010 :: WILLIE

Listen to "010 :: WILLIE" on Spreaker.


Songs by Willie Dunn, originally recorded and released in 1971 and reissued in 2021 on Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies from Light in the Attic Records. Listen / Buy direct


This is not my story to tell. The story is the singer's, and it's right there in these songs. It's a story of colonization, and a story of resistance. It's the story of an Indigenous Canadian folk singer, singing to the nation and never being heard.

I'd prefer not to speak over this song. I'd prefer just to let you listen, to this singer and their words. But seeing as this is a show built upon the premise of me speaking over music, I will proceed, and tell you that what I love most about this song is how unsparing, and yet matter-of-fact, it is. Lyrically, the song is a catalogue of the sins and hypocrisies of the settler state: its lies, its greed, its acts of violence. But musically, the song is an unassuming folk ballad: soft spoken, slow moving, lightly plucked, pleasant, even, and most of all, calm. It's not the accompaniment you'd expect for a text so full of righteous condemnation. But as I've listened to this song over and over again, it has come to seem perfectly fitting. For the views it expresses are not just the singer's personal opinion or subjective experience. They are fact – the facts of settler colonialism, the facts of what it means to be Indigenous in this country. And facts don't need an emotional presentation; they just need to be said. And that's precisely what this song does. If the singer sounds dispassionate, that's because they're telling the truth.

Still, you might think that some anger would do some good for the message – make it more apparent, less easy to disregard. But why see this as the song's problem and not, rather, the listener's? As if the burden were always on the oppressed to catch the oppressor's attention, and never on the oppressor to pay attention in the first place. And so I hear in this song's delivery also an act of protest, the singer's refusal to sing on the other side's terms. The facts are laid bare, for all to see. If some do not listen, that is on them.

Most, of course, did not listen. We know because these songs were written and recorded five decades ago, and yet their singer remains in relative obscurity, and the political realities they describe remain sadly and remarkably unchanged – which gives these songs a tragic timelessness, even when they couldn't be more historically specific.

Take, for instance, this song, which tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year-old Ojibwe boy who ran away from the school he was forced to attend, only to die one week later of exposure on the long walk home. In the most direct and obvious sense, this song is an elegy for this cruel and needless death. Yet in its quiet and measured sorrow, the song also keeps vigil for all the other lives lost and shattered by the residential school system, and also, to my ears, somehow reaches into the future and expresses grief for all the tragedies yet to come. For the fact that it would be another twenty-five years until the country's last residential school shut its doors. For the fact that this year, twenty-five years after that, the discovery of 1,397 residential school gravesites was met by this country with shock and, then, inaction. For the fact that to this day we still speak of "Seven Fallen Feathers" and the "Missing and Murdered". For the fact that the story of Chanie Wenjack is not a story of the past but of our continual present.

This all may seem like a historical digression, but for me, this song cannot be heard apart from this history, which reverberates throughout. I feel like I can hear it in the singer's voice, the knowledge of what's to come and the knowledge that they will not be heard. For they've seen what's come before, and they've seen how no one's listened then. And yet, they sing on, for all those who need to hear it.

Liner Notes

This episode was recorded on the traditional territory of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe people.

To learn more about the life and music of Willie Dunn, check out the physical liner notes of Light in the Attic's amazing anthology, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies.

And to learn more about Indigenous Canadian music in general, check out this episode of CANADALAND's The Imposter