Songs of Law? — Thinking about Indigenous and Settler Laws on the Use of Music

 

Sometimes I wonder if life in a law school doesn’t involve a “Midas Effect” — that is, everywhere you turn, everything you touch seems to involve (or become?) law.  I have been noticing this myself with respect to the law school’s ongoing obligations under TRC Call to Action #28.  I have been increasingly noticing how often questions of Indigenous Law seem to be in my field of vision.   Or perhaps I am only now beginning to see/acknowledge what was there all along?

Here is a specific.   I was on a phone call with my sister this morning, and the conversation (which was focused as it often is on activities with kids) moved from stories about the family dog, to piles of laundry and Orange Shirt Day and finally turning to the Louis Riel Opera with the Nisga’a song in it.  What, said I?  A Louis Riel Opera with a Nisga’a song in it?!  I had missed that discussion (a list of links to media discussions about the opera follow below)

Louis-riel-festival-opera-de-quebec-3
http://www.quebecspot.com/2017/07/une-remontee-unique-dans-le-temps-avec-lopera-louis-riel/

As is our way, my inner interrogator emerged, and so the conversation turned to questions about music, appropriation, and intellectual property law.  It was not the conversation I expected, but it has really had me thinking all day.  And it had me thinking about how a piece like the Louis Riel Opera could open space for a discussion of Indigenous Law in a very particularized way:  that is,  in the context of a Nisga’a song being drawn into a Settler/Canadian piece of music.  We have here an encounter involving two legal orders, each of which has rules about the creation and performance of music.

I asked my sister if she would write up a few paragraphs that I could share on this blog, paragraphs that would capture the essence of our conversation, with its questions about what the Opera might have to teach us about law and legality.  She, still sometimes pressed to fill the role of ‘relatively compliant younger sibling’, agreed!

“THINKING WITH AND ABOUT MUSIC” – Mary Johnson

I am a settler who grew up on Treaty 7 territories.  I graduated from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of Art in Canadian Studies.  I love Canada.  I love being exposed to Canadian art, music, and literature.   I now live in Ottawa/Gatineau on unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation.  Because I live in the Nation’s Capital Region, I am constantly surrounded by opportunities to participate in cultural activities celebrating Canada and its diverse talents.  These opportunities were intensified in 2017 with the Canada 150 celebrations.  I often felt conflicted during these celebrations as I don’t think Canada’s nation-building efforts are to be celebrated as such.  We need to not only acknowledge the harm Canada’s nation-building efforts have brought to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but we also need to recognize these harms are not only historical, they are on-going.  Every Canadian needs to be engaged in doing the work of reconciliation.

2017-04-27---LouisRiel-MC-0035
https://www.schmopera.com/webhook-uploads/1493319094895/2017-04-27—LouisRiel-MC-0035.j

With this in mind, I tried to be thoughtful and deliberate about my participation.  When I realized I would have the chance to take my family to see the Louis Riel opera, I wanted to attend. I love opera, and there is a not a lot of Canadian opera.  But I was also very aware that this opera would be infused with appropriation.  Before the performance, I had read about some of the innovative ways this 50th anniversary production of the Opera attempted to acknowledge this appropriation, including a Land Assembly, a mostly silent group on the ground, dressed in red to represent Metis and First Nations peoples.  For me, watching the Land Assembly bear witness through the opera was very powerful.

What I had not read about in advance was not expecting, and what perhaps touched me the most, was a pre-show in the lobby by a group of Nisga’a Nation singers.  The group then moved onto the Opera stage to open the show.  A musical highlight of the opera is the third act’s opening aria, Song of Skateen. The Kuyas lullaby is sung by Riel’s wife, Marguerite. As noted in the program, the song is actually a Nisga’a lament from the West Coast, incorrectly used by Somers and Moore (the composers of the opera) in this context. Nisga’a protocol dictates such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times and only by those who hold the hereditary right to sing them. To shed light on this, a prelude to the opera featured a group of Nisga’a Nation singers, who acknowledged the fact the song was taken from them, and performed a victory song of their own.

I think this example of the Louis Riel opera taking and misusing a Nisga’a song provides an opportunity to initiate discussions around compensation for the use of cultural/intellectual property.  Western intellectual property laws often focus on monetary compensation for the use of cultural property, or address use through licensing.  But what are other possibilities where monetary compensation does not come close to addressing the issue?  What other ways could we approach this situation?  How do different indigenous legal systems work through such conflicts?

MEDIA SOURCES/LINKS TO SUPPLEMENT A DISCUSSION?

  1.  Here is a short piece from the Queen’s Gazette,  interviewing Prof. Dylan Robinson (Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts).  Queen’s Gazette, “A dialogue on Indigenous law, song and opera” Monday, April 24, 2017 http://www.queensu.ca/gazette/stories/dialogue-indigenous-law-song-and-opera
  2. Michael Cooper, “Canada Turns 150, but a Silent Chorus Isn’t Celebrating” (April 19, 2017) New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/arts/music/canada-turns-150-but-a-silent-chorus-isnt-celebrating.html

 

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