This piece originally appeared on Pitchfork on Nov. 4, 2016
Tanya Tagaq admits that she’s feeling “soft” today. The light from the window illuminates her slightly bashful smile when she says that, lying on a couch in Montreal and holding a screen to her face as we Skype. In 2014, the Inuk musician and throat singer won Canada’s esteemed Polaris Music Prize for her fourth album, Animism. When we speak, she’s just a few weeks away from releasing its visceral follow-up, Retribution, her most political and devastating record yet. This is an album about rape—rape of women and children, and rape of the land and the environment.
“I wanted to draw a line with non-consensual land grabs and non-consensual, non-renewable resource development and the day-to-day horrors we inflict on each other and in particular, women,” Tagaq says. “That kind of violent, unscrupulous, and unethical way of dealing with what you want and what you can have.”
Though she’s just 41, Tagaq went through the residential school system, which from the late 19th-century until just before the new millennium, was the Canadian government’s process of taking Indigenous children from their homes and communities and placing them in “boarding” schools in order to assimilate them to the dominant (re: colonizer) Canadian culture. There was rampant sexual and physical abuse. Reports say that more than 6,000 Indigenous children died while in the residential school system.
Tagaq survived and learned the traditional practice of throat singing, amplifying it well beyond the Indigenous communities from where it originated. Learning this traditional practice has its roots in something spiritual and ancestral—an act of love—but it’s also an act of resistance by reclaiming culture that the government sought to eradicate.
Through a mix of improvisation and composing, Tagaq crafts complex pieces of music alongside longtime collaborators like violinist/composer/producer Jesse Zubot. The sounds she cultivates from her disciplined practice are often described as wild and primal, sometimes frightening or ugly. These sometimes seem like euphemisms for something more overtly sexist or racist, like what critics really want to say is that Tagaq sounds “savage” or “unladylike” because she subverts expectations of how the female voice or just music in general should sound.
But Tagaq isn’t interested in pretty or polite, and Retribution continues her disruption of norms. The record shifts from boisterous flashes of punk, metal, and industrial—like a heart pumping after the hunt—to places that are much more ominous. There are great stretches that are chilling and stark, like footsteps hastening behind you on a night that’s too dark, too still. Just as suddenly, Tagaq evokes something profoundly heartbreaking. All of these moments underline the album’s wrenching dedication “to those we’ve lost to suicide.”
Tagaq is soft today, but it’s a hard-fought choice to remain vulnerable. In an intimate conversation, she talked about what retribution looks like in the face of rape, missing and murdered Indigenous women, environmental destruction, and decolonization. From that conversation came what you read below, in Tagaq’s own words.
If the treaties had been respected, Indigenous people would have vast amounts of money. Like, people would be going to the res to get the better doctor. There wouldn’t be this impoverished state. The government cornered us, and a lot of people don’t get that. They go, ‘Oh, you’re living off taxes,’ but no, no, no. That’s not how the whole thing works, and that’s a stereotype that’s spread in order to make sure the oppression stays in place. People never seem to ask why. They would prefer to see Indigenous people as drunks and lazy and incapable. If they see a drunk, homeless, Indigenous man, they blame that man. Addiction comes from trauma, and the trauma has been intergenerational for a couple hundred years now.
There’s such a revolution brewing everywhere. More and more people are beginning to understand the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous people. It’s just amazing that we’re still around, and it’s a blessing. There’s a positive light to retribution, too. Decolonization isn’t about going back to the way things were—it’s about stitching together the knowledge that we still have from the past and applying it to today.
What do you do with all those years of residential schools? Well, the equal and opposite reaction is building schools where people learn the languages. Rehabilitation facilities and proper mental health services are desperately needed in all the Indigenous communities. And, yeah, how ‘bout paying all that you owe to the Indigenous populations? It’s our constitutional right, and people don’t understand why we’re upset. Of course the system wants to keep the wool over everyone’s eyes—to keep the country running in the way that it’s been running, which is to eat, eat, eat, eat the resources.
