I love interviewing musicians. And LGBTQ musicians are fascinating people with their creativity, wonderful diversity, and beauty they give to the arts. I am always in search of that “perfect” piece of music, and happily fail continually, but just knowing I’ve come close is good enough. All the failures of finding it have more often than not ended in sheer beauty. I am a history buff, and a guy always trying to learn as much as I can about every culture. As a boring straight white American male, I can say, pretty much anyone different than myself is going to be interesting.
All of this came to a head at the pinnacle moment that I learned of the musician Jeremy Dutcher.
Jeremy Dutcher is a Canadian born “First American” or as we yanks (Americans) would say “Native American”, who is classically trained in singing and piano and has chosen to sing music in his native language. If you can imagine an operatic voice, classical piano, cello, etc., to a native tongue that is almost extinct, only more awesome than that. He is identified in his nation as “The Third Gender” what we would call queer, but for him, it has a deeper meaning, and responsibility to it.
I had to talk to this guy and believe me, tying down an interview was almost as difficult as launching the space shuttle. Our conversation was almost instantly metaphysical, he was very intuitive, and as I would ask one question, he would answer the next five. Jeremy Dutcher is the kind of guy to just listen to, and be enlightened by just in his word, and music (imagine Sigur Ros). He closed the interview with one of the wisest things I have ever heard spoken. He gives off a very gentle and soft friendly and funny demeanor.
Jeremy Hinks: First of all Jeremy, I will try my best to be sensitive about this, but, I’m that dumb straight American white guy.
Jeremy Dutcher: Hey, we love you, some of my best friends are dumb straight American white guys. Go ahead. I’ll say that we speak differently in Canada about these issues.
JH: Well, I went to University in Quebec so I do have a lot of experience with that, but, it is weird, I was in French Canada, without a television in 2002-2003, so, I missed the whole Gulf War, all of that. But when I got to English establishments in the hotels and watching TV it was clearly its own world. I remember watching and thinking “Ok, I understand they are speaking English, but have NO idea what these people are saying.” But it was the same in Montreal, because I speak European French, and, well, we know how different that is. So, as I would say in Canadian, often I had no idea what they were talking “abooooout.”
JD: Yes, we have a lovely way of talking up here.
JH: So do you speak French?
JD: I’m in New Brunswick, and so it’s the only fully bilingual province here, so, yeah it’s all in French and English, menus, street signs, that kind of thing.
JH: So you speak Canadian, AND French, fantastic. So, here is where I need to try and explain it correctly. I have a mate who is from a Native American tribe in Oregon. And when he was very young his mother identified him as they called it the “Mixed Spirit” or the “Dual Spirit” in his language. So they left him alone, and let him develop and grow up as a normal kid, just letting him understand that he was, in fact, special because he was born with the spirit to empathize with both genders. He was revered that way by his culture, and he was thus chosen to become one of the chief medicine men of his nation, it is because of that. It was seen as something holy and respected. So, when I read that about you, I thought that was great, and parallels to that in his culture as well. I wanted to get your experience and take on that because it is SO different from what, you know, my side of the world and my paradigm understands.
JD: Yes, indigenous ways of knowing and understanding are a complete 180 from what “Western” or Judaeo Christian society has treated queer people. So, I think that a lot of people, when they come to know this, and how WE view queer people or “Two-Spirit” people they are surprised. I mean, we can’t talk about indigenous peoples as a whole, because we all have different cultures, religious beliefs, and views of the world. But, for instance, what we might call in English, the “Two-spirit” are very different. In Toronto where I am, we would say one term, “Nidge” or “Je Jahk”, which means “Two-Spirit” but on the east coast where I am from, they would say “Madelwonok”, so there are different understanding of word and meaning of queer peoples roles, but what cuts through all of that experience is that we queer people always had a place in our community, and it is only a very recent imposition brought to us by the Christian Church to often say that queer people are not ok. Now, this is turning to be the prolific view in a lot of the communities, because Christian Churches have had a lot of influence on the First Nation communities across Turtle Island. So for me, I can only speak to my specific context, in what we call “Wapanaki” but what some people call “Canada” the church had a very strong influence in our community, and it stomped out a lot of the traditions of understanding the “Two-Spirit” identities, so what your friend experienced in his community where the tradition was still very strong. But in my community, the church had changed the social dynamic around queerness, and so it was something not really talked about, I didn’t have any queer elders in my community. So, I came out at a young age, which was quite a surprise to everyone. But we didn’t have the language of the concept of “Two-Spirit” or “Madelwonok” so, I came out as gay. So my experience now has been to uncover that traditional understanding of LGBT people who are indigenous. And yes often they are the medicine people, they are the artists, because they have such a diverse perspective because they sit in the middle, and that is of value to ANY community. And this is what I hope that non indigenous people, or white people, or anybody, I think this is something that we can learn from the indigenous people, is that it is the queer people that carry the culture forward, and that has been lost in the homophobia, and trans-phobia that has been hoisted among the people on this continent.
