The Canadian-born songwriter, musician, producer, film writer, actor and author Robbie Robertson is likely best known as the former songwriter and lead guitarist of The Band. They were vital in developing the Americana musical style. He has written such classics as “Broken Arrow,” “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and others.
The only album of Robertson’s that I own is the CD Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble’s Music for the Native Americans. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, I think, a beautiful homage to his Indigenous lineage: his mother was of Cayuga and Mohawk background from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nation. His birth father was Jewish. I highly recommend acquiring it and sitting and listening to the whole work in one sitting.
The album was conceived as the soundtrack for the documentary film The Native Americans. Robertson’s son Sebastian played drums on some of the album, while his daughter Delphine sang backup vocals on one track, “Coyote Dance.”
I chose “Golden Feather” for today for a couple of reasons. First, I am taking a course called Indigenous Canada offered by the University of Alberta online through Coursera.org. I am in week five of twelve. This week’s lesson centres on education, starting with the Indigenous customs of learning through observation, experience, and elder storytelling, leading into what was called the Indian Residential School system.
After finishing three modules this morning, I felt emotionally gutted at the storytelling of what was unquestionably a genocidal partnership of church and state. The schools operated from the 1870s until the last one was closed in 1997. The Government of Canada forcefully took about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their families, from age three to seventeen. One school had a death rate of 75%; overall, a former government official’s findings were that the death rate was about 42%. Inconceivable. But real.
The government ignored these and other findings of Dr. Peter Bryce (1853-1932), a government medical officer, so he published them in a book. Yet nothing happened; the schools continued for many years, run brutally and mercilessly by the Catholic church (whose leader still refuses to apologize officially) under contract with the federal government. Recently, several discoveries of mass graves across Canada have made my country face up to its evil, criminal history of colonization and given credence and validation to those who have spoken for generations about genocide.
The other reason for today’s selection is that July 1st is Canada Day, formerly known for many years as Dominion Day. I find it difficult this year to celebrate my country while its monstrous past is steadily and consistently being revealed. I’m not into “cancel culture,” don’t get me wrong. But those who I’ve seen objecting so strenuously to the pausing of Canada Day festivities are the same people who are silent on our country’s legacy of murder, torture, sexual abuse, and medical experimentation on thousands of dear children of the First Peoples. While it’s true, there is work on reconciliation, it is not enough, especially in the face of the recent uncovering of secret and unceremonial burial grounds.
“And when you find a golden feather
It means you’ll never lose your way back home… ”
(from “Golden Feather,” by Robbie Robertson.
Full, unofficial lyrics are available, courtesy of AZLyrics.com.)
“Golden Feather” for me speaks to the indomitable spirit of the people of Turtle Island, what is now called North America. Intergenerational trauma has ruined many lives and completely overturned and tried to “cancel” their culture, heritage, family, and governance structures to benefit those of us who came to this land long after the First Peoples. Yet, these people persist and are finding ways to protect and preserve their languages, customs and culture despite the many disadvantages laid upon them over centuries.
I am grateful to live in a vast, beautiful country where I enjoy many good things. But I know I enjoy those privileges because of a long and shameful legacy of exploitation by the European fur trade, expansion across the continent, and the attempts to erase the rich, magical, wisdom culture that existed here for thousands of years before we arrived.
My country and all living in it must make amends and reconcile with a people who have suffered so much at the hands of greedy and inhumane explorers and settlers and who continue to suffer through systemic racism, disadvantage and indifference by many in positions of power.
Now you know a little about why this is my Song of the Day for Today. Thanks for joining me here.
Here’s the video for the song from Robbie Robertson’s official YouTube channel: