Dene musician Leela Gilday has spent the past month travelling across Europe as part of her efforts to help revitalize Indigenous-language music.
Earlier this month, Gilday spoke in Wales at a panel discussion focusing on Indigenous language in music. As the only non-Welsh artist on the panel, the event was eye-opening, she said.
“The Welsh people experienced colonization in some similar ways to Indigenous people all around the world, and particularly in North America, in that their language was repressed,” said Gilday.
“People were jailed and beaten for speaking their language. It was a revolution that really brought back the language and established it once again as their national language.”
As she heard from artists across Europe, Gilday also had the chance to speak about Indigenous languages in Canada.
“In my panel, I talked about the 70 Indigenous languages that we have, and how 75 percent of them have less than 1,000 speakers,” she told Cabin Radio.
“I gave a Coles Notes version of colonization in Canada, and then talked about my personal journey with language reclamation, why I don’t speak my language, and how important it’s been to relearn it – and how that’s reflected in my artistic journey.”
The Welsh language is now taught in schools around Wales. A Welsh government survey recently suggested that nearly 900,000 Welsh residents can speak the language.
Gilday says that inspires her about the possibility of revitalizing Indigenous languages in Canada, something she is currently working on in her music.
“My whole next record is going to be in Dene languages,” she said.
“We’ve already started recording that, and this whole trip is just to strengthen the network that I’ve had over the past few years, and to lay the groundwork for touring for the new record.”
Following her Wales trip, Gilday moved to Paris with her band to perform at an event organized by the Sākihiwē Festival. The festival itself, which has a stated aim to “take music to Indigenous families,” is typically held near Winnipeg. The Paris event was conceived as a showcase for Canadian Indigenous performers.
“It was my first time in Paris, and it was incredible,” said Gilday,
“It was really wonderful to share some of the Dene-language songs with the audience, but also some of the older songs that talk about the connection with the land and water, and just to see people responding to your music.
“Music is the universal language, and when you get up on stage and you speak through your music, people respond to it, it doesn’t matter what language they speak.”
Gilday is now in Lisbon, wrapping up her trip at the World Music Expo, or Womex – her second time attending an event billed as the world’s biggest international music conference.
“I’m looking forward to renewing some of those relationships and strengthening that network that I’ve worked to have over the past couple years,” she said.
She performed at Womex on Tuesday night and will return to the NWT early next week.
“I actually can’t wait to be home. I miss my husband and my son,” said Gilday.
“But I also feel so proud to represent the North and the Dene Nation in all that I do, and this has been such a great experience and opportunity to share the Dene culture and language.”