A prominent awards show for Indigenous music in Canada has been plunged into turmoil after a group of Inuit performers accused a Cree folk singer of cultural appropriation.
Several well-known Inuit singers have cut ties with the Indigenous Music awards (IMA), an annual show due to held in Winnipeg on 17 May, over the nomination of Connie LeGrande, who they accuse of improperly using Inuit throat singing.
In recent years, Canada has started to grapple with the issue of cultural appropriation as Indigenous people publicly challenge white artists for the use of Indigenous iconography and stories in their own work.
The current row, however, centres on an Indigenous artist, and raises questions over cultural borrowings between separate aboriginal groups.
“This is new ground – this is not ground we’ve walked on before,” said Kelly Fraser, an Inuk singer who has withdrawn from the award show in protest, along with throat singer Tanya Tagaq and the duo Piqsiq.
LeGrande, a singer from Alberta who performs under the name Cikwes, was nominated for best folk album for her album Isko, but Inuit performers said that the work uses a specific throat-singing style with deep cultural and historical ties to the Arctic. Nearly two months of talks between between the artists failed to produce an acceptable outcome, said Fraser.
LeGrande’s biography on the IMA website describes her singing as a “style of throat singing and chanting [which] celebrates the Matriarch, with a raw powerful and sexual presence”.
LeGrande did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously dismissed claim she is appropriating another culture, telling the Edmonton Star: “What I do is not Inuit throat singing. I went on and put my own expression and my own sounds because I don’t know their sounds.”
Much of the Inuit artists’ frustration centres on what they say is LeGrande’s failure to acknowledge the history and importance of throat singing in Inuit culture.
Throat singing, or katajjaq, was originally as a traditional game played between two women or girls. Guttural vocalizations are volleyed between the partners until one person breaks the rhythm and laughs – an exchange requiring intense concentration and focus.
Other times, it was used to help put small children to sleep.