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Music Is His Medicine: Leonard Sumner shares his music, and holds a mirror to us when we explore truth and "reconciliation together.

LEONARD SUMNER is one of Canada's most important new voices in singer songwriting today. In a time when Canadians are coming to terms with the truth of how our nation came to be, and are becoming aware of the prescriptions from the Truth and Reconciliation report, a voice fresh with poetic wisdom is permeating the souls of listeners. Sumner's debut album is filled with stories from "The Rez," delivered in a fusion of hip-hop, country, roots, rhythm and blues.

He grew up in Little Saskatchewan First Nation, northwest of Lake Winnipeg. If you take a look at his Instagram feed, you'll see that despite the challenge of the massive 2011 flood that severly damaged his community, and many others in Manitoba, Sumner's sense of place remains in Little Saskatchewan.

While that feeling of where we belong, where our deepest heart strings connect our essence and soul, is unique to each of us, Sumner's songs spring from his young Anishinaabe life experience. They offer a universal relevance that emulates hope, angst, and a philosophic wisdom to a path forward. This path is not, and will not be, simple: "Storms happen for a reason. They'll help your roots to grow" (from Sumner's "Tears and Time").

Sumner's live shows are a transformative spectacle, not with rhinestones, but with a powerful presence and poetic delivery that excites and informs in the most humble and accessible way. Sumner's life is well-grounded in good, bad and challenging experiences that characterize his songs. He doesn't sing about his community work, but the "medicine" and wisdom that came from that is evident in his songs.

It was perfect when the team at Hillside last year decided to step into their power as a music festival. Community and environmental sustainability are top priority for Hillside. Nested in this, they orchestrated an overarching theme of Resistance and Protest for 2017's event. This couldn't come at a better time considering the global political climate and leadership--and the fact that Canada is not the only nation trying to reconcile centuries of damage to first nations as a result of colonization.

Sumner was among a dozen fiery acts--DJ Shub (cofounder of A Tribe Called Red), Sarah Harmer and Billy Bragg, to name a few. The Sunday night closing show was arguably the most electrifying, transformative climax of Hillside. With DJ Shub setting the tone and beat, Las Cafeteras (first generation Californians of mainly Mexican immigrants) and Sumner played off one another to the wildest, most receptive audience. Protest and resistance never sounded so great. Music is Sumner's medicine. We can all use a dose. Do not miss Leonard Sumner the next time he's touring near you. That's our prescription.

A\J folks Leah Gerber and Marcia Ruby interviewed Leonard Sumner in the Friday quiet of a Hillside yet to begin.

AJ: What do you call yourself? What's your title?

LS: Just Leonard Sumner, Mr. Sumner I guess. I don't really have a title. Just my name.

What do you say is your job title?

LS: I'm a musician, yeah.

Where are you from?

LS: I live in Manitoba. I live in Winnipeg. I was born in Winnipeg. It's Treaty One territory, but I was raised on a reserve called Little Saskatchewan. It's traditional name is Kaageeshkikamigaaak. It means "where there's a cliff" or "where there's a crack on the Earth." Both translations I've heard. As a man, I try to figure out what that means. I think it comes from our shoreline. In the wintertime, the lake freezes, and when the ice starts to thaw, it pushes against the shore, and there's been a build-up of rocks that have become built into this little hill.

So yeah, that's where I'm from. I live in Winnipeg, but I always tell people I'm from Little Saskatchewan First Nation, or Kaageeshkikamigaaak, as we say it in our language.

Did you speak your language at home as you were growing up?

LS: So there's a funny thing about that, because my parents definitely encouraged us to learn the language and speak it growing up, but because their second language was English, and they had a hard time speaking English, they thought it would be better for us if we learned English first and then our language second.

But unfortunately it doesn't really work like that, you know what I mean? Once you learn English, that's kind of what you're programmed to understand. So I'm semi-fluent in the language, I can understand. I'm from what they call the "Listening Generation." I can understand a lot and speak a bit, but I wouldn't be able to translate to you often.

What's the name of your people?

