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EP36 iskwé - Improving the Health of Indigenous Communities Through Music
Alexandra Arriaga: Hi, and welcome back to I AM GPH. My name is Alexandra Arriaga, and in this exciting episode, we talk to Canadian singer-songwriter iskwé. As part of her artistic vision, she manages to bridge cross-cultural aesthetics while exploring her own struggle to both fit into and break away from modern Western archetypes. Her debut single, “Nobody Knows,” produced by Juno Award nominees The Darcys and feature in the Netflix series Between, captivated audiences by turning a stark spotlight on the more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Unafraid to challenge the convictions of her detractors by honoring her heritage, standing steadfast in her viewpoints, iskwé's artistry knows no bounds. If you want to learn more about the inspiration for her powerful music and the important role music can play in the health of an entire community, please stay tuned. Hi, iskwé. Thank you so much for coming here today.
iskwé: Thanks for having me.
Alexandra Arriaga: Of course. So for those that don't know you, can you please tell us a little bit more about your music and what inspires it?
iskwé: My music is inspired by a few different things. It's inspired sonically by sounds that I have sort of picked up on as I grew up. I came from a very eclectic household in terms of the music that we listened to. So sonically, it's a bit of electronic music. There's a bit of alternative. There's some traditional sounds as well. But the big thing for me is that the lyrical content of what I do is rooted in conversations that are impacting myself and my community. I come from Treaty 1 territory, which is in central Canada, and I am indigenous. So, my mother is Cree and Meti, which are two different indigenous nations. The things that I like to speak about are different things that are impacting us in terms of how we are viewed and treated within society. How the residual impacts of colonization have, and continue to move forward through the generations, how we have intergenerational trauma that continues to get passed along and forward. And trying to raise awareness, not only for the folks within my community, so that we can participate and grow together in order to move away from that intergenerational trauma following us through. But also so that folks outside of our community can have an understanding as to why those sorts of things exist for us, and how, even today, we're being impacted still by the results of colonization, and where that fits, and how that fits. And trying to do so in a way so that people aren't creating an us and them situation, but creating a conversation that we can all be a part of, so that we can move forward, and grow, and move away from these sort of negative spaces, and experiences, and feelings, and come together in a better way.
Alexandra Arriaga: Definitely. Some people may be wondering why a musician in a public health platform, right?
Alexandra Arriaga: Generally, when we think of public health, we think about researchers, hospitals, and community interventions. But we often forget about music, and music can actually be a very powerful tool in public health. So I would love your input about how you use your music to address public health issues in the indigenous communities.
iskwé: There's a lot of things, as I was mentioning, that are impacting us right now. As an example, we have a huge suicide epidemic that's taking place in a lot of our communities with the younger generations. We're having communities that are experiencing dozens of suicide attempts per month, and some of these communities are in more remote areas, so they're not close by to cities. So a lot of the times people forget that these communities even exist. One of the examples that I draw from is talking about and raising awareness on why this is taking place. Why are these young ones ... The ones who are attempting suicide in these mass rates like this are often 15 years of age and younger. So these are our youth. These are our children, sometimes as young as six or seven years old. So why are these kids attempting suicide? What's the reason? What's their mental state as they're entering into this space? When I think of public health, and how we choose to pay attention, and what we pay attention to, I think there's a lot of room for growth in terms of understanding cultural differences and cultural ways of dealing with, like I said, these past traumas and how they continue to move forward through generations. Understanding that why, and understanding that we have different ways of dealing with things. We have different ways culturally of addressing trauma experiences, all sorts of things. Conversation, even, and if we don't understand those cultural differences, as public health practitioners, how can we better treat people if we don't fully understand where they're coming from? One of the things, as an example, in Canada, and I can't speak for the U.S. because my understanding is specific to Canadian indigenous population. Americans have similarities but also some differences. So I don't wish to speak to America just because I wouldn't feel like I'm properly versed in that. But in Canada, as an example, in society, indigenous bodies aren't viewed as being fully human at this point in time, right? So since colonization, till this point today, we're still not viewed as full human. Our bodies are not respected in the same way that other bodies are. I say this with examples of the fact that indigenous women are at the highest risk of experiencing violence, and death by violence, in Canada at such a high rate of violence and death. But these are also unsolved cases, right? Indigenous men experience the most violence, and death by violence, out of any population in Canada at such an extremely high rate. And part of this ... These are not unsolved cases is one thing. But the other thing about that is that part of that is because they're not taught to value their bodies themselves, right? So if society doesn't value them as being people, and they're not valuing themselves as being people subconsciously, right? How does that come forward? Well, that comes forward in treatment when indigenous presenting people are entering into hospitals, for instance. We've got far too many cases recently, within the past several years, of indigenous people entering into emergency rooms and being left on gurneys for hours and hours, until they pass in the hallway, and nobody's even noticed until five hours after their time of death, right? These are the experiences of indigenous people in Canada, or some of the experiences that other demographics of people are not experiencing. So when I think of music, and I think of public health, I think, "Okay. Well, what are ways for people to have conversations about our experiences and history?" Because we have to start at the beginning in order to understand where we're at right now. If we start at the beginning and have these conversations, and I use music to do that, then we can become more aware of what's going on, have a better understanding, and start to unpack and peel back the layers of our own prejudices that we don't necessarily know we walk with, right? Being able to walk into ... and in Canada, our healthcare system is different than the U.S., right?
