Ainu and Haida singers share stage and indigenous spirit

Hokkaido Ainu singer Mayunkiki Yahata.| Photo by Hiroshi Ikeda.

The Museum of Anthropology in conjunction with the Centre for Japanese Research at UBC will present an evening of unique music by indigenous singers from both Japan and British Columbia on March 14.

The event will showcase traditional music from Hokkaido Ainu singers Mayunkiki and Tomoe Yahata, along with Haida singer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson and her musicians. Mayunkiki is a member of Marewrew, a female Ainu quartet, as well as an instructor of the Ainu language, while Tomoe works as a curator at an Ainu Museum. Williams-Davidson, born and raised in BC’s Haida Gwaii, is a musician, activist, artist and lawyer.

The performance also features an informative UBC workshop – Hokkaido 150: Settler Colonialism and Indigeneity in Modern Japan and beyond.

“We are excited to offer to the Vancouver community a meaningful opportunity to experience Ainu music in person, to learn from international experts on Ainu music, history, and culture, and to contemplate connections between Ainu and First Nations,” says Tristan R. Grunow, PhD, assistant professor at UBC’s Department of History. “We hope for fruitful collaborations and conversations amongst Ainu artists and scholars and the many experts of Indigenous Studies and Settler Colonialism in the Lower Mainland.”

A brief introduction of the Ainu people

According to Fuyubi Nakamura, PhD, Asian curator at the Museum of Anthropology and affiliated academic at UBC, the word Ainu means “human” in the Ainu language. The Ainu peoples are indigenous to the Hokkaidō island of Japan, as well as the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands of Russia. In Japan, most of the 25,000 Ainu people have mixed heritage, are assimilated into Japanese society, and are often unaware of their ancestry.

“[The Ainu] have language and culture distinct from the rest of Japan. They have rich oral traditions, and songs and dances are important parts of their culture. They also produce wood carvings, weaving and embroidery,” says Nakamura.

The Ainu people traditionally follow animist beliefs in which nature has kamuy (spirits). They practice bear worship and their beliefs are reflected in the music where the vocals sometimes mimic animal sounds.

The Ainu were the original residents of Ainu Moshir, known today as Hokkaido. After the Meiji government colonized Hokkaido in 1869, they enacted a number of policies attempting to eliminate visible markers of Ainu identity and culture, including traditional customs and rituals.

As Grunow explains, “Ainu were encouraged to leave their villages to live in the cities, to leave behind traditional ways of life in exchange for work on farms and in factories; young children were taught standard Japanese in school. It is a story that should sound very familiar to those of us in North American settler societies.”

A similar indigenous history and spirit

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson.| Photo by Farah Nosh.

The story indeed finds an almost exact parallel in Haida singer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson’s song “Grizzly Bear Town,” which she will be performing at the event: ‘Oh, but colonization was a hard time!/Decimation, segregation, suppression/Vestiges remain today.’

Williams-Davidson is the principal lawyer at White Raven Law Corporation with a focus on aboriginal-environmental law. She established Raven Calling Productions in 2006 to promote Haida culture, language and music. Singing mostly in traditional formats, she says she aims to maintain the integrity of the language, traditional music and culture, and legal traditions in all her work.

Williams-Davidson estimates that the Haida Nation comprises approximately 10,000 people, with fewer than twenty who are fluent in the language. There are also about 200 new learners at various stages towards fluency.

“I think the culture and traditions are well-preserved, but I also believe that we have a living culture, and that we must continue to grow our culture to reflect the needs of contemporary Haida peoples,” says Williams-Davidson.


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