the intent of the original treaties between Aboriginal communities and the British Crown was to share the land now known as Canada, while retaining the rights of Aboriginals to access to land and water, among other things (Manifesto 2014).  The website also points to the Canadian government’s use of resources and the resulting pollution poured into local rivers and lakes. Furthermore, the authors argue that the government requires permission to allow construction on Aboriginal lands and that the people of those lands are entitled to compensation.  These measures along with those mentioned above, Idle No More points out, are what the group seeks to change (Ibid). 

Amanda Morris writes, “Idle No More exposes the problems with the legal and political relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government…” which includes but is not limited to exclusion, assimilationism, and discrimination, all of which are acts that may alter one’s identity  (Morris 2012, 247).  For the Inuit, a people whose spiritual beliefs are comprised of reverence for the spirits of animals and the Earth, our western practices of exploiting the resources of our surrounding environment in excess and assimilating or discriminating against those who do not creates a dichotomy of “high” and “low”, or “us” and “them”.  This divide is exposed in Richard Middleton’s essay on “Western Belongings…” in which he defines “high” music as intellectual and bourgeois while “low” music is often exotic, invokes folk sensibilities, and is unreflective (Middleton 2000, 59-63).  He also points to the assimilation of musical aspects from folk or a popular genre, by analysing simplicity and the folk in Mozart’s Magic Flute (Papageno) and blackness in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (Ibid, 69).  Although Middleton points to folk and “blackness” as traits often attributed to the “low” musical category, he does not speak of “nativeness”, nor of Aboriginal music. 

One type of Aboriginal music in Canada is Inuit throat-singing.  Beverley Diamond explains that throat-singing occurs as a competitive game between two women:

Two women face each other at close proximity, often grasping the forearms of their partner and rocking with the rhythm of the game[…]They perform a series of short motifs in a tight canon: one woman imitates her partner one “beat” (or about a half a second) later. The motifs include both breathy (unvoiced) and throaty (voiced) sounds, audible rhythmicized intakes of breath, pitched and non-pitched sounds. After a short while, the lead singer changes the pattern and her partner must follow. […] In some areas the games are competitive to see who can continue the longest. […] Most often the games imitate the soundscape of northern life: a puppy, polishing sled runners, the river, the wind, a mosquito” (Diamond 2008, 50-52).

She also points to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, a semiotician from l’Université de Montréal, who describes the lyrical topoi as follows “…meaningless syllables and archaic words, names of ancestors or of old people, animal names, toponyms [names of places], words designating something present at the time of the performance, animal cries, natural noises, and tunes borrowed from petting songs, drum-dance songs, or from religious hymns” (Diamond 2008, 49).  The ‘throaty’ voices, archaic words, names, animal cries, and natural noises are all present in Tagaq’s work.  This is most easily exemplified in the songs, “Howl” and “Uja,” which refers to a portion of seal skin (Inuktitut Computing: The Iqaluit Project 2012).  Moreover, “Tulugak”, meaning raven, presents corvid calls throughout, while “Umingmak” (Ellesmere Island) is used as a short motif within a canon comprising of vocals, percussion, and electronic dance music (EDM).  One might notice how Tagaq’s themes consist of animals present in the arctic, as well as an island within the territory of Nunavut.  As the album title suggests, each topic represents something of spiritual importance within her culture, including the animals that surrounded her and the island on which she lived.

Throat-Singing’s Challenge to Contemporary Canada

Inuit throat-singing would generally be categorized as “low” music when using the descriptions provided by Richard Middleton. This form of singing invokes the “exotic” as it derives from a non-European culture and uses neither non-European instruments, nor techniques. Likewise throat-singing invokes folk sensibilities as it is traditionally performed as a game rather than art. As such, it is seemingly unreflective.  Lastly, throat-singing also comes from a native people who have in the past been considered ‘savage’ by European colonists. However Tagaq uses throat-singing in order to voice her opinions and the opinions of many others who have previously been disenfranchised through our government and our cultural biases. Moreover, it is hyperreflective due to its topoi, which focus mainly on culture and spirituality.  Lastly, using a form of expression from her own culture and expressing herself on her own terms, Tagaq challenges our perceived image of ‘savage’ low-music and our patriarchal attempts to tame its people, as seen through the Indian Act and residential schools.  If we therefore accept the “high” and “low” dichotomy of musics, Tagaq invalidates it by using “folk” and the “exotic” in as non-European music in order to create an intellectual and reflective music.

