By Emma Pratt
Singer-songwriter Atsiaktonkie David of the Akwesasne band December Wind has released a song named “215”, to honor the 215 children whose remains were discovered at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada this past May. Music has always been a big part of Atsiaktonkie’s life. Atsiaktonkie hails from Akwesasne Mohawk Nation in Kanienkehaka and is a self-taught musician, skilled in guitar, piano, drums, bass, flute, and harmonica. His unique music style and voice is designed to take audiences on a spiritual journey through the power of his voice and lyrics. With over 2,000 songs to his name, Atsiaktonkie has won two Native music awards and has become highly admired in folk music.
His band December Wind is a part of the Alternative Folk Rock genre, carrying messages of peace, love, hope, and healing while bringing forth the struggles and heritage of Indigenous peoples. December Wind has a wide fan base spanning across the country of Canada, captivated numerous audiences and shared the stage with famous names such as Meryl Haggard, George Jones, Aerosmith, Foreigner, and Carrie Underwood.
Their new single “215” is a dedication to all Indigenous children that died at residential schools, with the goal of raising awareness, bringing people of all races together to embrace healing and take a closer look at the history of these institutions and its lasting legacy on Indigenous peoples. Atsiaktonkie hopes to inspire action with the song, while making it known that his people will not give up until all the missing children are recovered and returned to their homes for proper burials. Atsiaktonkie recognizes that recovering these children is one of the most important ways to begin the process of reconciliation and justice, and hopes the song will lead to just that.
“We’ve always known,” Atsiaktonkie said, speaking about the discovery of the children’s remains.
First Nations people in Canada have long known their children have been missing and have called on authorities to search for their remains. The continued search and discovery of new unmarked graves at former residential schools is a painful reminder for many families of how their culture was devastated by assimilation policies.
“I don’t like to call them schools — they were institutions of assimilation and genocide,” RoseAnne Archibald, Canada's first female national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview with WBUR. “And our survivors said that for the longest time they were told stories of the deaths and murders that happened in these schools.”
Archibald went on to state how the majority of Canadians have been deeply affected by this cultural genocide and stressed the importance of speaking out against these atrocities along with the need for the government to provide reparations to families and communities. She has called an independent criminal investigation into the church organizations that operated these institutions and the role the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) played in taking the children from their homes. As of August 2021, 6,509 children have been located, but Archibald hopes tens of thousands, more will eventually become recovered.
Indigenous groups have been using music to express themselves and tell their stories for centuries. Music represents an appeal to a range of emotions, transmitting knowledge across generations. For many Indigenous tribes, music is a key part of their culture - central to their very identity and place in the world. Unfortunately, forcible assimilation policies and residential schools have played a big role in the loss of traditional Indigenous music over time. The loss of many of these songs in communities has been devastating but has also sparked renewed interest in protecting, and celebrating music, within communities.
Indigenous musical groups like Pete Sands & the Drifters have also been using music as a call to action, a way to express grievances and spread awareness around issues deeply affecting Indigenous communities, such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic. For bands like Pete Sands & the Drifters and December Wind, music has increasingly moved beyond just being a form of expression and has become a form of activism. By spreading awareness through music, Indigenous musicians have an immense opportunity to legitimize their struggle for cultural autonomy and sovereignty. The internet and social media have allowed artists to advance their distinctive worldviews and are now able to share components of their culture and struggle for justice globally through a virtual medium.
December Wind’s single “215” can be accessed on the band’s website, https://www.decemberwindmusic.com/, and can also be found on their YouTube channel as well as music streaming platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud. The song will also be featured in the band’s powerful new CD, "Trail of Tears”, which is set to be released in Fall 2021.
In remembrance of the children’s lives lost in residential schools, Nonviolence International New York will be observing Orange Shirt Day on September 30th, opening a conversation on residential schools, the impact they’ve left on Indigenous communities, and the need for reconciliation. The lecture will take place on Zoom and is open to the public. Please RSVP here.
Orange Shirt Day is officially recognized as a statutory holiday in Canada with the goal of educating the public about the Indian residential school system and the significance of the cultural genocide, the impact of which continues to this day. The day is called Orange Shirt Day after survivor Phyllis Jack Webstad described her first day at residential school where she was stripped of the orange shirt given to her by her grandmother, symbolic of the Indigenous identities that were stripped from the children who were forced into these schools.
Additional information about this day can be found at https://www.orangeshirtday.org/
New Song From Akwesasne Band Urges Political Action For Children Found At Residential Schools
December Wind Music Website Homepage
December Wind Biography
215 Official Music Video
Indigenous Kids' Bodies Recovered — Not Discovered, Says Canada's Assembly Of First Nations Chief
Indigenous Song Keepers Reveal Traditional Ecological Knowledge In Music