Alexandra Arriaga: Yes.
iskwé: So, there's that. Where people take for granted the fact that you walk in ... If you are not visibly indigenous, and you walk into hospitals, the level of care that you're going to receive is going to be dramatically different. Even though not all of those health practitioners are consciously separating indigenous bodies from non-indigenous bodies, they're just not taught to recognize their own prejudice. And that prejudice doesn't necessarily mean they're bad people. It just means they don't realize what they've been taught systemically.
Alexandra Arriaga: Exactly. Wow, that's a very interesting perspective.
Alexandra Arriaga: So for other musicians that are looking at what you have been achieving with your music, and they're so inspired by it they want to mimic some of what of all the things that you've done, what advice do you have for them? For those musicians that want to have a positive impact through their music in their communities.
iskwé: I think ... I mean, culturally I'm taught that we're supposed to listen, right? So anytime you're entering into something new, it's our role to walk in and to listen, to not ask a bunch of questions. To go in and to observe and take in the teachings that are around us at all time. You can start to build your questions, and your thoughts, and whatnot as you go, but to humble ourselves as we're being educated by what's around us. I think that when we are working and talking about such sensitive topics, that it's important to really pay attention to the stories that are around us and not to claim them in what I feel is kind of a Western way where you consume the stories. You consume everything, and it's not about any individual. It's about a collective sharing. It's about a collective healing. It's about a collective movement as opposed to, well, I'm doing this. Right? If that makes sense.
Alexandra Arriaga: No, it definitely makes sense.
iskwé: So I think that when we are, as musicians, or artists, or health practitioners, or anything, I really feel like it's important to listen before speaking and to use the tools that we have to make change based on that, right? So I do use my voice, but I use my voice in a way of listening to what's going on around me, participating in what's going on around me, rather than consuming it as my own, and consuming these stories as my own. I am a body that is participating in this change, but I'm not the driving force. I'm not the only person doing it. I'm not the only one that has had experiences. I have to make sure that I remember that at all times.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah, so it seems you have a very collective perspective-
Alexandra Arriaga: ... where you removed the ego, the selfishness.
iskwé: You've got to get rid of the ego.
Alexandra Arriaga: Yeah, I agree. And we know you're doing amazing things right now, but where are we going to find iskwé in the future?
iskwé: Well, we're working on a new project right now. It's one where I'm combining a lot of our traditional stories and teachings with music and sort of more ... I come from a performance background. I was a dancer before. So there's going to be more performance involved in this next batch of stuff that we're doing. But again, bringing in additional teachings as a way to ... If I talk about how I want people to know where we come from, we don't begin at trauma. We begin before trauma, right?
Alexandra Arriaga: Right.
iskwé: We have a story that began pre-contact, and those teachings and beautiful elements of our culture have survived, and they made it through all of that trauma. So, if I want to be talking about these experiences and how we're impacted in the present, I also want to be talking about these experiences, and stories, and teachings so that people aren't left with this idea that we are just a traumatized nation. We are not. Or nations ... I would like to really emphasize that that is a part of our history, but it's not a part of our being.
Alexandra Arriaga: Right. There's so much positivity and so much good as well.
Alexandra Arriaga: Okay. We can not wait to find out where the future takes you.
iskwé: Thank you.
Alexandra Arriaga: We'll be watching, and thank you so much for spending some time with us.
Female: Of course. Well, thanks for having me.
Alexandra Arriaga: Thank you.