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  • Mi’kmaw Musicians Sons of Membertou Honor Culture of Past, Present, and Future

    A man wearing a white shirt and sunglasses sings into a microphone

    Graham Marshall, co-founder of Sons of Membertou, performs at the Our Voices Stage on the second day of the Festival. Sons of Membertou's 1995 album, Wapna’kik: The People of the Dawn, will be reissued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings later this year.

    Photo by Bill Douthitt, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    On Monday, July 1 (Canada Day), the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival closes with a concert by Sons of Membertou at the Potomac Atrium in the National Museum of the American Indian, co-presented by Smithsonian Folkways and the Embassy of Canada to the United States. Variations of the group perform throughout the Festival, June 26 to July 1.

    Formed in 1992, the Sons of Membertou have played a central role in the musical and cultural landscape of Cape Breton (Unama’ki, an island that is part of Nova Scotia, on the eastern Canadian coast) for more than thirty years. They have traveled the globe showcasing Mi’kmaw culture through their soaring vocals, powerful lyrics, and electrifying melodies, all rooted in the steady heartbeat of the drum.

    Their performance at this year’s Festival publicly kicks off a collaboration between Sons of Membertou and Smithsonian Folkways, who later this year will reissue the band’s 1995 debut album, Wapna’kik: The People of the Dawn. Featuring a mixture of traditional and contemporary sounds and songs, and sung almost entirely in the Mi’kmaw language, the album was hugely successful, influencing a generation of Mi’kmaw musicians before going out of print.

    The Mi’kmaw people have a unique historical connection with the United States. The Treaty of Watertown, signed on July 19, 1776, established an alliance between the Mi’kmaw people and the United States that both nations still uphold today.  For Graham Marshall, co-founder of Sons of Membertou, performing in the U.S. capital on Canada Day is a way to honor this special connection.

    “It’s actually the first international document to recognize the United States of America as a nation, because the Declaration of Independence was only two weeks old at the time,” Marshall said. “So the Mi’kmaw was the first nation in the world to recognize the United States as a country.”

    Despite this special connection, Mi’kmaw music has not often been heard in the nation’s capital. 

    “This would be the first time, to my knowledge, that we have Mi’kmaw music being sung on the National Mall or at the National Museum of the American Indian,” Marshall pointed out. “I am so excited about it.”

    Two men on a dimly lit stage, singing and playing a wooden rattle and a frame drum.
    Austin Christmas and Graham Marshall of Sons of Membertou perform in the Festival’s Welcome Ceremony inside the National Museum of the American Indian.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    For Marshall, carrying Mi’kmaw music traditions and the Sons of Membertou name into the world is about more than just music. “In reality, it’s not just a band or a drum group. We are doing this for the Mi’kmaw Nation. It’s humbling for us.” 

    Marshall sees the role of Indigenous musicians as different from popular musicians, in part because of the precarity and significance of Indigenous languages.

    “We are not just performers; we are teachers,” he said. “We are always thinking about the nations, and how to protect our culture, our ceremonies, our language. When we look at languages throughout North America, the languages are often dying. So when we have our language digitized, it gives our children a learning tool to learn their language, to learn different words.”

    Music has given Marshall a way to restore his own connection to his language. “Growing up, both my parents spoke Mi’kmaw, but the priests in the community taught them not to teach their children the language. At the time, though we knew it was wrong, everybody was in that oppressed state of mind and didn’t understand the fundamentals of that. So, music, and being a drummer, has given me the opportunity to learn my language again.”

    The band’s music honors the traditional while embracing the contemporary. On Wapnak’ik, the traditional drum represents the “heartbeat of Mother Earth,” while fiddles, banjos, and electronic sounds are woven into songs passed down from ancestors and original songs. Marshall sees this merging of cultures and traditions as a vital pathway to reconciliation.

    “Making music together, merging different cultures together, on a personal level is so important to me. When we talk about truth and reconciliation, it’s not just Indigenous people saying, ‘sit down and learn about us and respect us.’ Truth and reconciliation is a two-way street. We have to learn from one another to understand one another. One of those practices is making music together.”

    Above all, Marshall says, it’s about relationships. “What I say to non-Indigenous people is, ‘I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You know what we like? We like relationships. Come into our communities. Come visit us. Come see who we are. Let’s break bread together. Let’s get to know one another.’”

    A man wearing a plaid shirt and beaded necklaces plays a frame drum on stage. The orange backdrop reads Indigenous Voices of the Americas.
    Austin Christmas plays alongside Marshall at the Our Voices Stage at the Festival.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    This year, thirty years after its original release, Sons of Membertou’s landmark album Wapnak’ik: People of the Dawn will be reissued by Smithsonian Folkways. For the first time, the album will be easily accessible on digital platforms and streaming services. Marshall is both excited and overwhelmed by the possibilities.

    “I can feel that our ancestors are smiling and looking down on us today at what we have accomplished—that we were able to digitize the recordings means that the next generations ahead can always go back and learn from that. As Mi’kmaw people, we are always thinking ahead seven generations. We tell our audience and our people, ‘What legacy would you leave behind?’ When we do a project like this, when we go into the next world, we can feel that our hearts are complete and our mind is complete, that we’ve done our job, of passing it down to the next generations.”

    Marshall thanks the Folklife Festival for including Sons of Membertou and building a platform for Mi’kmaw people.  “We are very grateful that we have this partnership and we have these institutional allies to help us tell our story, to showcase us,” he said. 

    “As Mi’kmaw people, we have often been excluded. So when a non-Indigenous person or organization stands beside us, that is very important to us, as minority people. It means the world to us.”

    Sons of Membertou will perform live every day at the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, with a featured concert on July 1 (Canada Day) at 4 p.m. at the Potomac Atrium in the National Museum of the American Indian, as part of the 2024 Festival’s Indigenous Voices of the Americas program. Their performance is supported by the Embassy of Canada to the United States and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    This year’s Festival runs June 26 – July 1 on the National Mall and inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Check out the full schedule.

    People sit in and around a shaded wooden structure among trees.
    Sons of Membertou on the Our Voices stage.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Samantha Parton is a Canadian musician and digital collections specialist at Smithsonian Folkways. She holds a Master of Library and Information Studies degree from the University of British Columbia, and she lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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