LS: Anishnaabe, or plural is Anishnaabeg (pronounced "kg")

What is your favourite place?

LS: My favourite place? Ah. In Manitoba there's a place called Bijou Falls, or Pisew Falls if you're Cree. It's a big waterfall. It's about half an hour from Thompson. That's definitely one of the coolest places I've ever been. There's a suspension bridge there, and the waterfall itself is a very powerful place to be. There's a lot of energy there.

Mijobijou is a big serpent lynx that you have to be careful around. And I think it represents the current. People would tell young people these stories. Like Mijobijou is a big creature that could get you if you're not careful. And I think that's what it represents to me. But to some people it's like an actual spirit. And so Bijou Falls is a place where that spirit lives, or has lived, or however you want to say it. So it's a very powerful place, I really like it there.

You don't really think about Manitoba having waterfalls.

LS: In Manitoba we have polar bears and we have a desert. It's one of the only places in the world that has that diversity of land. You go through the plains and you go through the bush. We're right where at the end of the forest and the bush of Northwestern Ontario. That kind of landscape ends, and then the prairies begin. And then we have inland oceans, you know? We have two big lakes that are huge. So it's very diverse. It's pretty flat. But just because it's flat doesn't mean it isn't beautiful.

Has the land and where you grew up, impacted and influenced your music?

LS: Yeah definitely, I mean, I think everybody's inspired by the land, whether they admit it or not, or whether they know it or not. Definitely I'm inspired by the land, and seeing different landscapes, getting to travel, watching it change when you're driving or flying over it. It creates an emotion that you can't really put into words. So you definitely feel the energy of it, and that definitely helps with your storytelling later on.

It's obvious through your lyrics and words that you've been on a journey. Can you tell us about that?

LS: I can sum it up. I've told that story several times. It started with my mom. She would always listen to oldies and old country music on the way to the city, or when we woke up in the morning, the radio was always on. Patsy Cline, and Motown and stuff like that--Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash. And then, just whatever else was from the '50s and '60s. A lot more country.

As a teenager, my brother started listening to rap music. I didn't like it at first, but then I started listening to it. Because you know, as a teenager, you want to rebel, you want to identify with something. There wasn't a lot of culture per se, traditional culture, so to fill the void, hiphop was something that really spoke to me. So I started listening and absorbing all of it: the dress, the speak, the look. All of that started becoming a part of my own identity.

I started rapping, started writing when I was about 14 or 15, and carried on for a few years. Initially I just sort of copied what I heard, but then eventually, through the growth of an artist you develop your purpose and you realize how to tell your story, and that it's just as valid as any body else's story. So there was that part.

And the performance part, I used to do a lot of karaoke contests. There were Treaty Day events where there were competitions and you could win money. And I was like, yeah I want to win money and I want to perform. So I used to do that. And I'd always end up losing to somebody who could play the guitar. I'd always get second or third. If I was at home I could win first, but if I wasn't in my own territory, then you weren't going to win first no matter how good you sang.

So I started getting jealous of people that could play guitar. Then when I was in college--community college in Brandon when Youtube started. So I bought a guitar from a pawnshop, taught myself a few chords and then started putting my lyrics over top of those chords. Ever since then I haven't had to enter any more competitions.

Are you still playing that guitar?

LS: I gave that guitar to a friend. He was my best friend in college. And I told him if he learned two songs, he could have it; but if he didn't learn two songs, I'd take the guitar back. And he never learned the songs, and I never took the guitar back. It's sitting in Saskatoon somewhere I think.

Did you have a position in social services at one point?

LS: I used to work for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. I was in youth health and wellness. So basically that was suicide prevention. Suicide prevention work within the 63 communities of Manitoba. Sometimes if there was a community in crisis, we would go in and talk to young people, and if there was [suicide] clustering, we would let them know, just bring some awareness of what was going to happen.

We had to do ASSIST training which is applied suicide intervention skills training. Sometimes I'd bring my guitar and perform, and sometimes they just needed someone to talk to. I did a lot of work like that. It was a lot of organizing events, kind of like festivals but for young people--youth gatherings where they could do workshops, where they could learn about music or modelling, fun things and just meet each other--because a lot of times there isn't opportunity for them to leave their homes. We would arrange for travel and stuff like that.

