Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It took Digging Roots eight years to complete their newest album, but if a Juno nomination is an indication of thoughtful lyrics and strong melodies then it’s been time well spent.
Zhawenim, by Digging Roots, the duo of Raven Kanatakta and ShoShona Kish, is one of five nominees in the category of Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. They are joined by Aysanabee (Watin), Indian City (Code Red), Julian Taylor (Beyond the Reservoir) and Susan Aglukark (The Crossing.)
“I love how diverse this one category is…There’s actually no other category as diverse in the Junos as this one. If you look at it from that perspective, anything can happen,” said Kanatakta.
Zhawenim is Digging Roots’ fourth album and fourth nomination for a Juno. In 2010 the band won for Aboriginal Album of the Year with their second collection, We Are.
It wasn’t until last year that the Junos turned to offering two categories to recognize Indigenous artists. Along with the contemporary award there is Traditional Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. Nominated for 2023 in that category are Cikwes (Kâkîsimo ᑳᑮᓯᒧᐤ), Iva & Angu (Katajjausiit), Joel Wood (Mikwanak Kamôsakinat), Northern Cree (Ôskimacîtahowin: A New Beginning) and the Bearhead Sisters (Unbreakable).
Kanatakta recognizes the hard work done by artists like Elaine Bomberry and Buffy Sainte-Marie to get an Indigenous category for the Junos. That was added almost 30 years ago.
“We’re so diverse as a people. I think having different categories that show the diversity of who we are is a great thing. I think the more industry that gets involved, the more that we’re actually going to have Indigenous people in some of the mainstream categories that go out,” said Kanatakta.
He admits he was “surprised and thrilled” when he turned up on Front Street at CBC Toronto where the Juno nominations were announced on Jan. 31 to hear an Indigenous rap EP by Boslen playing.
Boslen, whose mother and stepfather are Indigenous and who also identifies as Black, was nominated for Gonzo in the Rap Album/EP of the Year category.
Other Indigenous artists nominated in mainstream categories are Inuk singer Tanya Talaq with her album Tongues competing for Alternative Album of the Year along with the Anishinaabe duo of Daniel Monkman and Adam Sturgeon that form Ombiigizi (Sewn Back Together).
O Glory, by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, is nominated for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. Founding member Tom Wilson is Mohawk. The group won a Juno in 2000 in the category of Best Roots and Traditional Album.
“What’s happening right now is that because we have less of our voices and less of ourselves in mainstream media, of course we’re not going to be nominated in those categories. Until an industry wants to actually put us in that position, those things won’t happen that regularly,” said Kanatakta.
The “backend (of the) industry” is something Kanataka and his partner Kish have been working on between their 2014 album For the Light and now.
“We’ve been building an industry and trying to add to that industry which is an Indigenous musical industry,” he said.
Kish has organized three international Indigenous music summits, bringing Indigenous musicians from all over the world to work together, write together and learn about each other’s culture.
They also came to the conclusion that to move Indigenous music forward they had to have their own publicists, radio trackers and booking agents. They also needed to help young musicians starting out.
“Nobody’s going to represent our voice like we’re going to represent it,” said Kanatakta.
Kish and singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume formed Ishkōdé Records in 2021.
“We’re really the ones who need to be in control of our narrative. And that’s a narrative that’s musical. That’s a narrative that’s cultural. It’s a narrative that’s political. It’s a narrative that’s historical. And we have to move that forward in a good way and in the best way that we know how and as far as I know how to do it is that it needs to come from us,” said Kanatakta.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Digging Roots had just returned from touring in Australia, the United States, Europe and Canada. Locked down and watching what was going on in the world around them, the pair spent their time working on Zhawenim, which is Ojibwe and means “unconditional love.”
“It was a statement for us that in these kinds of times you have to gather with your family, you have to stay close, you have to love unconditionally regardless of the circumstances,” said Kanatakta.
Kanatakta, originally from Winneway, Que., is Algonquin and Mohawk. He grew up living off the land, hunting and trapping, but also exposed to isolation, the intergenerational impacts of Indian residential schools, and few economic opportunities. By the time he was 16, he says, he had been to too many family funerals.
Kish is Ojibwe. Her family is from Batchwana First Nation, and she grew up in Toronto. Her grandfather, a residential school survivor, lived on the streets of Toronto and passed away from exposure.
“When I met ShoShona, we were like, ‘Let’s fight for the good things. Let’s fight for those beautiful gifts of life,’” he said. They put out their first album, Seeds, in 2006.
“We come from these families that are actually revolutionaries and people of thought, with our own pedagogies and bringing our own history back to the forefront, instead of this colonial version of things. And we feel that together we’re a generation that’s still talking and speaking of those experiences but from a new generational perspective that is entirely through music,” said Kanatakta.
Working together and also being a couple is about finding their voices and creating their unique sound, he said. It’s about balancing the male and female voices and making equal room for each other.
Digging Roots ended last year with a six-month world tour. On their way to perform at the JUNOFest, the pre-Juno event on March 12, they will be touring again but this time in Canada only.
Kanatakta says he’s looking forward to the Junos, which will be broadcast from Edmonton on March 13, to meet up with friends. He considers his category of fellow nominees “more like a love-in” than competition.
“Digging Roots is a band, but Digging Roots has also been a vision for us of something that continues to grow. We’re trying to think about these beautiful things we can create, not just as a band, but as a community,” he said.
Aysanabee will be the sole Indigenous nominee to perform at the televised Juno awards.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.