Personifying/Amplifying the Earth

Tagaq’s throat singing and her evocation of the spirits significant to Inuit animist beliefs return certain aspects of power to a traditionally marginalized population.  One of the more contentious issues within many communities is the act of fracking, a subject on which Tagaq has spoken quite a bit.  In an interview with Sarah Rogers, Tagaq says the following: 

Basically, I wanted a song to be unlistenable, so ugly and disgusting, so I imagined my whole body was the Earth and that someone was doing fracking on me … I wanted to sonically shove that in people’s faces (Tagaq 2014).

The above quotation raises a number of questions.  Firstly, what is fracking and what does it sound like? What might it sound like if it was done to someone? Lastly, how does Tagaq recreate this sound? Hydraulic fracturing, as I explained above, is the process of extracting oil from rock using pressurized steam. I would imagine such a process would including the droning of machinery such as drills and boring machines, the sound of water breaking rocks, and the dense, busy sounds that result. 

Fracking also creates wastewater that may include dissolved metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials, according to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Furthermore, it draws large amounts of water, has the potential to pollute underground sources of drinking water through spillage, and burns diesel causing further CO2 emissions (Natural Gas Extraction – Hydraulic Fracturing 2014).  It is thus unsurprising that this process causes concern amongst individuals whose land has previously been expropriated for government use: fracking may not only pollute the water, but also the air and those living nearby.  Tagaq has therefore created sounds that I believe are representative of this pollution. Indeed, as I will argue below, the Earth is moaning, crying, and surrounded by sounds of droning contrabasses and col lengo tratto violin bows creating chilling, foreboding resonances through extended techniques.

Regarding what committing the act of fracking to an individual may sound like, it would obviously include a great deal of pain and one can therefore assume it would involve moaning, screaming, and crying. This is what Tagaq presents her listeners in “Fracking”: an individual or spirit in great pain, suffering at the hands of what sounds reminiscent of machinery. The work begins with a wordless moaning by Tagaq, interrupted only by intermittent gasps for air. Tagaq is joined by a droning double bass at thirty-three seconds, which remains on B1 (the B below the bass clef) for a large duration of the piece. The other members of the string section enter at 1:08 col legno tratto – meaning the bow is drawn across the strings using the wooden side as opposed to the side with horse hair – until the first violin enters, playing a tremolo countermelody twenty seconds later. Tagaq’s singing is reminiscent of crying and gasping throughout the work until 2:10 when she begins to sound in a more guttural fashion similar to a growl. At the same time, the strings increase in rhythmic and tonal intensity until they suddenly withdraw, except for a select few who continue their droning notes. It is also important to note that at no time do the strings create a unified rhythm and that the chords created throughout the work are tone clusters.

Similar to Olivier Messaien’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps – “Louange à l’Éternité de Jesus”, much of the accompaniment does not provide a pulse indicative of continuous time. This evasion of time is an effect created through recurrent alterations within the accompaniment in regards to rhythm length, especially in the continuo drones played by the double bass. As time is an invention of humanity, other natural beings do not necessarily require it – perhaps with the exception of day and night, or when they should awake and when they should sleep. The meaning behind this sense of timelessness is two-fold: firstly, it represents the natural. For the Earth, a celestial body over 4.5 billion years by our count, time has very little meaning. Secondly, we may view the piece’s absence of time as a waking from sleep. Indeed, one interpretation of the work might find it is an account of the earth waking up after its importance was forgotten, post European contact. This is reflective of Idle No More’s ‘awakening’ of Aboriginal rights movements, which have remained quite silent for a long time.

The col legno tratto (the act of drawing one’s bow, using the wooden side, across the strings of the instrument) violins support Tagaq’s attempts to portray the pain she recreates how the Earth must feel. The extended technique in its more basic form – col legno, or of the wood – has been used for nearly two-hundred years to represent things which we find discomforting or even scary. Examples of col legno and the grotesque include the “Witches Sabbath” in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, resurrection in Mahler’s Second Symphony, and the unknown and frightening in the movie score for Alien.  Col legno tratto is an extension of the above technique whereby you no longer merely strike the string with the wood of your bow, but instead draw the bow across, creating a thin, eerie sound similar to running one’s nail across a hard surface. 

This technique may also resemble a whine or a crying sound. Where the string ensemble plays seemingly alleatorically and certainly only together at a macro scale (they come in approximately together doing something similar), we may view each violinist as a voice which has been harmed due to colonial domination. Whether the voices are to represent suffering individuals or the ignored spirits of traditional Inuit Animist beliefs I will not look at here. Rather, the imagery created by the background violins of a group of voices suffering together along with the crying Earth and the droning drill of fracking is what I will continue to analyse.