So I was doing stuff like that for a few years. But my contract ran out, and I wanted to pursue music. And I kind of felt fraudulent. I was telling people to pursue their dreams, meanwhile I was working a 9-to-5 job, which I loved, but I wanted to be on the road doing music. So I had to step away from that job to pursue music and here I am five years later.

It seems you're still doing that work through your music.

LS: Absolutely. I think you still do it through the music itself and then also sometimes communities through their health and wellness programs want to bring in musicians or performers or someone to come speak to young people. So I do it in that sense too. And then I was working in a place last year called Nanaandawewigamig--"the healing place"--that's what it translates to. A healing place. And we were going and interviewing young people for a video documentary. So yeah, I still go out and do that work. You know, you're still a part of it. You take that work with you wherever you go, especially if you're a musician.

It's a good feeling listening to your music. In your songs, you face adversity, you don't shy away from hard things, and you say things that help people get through that.

LS: Definitely. That's part of the intention. Not that I set out to write songs like that. But that's what inspires me. I've always been inspired by difficult situations and heartbreak. People don't write when they're happy. People write when they're sad. So it's a form of expression, and music is the actual out-loud frequencies that you feel inside.

Writing it down is one part, but saying it out loud is another. It's always been a form of therapy for me, writing. You can pick up a pen and be as angry as you want, and then by the time you're done writing, 10,15 minutes later, an hour later, you're kind of like, ok, that's gotten through me now. Thankfully I have a trace of what it was now in a form of art.

So definitely, I hope people listen and feel that way. But you can never tell what anybody's going to take from your songs. They're going to have their own interpretation of it. You can have your intention, but it won't always be interpreted how you would like it to be. And sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes that's a bad thing.

And sometimes the song might come before any intention.

LS: It's always something that happens first, right? You hear something in the media and you've been through something like that. Then you get angry and ask, ok, well what can I do with this anger? I can go be destructive with it or I can be productive with it. And I choose to be productive with a lot of my anger, or the sadness or whatever. I welcome those feelings when I have them.

People don't want to be sad; people just want to be happy all the time. And that's not life. Why would we have those other emotions if we were just supposed experience happiness?

So I explore those other feelings and I welcome them. When I speak about them out loud, I feel that because I'm a big man and I have a beard, to some people I present as a very scary person. But then they see me being vulnerable and they can identify with that. I feel like it's a good way to break stereotypes and show Indigenous people especially, are not these stoic beings with no emotion that we're often portrayed as.

Meanwhile, I'm always processing everything that's going on around me. Whatever I think is funny or weird, it's all going in there and I try to just express whatever comes through me naturally. Sometimes I do that just by sitting still, and then people can interpret my stillness as anger or something. I'm experiencing emotion all the time.

And watch out, it'll come out in a song!

LS: Oh yeah, it comes out in songs all the time. It's a good way to have it come out.

Yeah--I wish I could do that.

LS: For a long time, I wished I could do it too.

Is that right? Was it a moment of, "hey I can do this!" Or was it a moment of "ok, I'm going to try and do it."

LS: It was definitely elements of both. One of my favourite songwriters is Steve Earle.

Me too! And you remind me of him!

LS: And so I'm looking at Steve Earle, and I'm like, how the hell can he write 50 songs, and I can't write one? I bet you everybody has one song in them. So that was my initial song.

And then I was like, if I can write one,

I can probably write two. And then sometimes the songs chose you too. You're sitting there and you're writing and then it's there and it's gone and you're like, where the hell did that come from? I don't think it's ever going to happen again. And then it happens again. You can't really explain it. The best I've heard it explained is that we're "filters for the knowledge." I heard that when I was in Australia.

You have to be ready to accept it. If it's part of your gift to share these stories, then you have to do your part too. They say whatever it is, the Creator meets you half-way right? You've got to do half the work. Your gift will put you in to that space, but if you're not willing or ready to do the work, then you're not going to have any outcome from it.