I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I know the land. I know what we were supposed to be before. And sometimes that gets woken up. I hadn’t been hunting in a long time, and I went with some elders who were hunting seal. I hadn’t had raw seal meat for a long time and they were eating the liver and this elder offered me some. In my mind, I’m like, ‘Oh, I have to do this because I’m Inuk and it’ll be weird if I don’t.’ I put it in my mouth and my whole spine, one by one, got taller. A gushing warmth came into my whole body. Something woke up in me that remembered hundreds of years ago—that [reminded me] we are animals, and that hundreds of years ago, that’s what we did. Technology isn’t who we are. It just made me taste what’s missing out of this life experience.
There’s an alarming similarity in homelessness, addiction, and suicide between the military and the Indigenous population with regards to PTSD. People just don’t seem to understand the magnitude of the Canadian residential school system. I went to residential school for high school, it’s not that long ago. It’s so presumptuous to think that proper parents could have come out of the residential school system. All that trauma is given forth to the next generation, but the next generation doesn’t understand why that happened. It just keeps trickling down and in certain cases, exacerbating itself. At home, we’ve all lost family and friends to suicide. I myself tend to have thoughts like that. People look at mental health issues like, ‘That’s for crazy people!’ But it’s not. It’s such a day-to-day thing in certain circles, like in military or certain racial demographics. So many people I talk to on a day-to-day basis, I know they want to commit suicide.
I’d just like to see people on an equal playing field. I know when I went down to university in Halifax, I couldn’t understand why everyone was OK. White people seemed OK. How come so many people aren’t hurting? At first I thought it was isolation, because we were so far up in the Arctic, but then I realized no, this is being applied to reserves. Here we are, a culture that has been so quickly assimilated. Like, my mother was born and raised in an igloo before the government relocated us to Resolute Bay, and now she has a degree from McGill University. It’s just one generation. Look how quickly all of this happened to us! We were forced into communities and the economic system, our own judicial systems are taken away and replaced by an oppressor’s judicial system.
There we are, cornered, not in control of our non-renewable resource development, so we go, ‘Hey, OK, here’s our renewable resources!’ Seals that we’ve been eating for thousands of years and, ok, let’s sell these pelts so we can get more boats and rifles and housing and food to feed our children, and maybe build a bowling alley or a rehab facility or maybe have healthy foods. Then you have some PETA group or fucking McCartney or whoever the fuck thinks they know what they’re talking about, protesting against it and making us all look like villains. That’s one of our last resources! The suicide rate exploded in the ’70s after the EU seal ban because we weren’t able to provide for ourselves and our families. People need to understand that seals are not endangered at all. If you’re against the seal hunt, you are taking food out of human children’s mouths.
I also want to talk about the ‘Rape Me’ cover at the end of the record. I was seeing Brock Turner in the news, Kesha, Jian Ghomeshi. My daughter is about to turn 13, and she’s about to be thrust into that world of being an object. Kurt Cobain was a feminist and he wrote that song as an anti-rape song. I always wanted to cover it, but I loved it so much that I couldn’t—like, you don’t touch perfection. I started looking more and more at the cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women, realizing the ripple effects of residential school system where there’s a lot of rampant sexual abuse. Only by standing up to it and talking about it is it going to be dissolved. Children need to be free from sexual abuse, and women need to be free from being raped just walking down the street.
When I did that ‘Rape Me’ cover, I thought I was going to go in and freak out on it, but the feeling that came to me was one of profound sadness and vulnerability. I took it out of third person and put it into first person so maybe people can understand what it feels like: it’s devastating and it’s a lifelong thing that you live with. I really wanted to make it soft because when you go through sexual assault or rape, you spend a lot of time feeling like it’s your fault. No one ever asks for it, that’s not something people want. And we’re supposed to just live like that and not say anything? Fuck that. I want to say everything.
I spent most of my life harming myself somehow. When trauma is in your cells, you perpetuate it. As a society as a whole, we’re allowing the earth to be raped. We’re falling down this pit of technology and becoming so imbalanced that everybody’s sick in the head—anxious and uncomfortable and scared to be themselves. It’s time to wake the fuck up and stop allowing this to happen, to stand up and do it together. I really believe in the goodness of human beings—that we can collectively change the world. It’s by shining light on all the corners of everything that’s fucking terrifying to me that I find peace.