Although it has not been explicitly stated by Tagaq, the droning B1 present throughout the work is reminiscent of a drill or other forms of machinery used for the purpose of boring holes or digging into the Earth. Whether Tagaq intended to use such precise imagery is unknown at this time, but where she has argued that her intent was to create the ugly sounds of pain she imagined the Earth must feel (see the above quotation), such an assumption is not unreasonable. For instance, note that the vocals are instigated after the bass’ entrance. As Tagaq amplifies the complaints of the spiritual Earth, she must exhibit the pain felt by being ‘drilled into’ shortly after it begins. 

If “Fracking” is supposed to sound ugly, disgusting, and as if it was happening to an individual, then could she be giving the spirit of the Earth a voice? I argue that the above statement explicitly describes Tagaq’s intention to make us hear the Earth’s voice, but it does not necessarily create one. The question of whether Tagaq is returning or creating the Earth’s voice or whether she is amplifying an already-existing one is difficult to answer and I am not, as a descendent of white colonists of French and British heritage, capable of doing so satisfactorily. However, for the sake of concision, I feel that it is important to point to the fact that many Inuit have continued to practice their traditional beliefs, albeit in smaller numbers after colonial Europeans arrived to North America. As their beliefs have continued, so too have the spirits in which they believe. If this is indeed the case, then the spirit of the Earth did not lose its voice; rather, it was quieted through our colonial practices. Through recording her voice and disseminating her beliefs, Tagaq therefore amplifies those characteristics or feelings that she believes the Earth has and magnifies its voice so that others may hear it. I must reiterate that this is not a complete argument, nor is it necessarily correct, though it is consistent with colonial histories related to Inuit communities: European colonists did not wipe them out like they did the Beothuk, nor did they assimilate the Inuit as successfully as they did Aboriginal groups of Latin America. 


Traditional spiritual and personal beliefs of the Inuit – preserving and respecting the earth and those inhabiting it – are not only reflected within the album, but also amplified by Tagaq’s recorded voice. Similar to Animism, Idle No More’s intentions, in distilled form, are to create a method through which concerns of Aboriginal populations may finally be heard. Tagaq, through dissemination of her music and her recent Polaris Prize win, has amplified the voices of many much in the same way Idle No More has become a national movement and received international attention through the media. 

Furthermore, Tagaq is well known for her political views and has been outspoken on many occasions, particularly about missing and murdered aboriginal women, as well as PETA and the annual seal hunt in northern communities (CBC 2014). This is best exemplified in her Polaris prize acceptance speech, in which she added “Fuck PETA,” due to the organization’s attempts to eliminate seal hunting and their reaction to Tagaq’s “sealfie” where she posed her baby next to a seal that had been hunted for food (MacNeil 2014).  In her interview with the CBC, Tagaq explains that the picture was not meant to be disturbing or upsetting, but rather to expose the separation between nature and humans. She uses the example of a recently killed cow, which is used to create a burger: the former we would find disturbing while the latter we consume readily (CBC 2014). 

Idle No More is a protest movement seeking equal rights and access to land and water as promised to Aboriginal communities by the British Crown prior to Confederation in 1867. It is also a method by which those affected by the subsequent Indian Act may express their frustration, anger, and hurt due to mistreatment via several attempts to assimilate as well as segregate Aboriginals from colonial, white society through residential schools, familial relocations, and reneging of previous agreements by the Canadian government. Tagaq’s Animism is reflective of this movement as it amplifies the voices of Inuit, whose spiritual beliefs were suppressed or forcefully altered through government-run exploitation of Aboriginals and their land. Of course, Tagaq is not alone in creating music reflective of the movement: Kinos-Goodin refers to recent years in which a large number of Aboriginal musicians have received popularity as the “Aboriginal Renaissance”. To conclude, Tagaq’s Animism was successful in reflecting the Idle No More movement by expressing her beliefs in her own way, using a mode of expression distinct to her own culture and thereby challenging Canadians and their government, and I expect we will continue to see music reflecting Aboriginal beliefs for a long time to come.


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[1] I was involved in a project called the “Take Action Project”, which sought to facilitate the lives of Aboriginal people on reserves, many of whom lacked access to clean water, public facilities, and schools of comparable quality to those off reserves.