JH: SEE!! Yes, and that’s why we’re talking now, cause when my mate told me that, I thought it was the most interesting approach to understanding and explaining queer people I had ever heard.
He said, “We are selected to be the medicine people, the healers, spiritual, and physical,” but he said that the idea of “gay” was not how he understood it. He said he understood his whole life as “Two-Spirits” and its purpose and was happy with that. It was when he went to high school off the reservation that he learned the term “gay” and they told him what it meant, and he said, “But I’m not gay, that’s just how they understood it and defined it, but it was the only thing close to describing what I am, but still really, not even close.”
JD: Absolutely, for us, it is marrying our gender, spiritual, and sexual identities, and spiritual identities and our cultural identities and our languages and all of these things that are very dear to us. So when we can find space where both of those identities are able to speak to each other, it is a really fulfilling place to be, if you are supported by your communities. Though, homophobia and trans-phobia are still very present in some First American communities and it is not safe for young queer people to come out, and be themselves. So for me, with the work that I do, and the music that I make, it is about offering those “Two-Spirit” representations or those queer and indigenous visuals that I get to show people. I think that’s something that not a lot of indigenous and non-indigenous people have seen before, so it has gotten a nice response from people.
JH: AHHHH YES, SO, onto your music… What was it that made you decide to sing in your traditional language, because I speak seven languages, so, I think that was really cool, but then you do this in your “Operatic” style, classically trained voice, on top of this classical piano. It just was.. Metaphysical. I mean it just reminded of the first time I was in Iceland and I heard Sigur Ros. I heard it, and I thought “How could I have lived these 45 years of my life, and never heard such wonder.” Aside from the fact that you haven’t even been alive that long, but still, it was beyond description, just beautiful. I don’t understand a word you are saying, but it’s just moving.
JD: Well, I actually seemed to understand that point, when I was studying opera. People don’t go to the opera to hear words they understand, they go for the music, they aren’t always reading the scrolls directly. They want to go and be transported somewhere because something that music does is sort of “superlingual” that is above how we experience understanding. So why I sing in my language and the music I create is just coming from where I sit as a person. I am classically trained, and this is the language I speak with my mother and all of my family, I think it is offering something people haven’t heard before, and for me it is the most natural thing. I think our language is beautiful, and I want to share that with people. For me it is a larger point to around indigenous languages. The UN declared 2019 as the “Year of the Indigenous Language”, so a lot of people are talking about our languages. I think of my own language, and that there are less than a hundred of us still speaking it native, so we are on the verge of extinction, so for me, that’s a very important element as to why I sing in my native language. I hope to urge other young people to learn to speak, and to make art and to practice in our native language. Because when we lose a language, we don’t just loose words, we lose an entire world views, and world views that only exist in this place. So, when I was in classical music school taking a German test, and I was trying to conjugate these massive verbs, I thought German is going to be fine, there are entire countries that speak that language. So, I thought I should be trying to protect this wonderful language that comes from this place.
JH: Absolutely, when a language dies, you lose how those people think, you will NEVER be able to think that way again like the people did who spoke it. Like ancient Egyptian, we have been able to learn the language, and what all the words and hieroglyphs mean, but still, we only have what they left behind, now how they thought, or who they were as a thinking people.
JD: That’s the great part about what’s happening in my community.
JH: Has there been a resurgence in it? That was my next question.
JD: Yes there has been, it has been so beautiful, the initiates coming up to keep our language alive. Our written language has only existed in written form for only 20 years. So now we have dictionaries, and books are written in it, apps for languages learning it, they are teaching it in the schools, and immersion programs. So for me, this language is still alive and breathing today, so we need to front-load the life of it. So many people refer to it as a dying language, but for me, that just runs so counter to everything that I see. And yes colonization of the Europeans it has been made difficult to hang onto, but in the face of that, we are STILL speaking it in our homes and schools, and singing it in our songs, and in telling of our stories. So it is a beautiful time now, that the young people are reaching back and able to find something that we can use in our community today. All of these communities across the island are trying to keep hold of that. So you see all of these pipeline protests going on.
JH: Oh yeah, when I was in Montreal, the Mohawks were out making a mess of EVERYTHING man, they were shutting down the freeways with like Bulldozers and standing there with machine guns, IT WAS AWESOME!!!
JD: Yes, they tend to do that (laughing).
