By Allison Barss

His music is said to fill a room. His performances, a jaw-dropping, powerful combination of talent and passion, derived from the lasting strength of his culture. For Polaris Music Prize and Juno Award-winning artist, Jeremy Dutcher (BA’13), that passion comes from a drive to preserve and carry forward a nearly extinct Indigenous language — one on which he was raised.

“I’m blessed to have been guided by many elders and knowledge-keepers in my life,” says the Aurum Award recipient. “I base so much of what I share with the world on what’s been shared with me. It’s about knowing yourself and giving that back to the world.”

Dutcher is a Two Spirit, Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation in N.B. In 2013, while studying music at Dalhousie, he chose to combine his studies with social anthropology.

A new direction

“Moving into new academic spaces really helped guide me forward,” he says. “Learning how to play music is just one piece of the puzzle. The great part of social anthropology is the field work — the encouragement to get out there, to explore and ask questions. It showed me that so much of what was being said about my culture’s music, wasn’t being said by my culture. There needed to be a voice from within.”

He began quietly working on his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, combining the sounds, songs and singing styles of his native language. “I wrote it as though I had a problem to solve,” he says.

At the heart of the album — and his entire outlook on his music — is a sense of urgency, one which continues to inspire his work.

Dutcher’s album was released in 2018, receiving instant national credit including the 2018 Polaris Music Prize and the 2019 Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year, although he says he does not pin his success to the awards he’s received.

“My greatest achievement has been getting to take the songs of my ancestors and perform them for my people, in our language,” he says. “It’s lifting our songs up to the highest level and having them received.  Connecting people back to what’s been taken and what’s been lost.”

New beginnings for the next generation

With less than 100 fluent Wolastoqiyik speakers left, who’ve spoken the language from birth, Dutcher says the moment to do more is now.

For his latest project, he has teamed up with his mother, Lisa Perley-Dutcher, who has helped develop Kehkimin, the first Wolastoqiyik-maliseet immersion school, located in Fredericton, N.B. Like Dutcher, his mother felt compelled to do something after the loss of three Wolastoqiyik-speaking relatives in 2021.

This summer, Dutcher will tour across Canada to help raise funds for the school, sharing his music along the way. “Waiting for the government to help just isn’t an option,” he says. “When the support is community driven, that’s when it will be its most successful.”

Much like the work that went into his first album, Dutcher feels inspired by the work he’s doing with the school. “To see four-year-olds already speaking the language is really incredible —it’s creating a movement to help turn things around,” he shares. “That’s where the hope lies. It’s the continuation we need to see.”

Music, the healer

Growing up, Dutcher says bridging differences never felt like an impossibility. “My mom is Indigenous, but my dad is not. If they can love each other, why can’t others? Each person is unique and brings something new to the family of humanity. It’s our responsibility to share it — to have it uncovered.”

Today, Dutcher’s music not only continues to share his culture, but his individuality. “Representation is so important,” he says. “We all have a story of resilience to share, and a beautiful way to work through it. I’m truly my authentic self – Indigenous, queer. Music is my way of translating my story to others, to say ‘look how beautiful we are’.”

He adds, “We don’t need to do great things. We just need to do things with love. Everything else will happen in between.”

Next award recipient: Mona Lynch (LLB’85)