Throat Singing at the Ashukan Cultural Space

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Nina Segalowitz, an Inuk from the Northwest Territories who has lived in Montreal since she was a newborn adopted during the Sixties Scoop, couldn’t learn throat-singing from an Elder, so she and her friend Taqralik Partridge learned from a cassette tape.

“We hunted down a woman who knew how – she gave us a tape and said, ‘Come back when you know some of the songs,’” Segalowitz told the Nation at the end of a throat-singing workshop she held at Montreal’s Ashukan Cultural Space. “We’d be next to the cassette player, pressing play-rewind, play-rewind, trying to get those sounds going. Then she helped us fine-tune our technique.”

That wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Throat singing was traditionally handed down from older women to girls, but Anglican missionaries sexualized the practice and prohibited it as devil worship.

“Teaching this today is part of my healing circle, after having been stolen from my parents,” Segalowitz explained. “I had no contact with my community until I was 18 – I had never met another Native person or another Inuit. At the age of 18, I was lucky to find a Friendship Centre, and it just went from there.”



The event was part of the Ashukan Cultral Centre’s offerings at Quebec’s Journées de la culture, when institutions across Quebec open their doors to the public. Also on the schedule for Ashukan was a showing of Manitoba artist Riel Benn’s Classic Rock paintings, which frame lyrics and images from classic rock records in the context of colonialism and Native resistance.

“If any of us have Native blood in our veins, that means our ancestors fought hard to survive, and it’s our responsibility to speak of their stories,” said Ashukan executive director Nadine St-Louis. “Our job is to decolonize. We’re using the initiative as an opportunity to remove the colonial lens and put on a cultural lens. This morning we sat in a circle and I explained what this space was, and the diversity of Indigenous peoples who live on the Quebec territory, and that we were on traditional Mohawk territory – all the jaws dropped. This was really Indigenous Culture 101.”

Too often, says St-Louis, the non-Indigenous public may feel nervous about entering spaces like hers to encounter Indigenous art and culture.

“We put the word out for people to come and discover the diversity of Indigenous cultures,” St-Louis said. “When people see these invitations on social media platforms, they’re not afraid to step into that space that sometimes is a little uncomfortable because there’s a lot of dialogue, and a lot of catching up to do.”

Segalowitz – who gave afternoon throat-singing workshops on October 1-2 – laughed with participants as they tried a traditional practice that is also a game, in which the first person to laugh was the loser. The whole room was in high spirits, since no one found the techniques Segalowitz was teaching very easy, and most people were quickly caught short by coughing and giggling.

Segalowitz was happy to see audiences embracing the throat singing that she waited so long to learn, and thrilled to see Indigenous youth participate.

“People feel more comfortable doing it now – especially the younger generation,” she said. “They’re looking for identity, and a connection to who they are. With the media, Facebook and YouTube, we’re on it – it’s more accessible and our young people are more willing to celebrate that. We’re lucky to have Elders who still know the old ways and the old songs.”

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