JH: Yeah, I got stopped by a guy on the freeway with a machine gun, he checked my passport because I was on their sovereign soil, and I was visiting some friends there. I was so proud of them for that, they were in dispute over a treaty with the Canadian government, and they took control of their land, to get their attention. Said land just happened to have a freeway going through it.
JD: Yes, what a lot of people don’t know is that everything east of Montreal is unseated land. There has never been a treaty to give over that land to either the British Commonwealth, America or even Canada itself. So when people on the east coast of Canada stand up and assert their sovereignty, some people can find it problematic but in the end, we are just trying to protect what land we have and our rights to it.
JH: I am ALL for the indigenous people, any natives rising up like that, I support that, with real excitement.
JD: Well, we are realizing that so far, at this point in history, we have not been doing so well in treating the land how it ought to be. We have been taking a lot from it, but not giving back properly. So when the Americans or Canadians come into better understanding who indigenous people are, what they believe in, and what our languages tell us. That’s why for me to share this music with everyone, in the end, I did it for my community, I didn’t do it for radio play, and to tour the world. Though of course that is a beautiful bonus, it is when the people outside of our communities can experience it, and take something from it like I said, music is super-lingual, and it can transform hearts.
JH: You know you just answered 5 of my questions? Makes my job so much easier. SO, who are your role models in the music space, and in the queer space? Like Robbie Robertson, Canadian Mohawk Rock GOD, and John Trudel, the Lakota poet?
JD: Robbie, of course… And John Trudel, ICONIC, yes, he worked with “A Tribe Called Red” very good friends of mine.
JH: COOL, I got to meet John Trudel once at a Peter Gabriel concert, shook his hand once it was an honor.
JD: Oh you did eh? COOL, actually being queer, I usually gravitate towards women’s voices. People like Buffy St. Marie, go check out an album she did called “llumination.” She changed a lot about music, it was one of the first records using synthesizers, she is an indigenous woman too. Canadian musicians, I met Joni Mitchell (JEALOUS), but I am also a classical nerd, and I think diverse music education is so important so people can hear so many different kinds of sounds. Because when you grow up listening to radio all the time, it limits us in our possibilities. For me, my music is “off the beaten path,” and so when people listen to something like this, it expands our world view and what we think of as music. Because music is so tied to cultural identity and our storytelling. So when you turn on the radio and hear a song like “Blurred Lines” that’s our messaging we get in our communities, we need to be very aware of the messages in our music. So for me with this record, I just wanted to release more positive messages.
JH: SO, onto that, on the album, I’m not even going to try to pronounce them, but “Track 1” and “Track 4” are my faves. What were they about?
JD: Track one is a song called “Mehcinut”, that one is a banger. I just shot a video for that one I’m very excited about that. And Track 4 is called “Ukltestakon”, that’s a canoe song, and I wanted it to sound like water.
JH: Yeah, you did awesome with that, like the old analog phonograph in there. I thought “Man this guy has so many great… ‘tricks’ in his work” and everything about you is off the beaten path. I wanted to emphasize in this interview the single point that if people are allowed to be who they are, and strongly encouraged to be that, then people will excel and do extraordinary things. And you have been allowed that, and you being able to do that, with no outside forces trying to mold you, man look at what you have done.
JD: I think that self-actualization and being able to find what is bringing you deep joy is why we are here. I was very fortunate to figure out space to find where I fit. I hope that we can do that without the baggage of history holding you down. Think about my situation as a queer person, and indigenous one or two generations ago. My kind of person would never be good with time travel, but we are coming to a moment now where we are allowing all types of different people and all different types of representations of what it means to be human. That now includes gay people, indigenous people, which is recent, I think that needs to be celebrated, and for me, that means going out and making music in my language and identity.
JH: And I hope that also means a tour through Salt Lake City, (wink wink, nudge nudge). So final question. You already nailed so many points of this final question. I ask everyone this, but I’m sure your answer is going to be very intriguing. What would you say to the young queer person, the one who is in the closet, the one afraid to come out, who is afraid, and vulnerable?
JD: That is something that I think as queer people we all need to think about, there IS NO guidebook on how to navigate this. I think people are getting online and have communities of people they can feel safe with. But as much as we want to say “Come out, throw those closet doors open and just come to us!!” that’s not the case for people living in isolated places or rural communities, it’s not necessarily safe. So come out when it feels safe. I think we too often tell people to come out and it will be safe, but that is not everybody’s story. So I will say find the people who love and support you, and will hold you, and support you in being honest. But also remember that people are more human than you think.
JH: That was one of the most profound things I have ever heard. Thank you for your explanations, you are an incredibly beautiful person. I’m saying that as the dumb straight American white guy.
JD: Hey, it’s ok, we love you. (laughing).