Tanya Tagaq and the Polaris Prize

A woman growled at me last night
gnashed and stomped and thrashed
and left my skin buzzing
all my hair alive
my heart in my throat
and when she was done I cried.

I don't know why or what for
but I felt it building while she sang
and secretly craved the release.

If I felt like lying to sound noble, I would say it was the names that did it.
Of the missing and murdered
aboriginal women
that streamed
behind her.
But I don't.

There isn't
a reason,
a thing,
my brain can attach to
to analyze.

I just cried
because of art and beauty
and a human embodying herself
and knowing where she's from
knowing knowledge of a different kind
and being fully realized

growl the fuck on.


Depending on how you want to divide a life, most of my childhood was spent in a big brick farmhouse outside Keady, Ontario; a 30 minute drive from Owen Sound. We had a barn and 200 acres and three ponds. The house also had a single story addition off one side. Maybe built as a granny flat or for the itinerant farm labour of an older era, we used it for laundry, an extra washroom and a spare bedroom.

I spent a lot of time in that bedroom, because it's where the computer was and the computer was my therapist. Not that I knew it at the time. At the time I would walk through the enclosed but unheated cement porch that connected the flat to the house, get what warmth I could from the electric baseboard heaters and boot up Minesweeper, a game where you use numbers as clues to flag hidden mines and avoid detonation. I would lose hours trying to beat previous best times at beginner and intermediate, or just try to finish at all on the expert setting.

It wasn't a real challenge though, best times were about lucky first clicks and a well set-up random board. Instead it was just about being soothed by mindless repetition. Click click click. The game was so in the moment and instantaneous that I didn't need to think about anything else. I had a goal and I had to stay focused or I would never find the 10 mines on the beginner setting in under 8 seconds. That my dad and brother moved to BC didn't matter. That the family's plan to follow was cancelled because my parents were divorcing didn't matter. That we were selling the farm and some of us were moving into Owen Sound didn't matter. That we had to give away Tara, the family dog, because city life would be absolute shit for one of the best groundhog hunters in the world didn't matter. No sadness, just focused clicking.

My feet and hands got cold in that room. I used to think I had poor circulation, and maybe I do, but I was also just sitting in a cold room away from my family at the far end of my house, only moving one finger for hours on end.

The computer wasn't just about Minesweeper, though. There were moments in my childhood when I felt our family was at the cutting edge of technology, like when we got a new computer featuring a CD ROM drive. I was 11 or thereabouts and I remember being asked out of science class at school by the librarian once to help fix one of the school's new computers. Just having a CD ROM at home imbued me with preternatural knowledge about futuretech that the adult desperately needed. I was unable to help.

Of course if you have a drive, you need some discs and amongst the two or three we had there was Encarta, Microsoft's attempt to capture the world's knowledge in one digitized encyclopaedia. When you put Encarta in the drive and closed the tray it would buzz to life and its opening screen would appear, a collage of famous images and people laid together, their borders fuzzed and melded. A few moments later an audio montage would begin, tinny and thin from the computer's speakers. I have a dream would melt into Beethoven and some drums before Inuit throat singing bled out from the ether.

I knew what it was and I knew I didn't like it. The singing scared the shit out of me and made the cold porch between me and my home yawn longer, darker and colder. Two women from far away in space and time in a sweaty fire-lit place faced one another and made these noises while an endless night full of endless white and endless dark howled outside their igloo. A child's imagination mashed with snippets of The Twilight Zone, forced to confront humanity in a raw form, humans connecting with humans unmediated. I had removed myself to this bedroom so the messy stuff, the complex interplay between people that can't be planned out ahead of time, but only experienced and responded to in real time, couldn't force itself upon me.

Although, at the time, I didn't think all that. I just thought it was creepy.


I was in Montreal a few years ago, and, dating a gardener at the time, Montreal Botanical Garden was on the itinerary. Maybe it was because of all the plants, maybe it was because I was uncomfortable in the relationship and hadn't recognized it yet, but at some point during the day I smoked too much and became very tired. Lounging on the benches while my girlfriend pilfered tobacco seeds - shhh - eventually got to be too much on a sunny day so I needed to find some shade.

The First Nations Garden is one of many sub areas in the larger complex and it is well shaded with lots of trees and has a cool, literally and figuratively, interpretation centre too. Fortunately for me and my life that was, unbeknownst to me, leading to today when I would write this blog post, there were some Inuit throat singers performing.

It was warm, there were people all around and I had nothing to fear! Also, that I was looking at the source of the singing, the singers themselves, inevitably humanized the moment. Child-me understood Inuit throat singing vaguely, as part of a hodgepodge of aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Whatever the specific practices of the different nations and peoples they were all just communing with dead ancestors and the spirit world because that's what they had always done. As I said before, sweaty faces in a fire-lit lodge, full of who knows what sinister and mysterious meaning. Whether I thought it consciously or not, my imagination led me into mental traps that understood throat singing as part of culture frozen and dead in the past, romantically removing its agency, preventing it from having any valid role to play in the present and future.

That day in Montreal, however, I could see that throat singing, like so many other kinds of performance and art, wasn't just about lost relics or ancient traditions, but about connecting with who was in front of you. Experiencing the now with whoever is there to share it. The women faced each other, holding one another's arms (although that part of the memory is a bit hazy, so apologies if that is an impossibility) and they started to sing. Back and forth, modulating and experimenting with noises and sounds, and improvising. They were coming up with stuff on the spot, playing off what they heard from the person they were facing and eventually, I realized, trying with all their might to get the other person to crack up, break the song and break out laughing. It was a moment of pure joy under the leafy green trees on a hot and sunny early September day.


A moment's research on Wikipedia tells me Inuit throat singing is generally a duet, or a performed contest between women. And, Tanya Tagaq, as a solo performer, is singled out as a non-traditional use of the form. And I'm willing to bet, incorporating a 40 person choir, drums and and electrified violin for a performance in a space originally built by the Eaton family as a restaurant in a fancy department store might also be considered "non-traditional", but fuck it all if that isn't the brilliance of life.

Ever-changing and inevitably moving forward, moment to moment, until we're all done. 


Tanya Tagaq's performance. Around 3:18:30 for the full introduction.

And as a final aside, I watched the gala in its entirety today as I was writing this and I enjoyed it. The slightly anarchic vibe is the internet stream gives off seems fun.

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