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Eighth annual Spirit Song Festival in St. John's a celebration of tradition, innovation of Indigenous peoples

(From left) First Light venue co-ordinator Natasha Blackwood, First Light arts and culture co-ordinator Jenelle Duval and Spirit Song Festival co-ordinator Chirstina Dicks. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
(From left) First Light venue co-ordinator Natasha Blackwood, First Light arts and culture co-ordinator Jenelle Duval and Spirit Song Festival co-ordinator Chirstina Dicks. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

Produced by First Light, this year’s festival adds artist, dance, throat-singing residencies to lineup

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

While Natasha Blackwood explains the power of a person seeing their culture celebrated on a stage, Jenelle Duval is reminded of a special moment from last year’s Spirit Song Festival, during a performance by Nunavut-based band The Jerry Cans.

“The lead singer hauled one boy onstage who aspired to be the first … astronaut?” she says, pausing to turn her head to Blackwood.

“The first Inuk in space,” said Blackwood, who is the venue co-ordinator with First Light.

Duval, the arts and culture co-ordinator for First Light, said it’s something the kid will likely never forget.

“The spotlight was on him and the whole community celebrated his aspirations together,” she said. “(The Spirit Song Festival) makes space for artistry, but it also makes space for dreams and hopes and for the community to express themselves.”

First Light is a St. John’s-based non-profit organization that, among many other things, produces the annual Spirit Song Festival, a celebration of Indigenous arts and culture.

This year, they only had the Atlantic bubble to draw talent from. But that didn’t stop them from getting a wide range of artists, musicians and craftspeople from Indigenous communities who are engaged in creative and innovative work, while still honouring and sharing traditions.

Duval says many of this year’s artists are friends of the festival, who’ve had little opportunity to wind down in artistic spaces because of restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re excited, we’re excited, it’s going to be a nice, friendly reunion,” she said. “And we’ve got some new folks coming.”

From Nov. 16-24 there will be three series of events, consisting of over 20 individual events.

As part of the performance series, there will concerts by Silver Wolf Band, a folk-rock band from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, as well as Eastern Eagle, a group of Mi’kmaq singers and drummers from Nova Scotia who play a variety of traditional and contemporary powwow songs. There will also be performances by Eastern Owl, Jennie Williams and Tabitha Blake, and — by way of the internet — Tom Jackson will perform his Huron Carole Christmas concert, which is in support of the Community Food Sharing Association.

The knowledge-sharing series will have artist talks from Meagan Musseau and Jordan Bennett, both multi-disciplinary Mi’kmak artists originally from western Newfoundland.

As well, there will be drum building, caribou tufting, print making, painting, dancing and sweetgrass basket making workshops.

An addition to this year’s festival is the residency series, festival co-ordinator Christina Dicks said.

“There’s one that is visual arts-based, that will be Jordan Bennett,” Dicks said. “And then there is a dance residency, which is Meagan Musseau, Possesom Paul and Rebecca Sharr.”

The third is a throat-singing residency with Tabitha Blake and Jennie Williams, something Duval says is unique.

“I don’t know of any other of its kind, maybe it’s happened before, but not in Newfoundland,” Duval said. “After the residency space we’re going to, as an organization, support the formation of an Inuit throat-singing collective. That is the goal of the residency this year, to bring all those women together to learn to throat sing and then hopefully make that into a sustainable programming that will live at First Light.”

Blackwood said some of the most beautiful moments happen behind the scenes and in between the scheduled programming.

“People are so eager to share materials and skills and know-how and opportunities and collaborate beyond the festival on their own terms,” Blackwood said. “It just happens organically, and it always has.”

Despite having to accommodate the restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Duval says the festival decided to do as much in-person programming as possible.

“To not have that opportunity to build relationship with community in person just feels really foreign to the way we do things,” she said.

Blackwood said it’s such a meaningful festival for many people, herself included, the addition of administrative work like scheduling extra cleaning and measuring distances between spaces is worth every minute.

For more information or to see the full schedule, go to

Andrew Waterman reports on East Coast culture.


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