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Noodaagun. Beacons.
Jason Ryle

The heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Its rhythm sooths us and nurtures us as we prepare to enter this world. The sound of the heartbeat draws a parallel to the drum, an important instrument for most Indigenous cultures and central to many First Nations practises and music. We grow up hearing the drum – in its many incarnations – and its sound reminds us of our time in the womb.

Indigenous cultures share a deep and profound connection to sound in its many forms. As societies built on oral traditions, our histories, teachings, and cosmologies are transferred between people in this intimate way. Knowledge from one person is conveyed, through the ear, to another person’s heart and mind, and eventually informs their actions. Sound in this way – in all its forms – is a spiritual and physical connection to our ancestors and to generations to come.

This intricate and special connection to orality still persists today, as it has over time. Anishinabe teachings – and many other First Nations and Indigenous knowledge – say that the spirits of our ancestors surround us. If we know how to listen, they will guide and teach us on our path through the physical world.

In my mother’s Saulteaux language Noodaagun is the word that best encapsulates “sound” or “noise.” It refers to a physical sound, but also to someone or something making a sound when used in a sentence. It is a word that refers to a sound emanating from someone or someplace – it is a word that intricately connects the noise to the noisemaker…neither can exist without the other.

I’m captivated by the idea of sound existing over time and through generations. Certainly in the past century we have physical audio recordings, but my fascination is predicated on spiritual sounds, on sounds made by our ancestors and how this sound can guide us into the future. It is this notion on which Noodaagun. Beacons. is based.

The North American landmass – known as Turtle Island to some First Nations – is bathed in Indigenous sounds and has been for millennia. From songs sung centuries ago to teachings made in the present, this diverse soundscape surrounds us and reminds us about the importance of listening. Even in our busy urban centres – which are now home to the majority of First Nations people in Canada – these sounds exist and implore us to listen.

I also contemplate the Seven Generations teaching; the practise that what we do today impacts people and the land decades into the future. It’s a teaching that promotes long-term thinking and one that instils a sense of caring and responsibility in our actions.

With the rise of Indigenous pride and awareness in the 21st century – a veritable renaissance of Indigenous cultures and arts – the power of audio has never been more apparent. The history of colonisation is one of silence and oppression. Oral Indigenous teachings and histories were, by Canadian law, forbidden or actively dismissed. Gatherings of Indigenous people were outlawed or heavily controlled. In other words, Indigenous people became largely invisible in the national realm, relegated to the past or embodied in harmful stereotypes perpetuated in the media and education systems.

While Indigenous soundscapes became disrupted or went underground, they were not altogether broken. Sounds still lingered in the land and in the air. Culture bearers maintained stories and passed them to new generations. Indigenous artists too became a lifeblood of Indigenous orality.

The artists selected as part of the audio component of Cross Waves embody in many ways the vital importance of sound to Indigenous lives and realities, just as they speak to the power of survival and rejuvenation of Indigenous cultures and peoples. For me, their work – like those working in other disciplines and practises – are bellwethers for cultural pride, beauty, and strength. They are aural beacons that invite listeners to stop, listen, and contemplate the stories, histories, and teachings they embody – often heard by many for the first time. For me, they also serve as sonic time capsules for the future – leaving a legacy for generations to come that will serve to guide the minds and actions of all who make the time to listen and contemplate; “sonic spirits” that linger after our time on the physical earth is over.

The heartbeat is present in much of their work as is the evocation of land and other physical spaces. They speak to struggles – both personal and shared – and to the perseverance and beauty of culture. The power of sound to embody and shape a physical space or concept becomes evident through their work, and in the work of other Indigenous sound artists working internationally, from Sámi joiks to the songlines of Indigenous Australian nations. For me, the works in the Noodaagun. Beacons. broadcast all have physical forms, however abstract some may manifest. It is a landscape inviting us all to visit and feel.

Collectively these works speak to the unbroken aural links between the past, present, and future that guide our hands today. And how these works – like all great art – have the ability to connect people of all cultures, ethnicities, and histories, if only we take the time to listen to the beacons that stand tall amongst us.