A few days ago I published a post about the Tragically Hip song “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”. I started that post off with the line, “The journey across Turtle Island is long and never ending.” At the time that I wrote those words, I was referring to the journey one makes throughout the course of their life on Earth. I used the Indigenous term, “Turtle Island” because I wanted to tie that journey into the Indigenous perspective the song was lending itself to. Because some of you may not be familiar with what the term “Turtle Island” means, I thought it important to take a few moments and discuss it with you, because in Indigenous cultures it is one of the foundational pieces to the story of entire Peoples everywhere. So, here goes…
All cultures throughout the world have their own origin stories about how the world was created and how life came to be. In many North American Indigenous cultures the story of creation involves water, sky and the earth. While there are variations on this story depending upon which Peoples the storyteller represents, the essential elements of the Creation story are that the world was once covered entirely in water. Various animals were tasked with recovering wet soil from the bottom of the water so as to start the process of creating land. All failed, including the muskrat, who died. But the muskrat’s death was not in vain because it had placed wet soil upon a turtle’s back, which turned out to be the solution to developing land again. As more and more soil was placed upon the turtle’s back, the turtle increased in size until it became the foundation upon which the entire world rested. Thus, Turtle Island is the world. The origins of Turtle Island involve the interconnectedness of the water, the sky and the land which, as we know, forms one of the core philosophies of Indigenous cultures. The idea that we are not separate from the world around us, but instead, are part of everything and that everything is part of us is a fundamental part of not only land stewardship, but of how we treat each other in our everyday journey through life.
I bring this all up because my post about the Tragically Hip found its way on to the computer screen of a Métis man from the Western Canada. He is a fellow blogger on WordPress who goes by the blogging name, rawgood. He left me a wonderfully detailed comment about my Tragically Hip post which, I assume, came to his attention because of my use of the term Turtle Island. We exchanged several emails back and forth and had a very good discussion. From this discussion came two points. The first was that rawgood is someone who is on a mission to reclaim Indigenous terminology, starting with the recognition that we are all inhabitants of Turtle Island. The world that European explorers sailed into and “discovered” was already referred to by Indigenous inhabitants as being Turtle Island. But, as colonization took place, one of the characteristics of it was the elimination of cultural terms and language used by the Indigenous Peoples. So, Turtle Island was renamed as being North America. Essentially all of the place names we recognize in Canada, for example, were once known by Indigenous names. So, anyway, rawgod and I had a good chat. As our conversation was winding up, I invited him to follow my blog and went over my publishing schedule i.e.: Monday is reserved for classical music posts; Tuesday, for Canadian songs, all the way to Friday, which I explained was the all-request Reader’s Choice segment. It was then, as he was saying his farewell that he tossed me a music request. rawgod asked if I was familiar with the Canadian rock band from the 1970/80s called Chilliwack. I said that I was. I grew up listening to songs of theirs such as “Fly at Night”, which formed part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. He then mentioned that the band Chilliwack used to be called The Collectors. The Collectors put out two albums. The first album was self-titled and featured Psychedelic rock in a style that was becoming popular at the time. The entire second side of that debut album was one song called, “What Love (Suite)”. This song contained a level of social conscience that impressed and moved rawgod so much that he declared it to be an “overlooked by the music world gem”. Many who have listened to this song (that clocks in at almost twenty minutes in length) compare it favourably to a song such as “The End” by Jim Morrison and The Doors. My friend, rawgod was equally impressed with The Collector’s second album which was actually a soundtrack album to a famous Canadian play. As much as “What Love (Suite)” may have blown rawgod’s mind at the time, I was equally impressed with the role their second album came to play. It was a role that fuels much of the story contained in the rest of this post. That second album was called Grass and Wild Strawberries. What was unique about this second album was that it was actually made up of songs written for one of the seminal theatre productions in Canadian history. I was not aware of that fact. So, as I always do whenever someone sends a music request my way, I wrote the song title down in my book that I have all of my song topics in, and I promised to give his request my full attention. Here is what I discovered.
