It’s been a year since musician GR Gritt last visited the archipelago of Haida Gwaii off the coast of BC. Lessons learned there resonate with them today.
Gritt – a two-spirit, transgender, francophone, Anishinaabe and Métis artist – learned about what the Haida people refer to as “the silent years” during a visit to the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate.
Indigenous culture came under siege from colonizers as a smallpox epidemic hit the island in 1862, residential schools were introduced to the island, and the likes of potlatches, ceremonies, songs, and languages were criminalized.
“The silent years were the accumulation of all those years, where all that knowledge, culture, language and those people had to basically go underground and secretly share those stories, those songs, those practices, in order for the traditions to survive,” Gritt explained.
Those stories stuck with the musician.
Not only did they shed light on the insidious impacts of colonization on communities, but they reminded Gritt of the way in which attempts to kill Indigenous culture trickled down through their own family.
“My grandmother going to the school run by the nuns in her community in Shebahonaning, Ontario, and her not sharing the language or the culture with my mom, which means I don’t get any of that knowledge either,” they said.
“No language, no culture, no songs, no ceremony.
“The impact is very real and very tangible, and when you think about the immensity of all those years … that’s a lot of quiet years to collectively hold.”
Gritt tackles this shared Indigenous experience in their newest song, Quiet Years, which explores the intergenerational impacts of colonialism.
Penned in Victoria and written alongside fellow musician Rae Spoon, the song debuted on November 27 with a virtual performance from Gritt.
Culture, connection, and perseverance
Quiet Years is the first single from their upcoming debut solo studio album, Ancestors, set to release on March 26, 2021.
That album marks the first time Gritt, a former member of the Yellowknife-based group Quantum Tangle, has formally stepped into the studio as a solo artist.
“There’s so much depth on this album,” they said. “The sonic landscape of it became so much bigger than I thought would happen, and I just love it.”
Asked about the driving force behind Quiet Years, Gritt said the song was a way of sorting through the questions they had about their Indigeneity as a young person but never knew how to ask.
“My Nana was a devout Catholic,” they say, giving an example.
“You don’t know to ask, ‘Why are you Catholic? Aren’t you Indigenous? And how do you reconcile that?’ I couldn’t have asked that question because I didn’t really know that I was Indigenous, and didn’t have the language and the understanding to really put it that way.”
Gritt’s grandmother passed away when they were 15. They are now in their early thirties but questions persist about their own culture, practices, and family experiences. They know they aren’t alone in feeling that way.
“Those collective quiet years are intergenerational and experienced by thousands upon thousands of people that existed before I was born, and will exist after I’m born,” Gritt said.
“It feels as if it could be infinite, but I don’t want it to be infinite. There should be an end to it.”
Gritt sees the act of learning and connecting with one’s culture as an act of resistance and perseverance.
“If you’re an Indigenous person, I just feel like it’s your birthright to know who you are and where you’re from, to know your culture, your history, your language, your songs, and your ceremony,” they said. “That should have never been taken away from you.
“I hope more folks who are Indigenous, who are on the fence and maybe don’t feel like they’re enough, are able to find ways to feel like they are enough and then to start their journey with learning, because I think this is how things get better for Indigenous peoples.”