Earlier you spoke about purpose. What do you see as your purpose?

LS: Just to live my human life. To experience all the emotions and learn as much as I can. And then, I've heard from spiritual people that we're sent here to have a human experience and to experience the things we can't experience on the other side, in the spiritual realm.

So the purpose is to enjoy yourself, to also appreciate all of your emotions, as I said earlier. Like the pain and the physical pain and the anger and all those types of things, those are things that we don't experience in the spiritual realm. So it's from here people talk about that, and it makes me think, well ok I'm here for the purpose to live a human existence. So I have to appreciate the good and the bad.

I also like the Buddhist ideologies where everything goes back to zero at the end. All the negative and the positive that happened doesn't matter. For all the good you experience, you'll experience the exact same amount of negative and the end result will be zero and it all balances out. You can look at that from an individual perspective or a universal perspective. I think about the big bang, or other creation stories. One of the creation stories says it was just a rattle in the beginning, and that's what science is saying. There was some sort of rattle and it exploded. Then the universe expanded, and it could be coming back this way. Maybe it all happens again or maybe the universe is infinite. I don't know.

For me, I just like to have a human experience. And while I'm here, I have to provide, and we have to eat and we have to do things to sustain ourselves. Part of music is that for me too. It's become my job. Sometimes jobs can be monotonous and sometimes you don't want to do it. I get like that with music too. For me my purpose is just to have a human experience and enjoy it, and when it's over, it's over.

I'm going to switch gears here. One of the main topics of 2017 has been truth and reconciliation. I think that it's one thing to talk about truth and reconciliation in Guelph, Ontario, but it's quite another to talk about it in Little Saskatchewan, Manitoba.

LS: I didn't go to residential school. So, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is basically about getting out the information for the survivors of residential school to the people who didn't experience them and don't understand it at all, and then understanding the direct consequences of those residential schools on our culture.

They use the word "cultural genocide" a lot. But I don't even feel like that's fair. I think genocide is genocide, right? If you're trying to kill a culture and people die, then you're committing genocide. You're not committing cultural genocide. You're killing people. The large mass of 3000 plus children died in these schools. And you hear the horror stories and I've personally heard the horror stories myself.

But then, I've sat with elders that tell more personal stories. I heard a man say that his job was to go and dispose of aborted babies that were a product of rape from priests and he had to go dispose of these little babies. That was part of his responsibilities. If that man never wants to reconcile with the government of Canada, then that's up to him, you know?

I can't punch you in the arm and say I'm sorry, and then tell you not to feel pain because I've said I'm sorry, you know? You get to decide when you're not in that pain anymore. And then you get to decide when, if ever, you feel like I should receive your forgiveness. So that's part of how I look at it.

The other part is, Winnipeg especially, was the most racist city in Canada [according to Maclean's], The next year was the year of reconciliation, and then the next year was Canada 150. Like, OK, what exactly are you trying to do before Canada 150? You want to have reconciliation so you can have your celebrations? Is that part of the agenda? What about the reserves with boil water advisories? What about kids in CFS [child and family services]? A lot of these things are direct consequences from the residential school system, which destroyed a lot of families. It takes generations to rebuild families--if you can ever rebuild them.

Our culture is definitely interrupted and we have a very fragmented idea of what our culture really was. The four directions teaching doesn't get you through the winter, you know what I mean? So you have to understand the depth of our culture and how much it was affected. Once people start understanding that, then they can start to have a little sense of empathy for the people that experienced it first hand.

But yeah, reconciliation--it doesn't really mean much to me. I think it means more to the elders who really, really wanted that for a longtime. If they chose to do that, then more power to them. Because if you can forgive after going through something like that--some people went in there and came out human after those experiences.

And then it's us, artists, young artists that grew up wondering about culture. We're wondering who we are. The young people are taking their own lives because they don't feel secure in their identities or their homes. We're the ones now, we're supposed to fix all this shit that somebody else broke? I don't know how that lands on our shoulders. I think there's a lot of people that are working hard and trying to rebuild and maintain parts of the culture and talk about land.