The band Chilliwack was composed of lead singer Bill Henderson, along with Glenn Miller on bass, Ross Turney on drums and Claire Lawrence on flute, saxophone and keyboards. They had a great run as a rock band throughout the 1970s and all through the 80s. But, before they were Chilliwack, these guys were in a band called The Collectors, and prior to that, they were known as the CFUN Classics. While playing as CFUN Classics and as The Collectors, a man named Howie Vickers was the lead singer. When he eventually left the band, Bill Henderson took over. CFUN was a local radio station in Vancouver. The CFUN Classics were the house band on a local television show called “Let’s Go”. Like many bands, the CFUN Classics had dreams of musical success so in 1966, the band moved beyond “house band” status and become their own entity, which is when the CFUN Classics officially became The Collectors.
As mentioned above, The Collectors released two albums. It was after the release of their self-titled debut album that the band was approached by a playwright named George Ryga who asked if they would record a series of songs he had written for a new play he had created called “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe”. The band agreed. Their new album was called Grass and Wild Strawberries and contained many songs including one called “Seventeenth Summer”, which is achieved some modest chart recognition. While The Collectors didn’t become famous as a result of this album, this hasn’t stopped their endeavour from becoming recognized as one of the most important contributions in the history of Canadian drama, as well as in Canadian cultural discourse.
The play “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” was released just as Canada was approaching the centennial anniversary of its creation as a country. Whenever people or institutions approach milestones such as a 100th birthday or anniversary, the tendency of those involved is to become reflective and retrospective. There were many films made, plays produced and books written about Canada at 100 and to what that meant in the country and around the world. “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” was one such examination of what the impact of 100 years of Canada had been. In particular, the play examined the impact of colonization on an Indigenous woman named Rita Joe. Needless to say, the character of Rita Joe faced many obstacles when it came to living her life in a world that didn’t recognize nor value her identity as a female nor as an Indigenous person. “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” was the first public forum by which the question of the price paid by Indigenous Peoples in order for Canada to become a country was discussed. It has gone on to be viewed as being one of the very best and most important plays ever in the entire history of Canadian theatre. At one time, Chief Dan George and Frances Hyland starred in it. “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” has also been performed as a ballet by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. By writing his play, George Ryga started Canadians, like me, on the very first steps of a journey of somber reflection as to our role as settlers and the impact that had on the lives of generations and generations of Indigenous Peoples all across this land. It is a journey that continues anew with every young body found buried in the unmarked graves that populate the grounds of residential schools. It is a journey that continues to unfold with every story of teen suicides at First Nations fly-in communities far to the north in our land. It is a journey that goes on with every boil-water advisory that remains in effect in First Nations communities all across the land we call Canada. And so, the journey across Turtle Island is long and never ending.
The songs, “What Love (Suite)” and “Seventeenth Summer” were originally sung by The Collectors and continued to be performed by the band The Collectors morphed into…Chilliwack. Regardless of which iteration of the band was singing, the songs from both albums were always sung with much energy, earnestness and purpose. Every word sung and note played from those two Collectors albums helped to shine a light on problems that many of us ignored or didn’t even know existed, as well as on a new way of living. “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe”, in particular, was the first step on the very necessary journey toward reconciliation for many. For this history lesson, I extend my thanks to rawgod, because as we all know, a long journey is made shorter and more enjoyable by having good company along the way.
The link to the video for the song, “What Love (Suite) by The Collectors can be found here.
The link to the entire second album, “Grass and Wild Strawberries” by The Collectors can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bill Henderson (The Collectors/Chilliwack) can be found here.
The link to the official website for George Ryga can be found here.
My pal, rawgod, writes for two blogs. The first is about spirituality and is called rawgodsspiritualatheism.wordpress.com. His other blog is about political activism and is called ideasfromoutsidetheboxes.wordpress.com. Feel free to check out either or both of his blogs at the links above.
“The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” by George Ryga is available in book form and can be ordered here.