When musician Jason Chamakese plays his flute at venues across the country, he’s often asked if he has a musical background.
It’s a question he never really knew how to answer.
“I’d say no, but it was a discredit to my culture,” Chamakese said. “Because yeah, I do have a musical background, and it goes back thousands of years.”
The self-taught musician is referring to the tradition of storytelling and singing deeply engrained in many First Nations cultures, including his own.
A Plains Cree from Pelican Lake First Nation, Chamakese travels with singer and drummer Robert Gladue to schools and libraries to share First Nations stories and music.
“In our culture, we have many of our own stories that were passed down, that are universal among the Cree Nation,” Chamakese said. “There’s a commonality in our stories, that encompasses our worldview and talks about how we see the world as being created.”
Chamakese and Gladue came to Meadow Lake on Feb. 6 to perform at Carpenter High School and the Meadow Lake Library as part of Aboriginal Storytelling Month.
“When I share these stories, I want to remind people, especially young First Nations people, that we do have a history, we do have a rich vibrant culture,” Chamakese said. “And a lot of that is in our teachings, and a lot of our identity is rooted in our storytelling.”
Many of the stories Chamakese shared were from his own childhood, such as one detailing the creation of the flute, an instrument important in First Nations cultures, particularly for the Lakota peoples.
“The style of flute I play, it’s indigenous to North America,” he said. “It comes from here, and it’s not borrowed from anywhere else.”
Chamakese has been playing flutes for about 15 years, and says the instrument helped shape his identity and provide guidance in his life.
“When they came into my life 15 years ago, I had no direction,” he said. “They’ve given me direction … and I’ve got to really open my eyes to my culture, and how immensely powerful that is.”
He said the instruments furthered his appreciation of First Nations culture, and rekindled memories of his parents telling him stories in Cree.
It’s a similar story for Gladue, who discovered his love for music during his teens, when he stumbled upon a powwow practice at the Waterhen Lake First Nation arena.
He soon took on singing and an instrument with an important place in Cree culture: the drum.
“I make most of the songs myself, and some of them are very old,” he said. “They come from generations long before us, so they’re kind of passed down.”
He describes his style of singing as traditional, with some contemporary influence, and soft and smooth in its cadence.
“That way it fits more the way of the music, because Jason’s flutes are kind of smooth and beautiful, so I have to sing songs to hit that same note,” Gladue said.
For Gladue, the cultural significance of First Nations music and stories is equally important as its musical appeal.
“The excitement, the feeling you get when you’re out and around and singing, it lifts your spirits,” he said. “It’s got sort of a healing power to it, if you were to sit there and listen to it.”
Gladue and Chamakese are hoping to bring that healing power to First Nations youth, who they believe are too often controlled by negative influences.
Chamakese believes the path to a positive future for many young Aboriginal people is through understanding the importance of their language, stories, ceremonies and songs.
“My main goal is to get our young people to get a better sense of identity, to recognize and embrace a positive spirit in their lives,” he said. “And a lot of the positive spirit that we have is in our own culture.”