Reconciliation doesn't really mean much to me. I think it's more to appease the guilt that a lot of Canadian people feel and they don't know how to deal with it because they weren't the people who did it, but they're benefiting greatly from it. So how do white people reconcile with that? They think throwing money at the situation is going to fix it, or throwing apologies around is going to fix it? But apologies without substance don't mean anything. And I don't mean substance of money money can't fix the problems that the system created. So reconciliation--I don't know.

Where do you see hope?

LS: Honestly, I'm seeing less and less hope. Hope is just something you wish to happen. People doing work to tell their stories and to maintain their culture --that's where the work is happening. As far as hope, I think we're destroying more shit than ever, you know what I mean?

And I'm part of it. I have to accept the fact that I took a plane to fly from Winnipeg to Toronto and my carbon footprint is a real thing. I want to hold myself more accountable and start being a little bit more ecofriendly in the way I live my life. But sometimes it's hard too, because I grew up in a world where it was cool to have a truck and a four-by-four and a four wheeler. All these kinds of things.

I'm trying to find a balance in the world too, where I can find some peace. Maybe, as an artist, that's something you never achieve. Peace is being happy with where you're at and what you're doing.

I have a hard time seeing hope in this world with the way things are going, especially politically and in the United States. Donald Trump is the president of the United States right now. How the fuck did that happen? It's so strange. Then we have our own politics here where we think oh, everything's fine. Canada, oh, beavers and hockey sticks and maple syrup.

There's a lot of bad things happening here, a lot of Canadian corporations are going around and doing a lot of damage to other countries and they're not practicing safe industry. They're just taking and taking and taking. So, I find it hard to have hope.

I guess, like I said, it's the hard work that people are doing, that's where I see the hope. I see the hope in technology, and people like Elon Musk. I'd like to see more Indigenous ideology when it comes to protecting the land and treating it as a relative. So yeah, that's where I would see the hope.

Is there hope In your culture?

LS: Indigenous culture is very diluted at this point. A lot of our elders that are around now, you won't find many who haven't been affected negatively by colonialism, so a lot of our ways of being aren't being practiced completely the way they were before. Even hunters. People over-hunt, but that's a product of not understanding your ecosystem. I was always told to moderate how much you take, and you never take female moose especially. It takes them so long to reproduce and to have healthy populations.

Now you see people go out and kill three moose or something like that and they don't care. And that's a product of not understanding your culture, your land and your ecosystem--and that's a by-product of colonialism--and that's a by-product of the residential schools --and that's a by-product of the Indian Act. You can't blame people for not knowing all of the shit that has been taken away from them.

Is there anything that you wish an interviewer would ask, but they never do?

LS: What does reconciliation mean to white people? It's always pointed towards us. Does it mean you guys learn language, does it mean you guys learn culture? Does it mean you participate in your culture? What about the guilt of it? How do you deal with the guilt of it?

I find Indigenous people are tasked with a lot of the shame of these things, but a lot non-Indigenous people are tasked with the guilt, and people don't know how to handle their guilt. And I always joke around--that's why Canadians say they're sorry so much, because they don't know how to deal with their guilt.

I think sometimes, the questions that I get asked need to be self-reflective. Before you ask me, understand what it means to yourself. So what does it mean to you? Then we can have a shared understanding of what it means collectively. And we're able to learn more from that.

Marcia Ruby is creative director, and Leah Gerber is editor for A\J. Each follows @leonardsumner on Instagram, and both enjoy the duet approach to interviewing musicians.

Leonard Sumner's second album Standing in Light was recently released. If you are looking for music as medicine, in this era of unsettling history and healing wounds of the past, Sumner's music is the go-to source. Lyrically it's honest, clever, tender, resilient, resistant--and moving in the deepest degree.

Sumner will be rocking Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals in July. It's hard to imagine how any experience could transcend his amazing Hillside's 2017 shows. But this is entirely within Sumner's capacity. If you can't get to either festival, then just buy his albums. The first is called Rez Poetry.
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Author:Gerber, Leah; Ruby, Marcia
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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