Jason attends Riddu Riddu: An International Indigenous Festival

By Jason Manitowabi, Northern Outreach Coordinator

“Would you like to attend the Riddu Riddu Festival next month?”

As a new presenter, I’m starting to get more of these opportunities lately; Nipissing for the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance Intertribal Gathering, Mississauga for Folk Music Ontario, and Montreal for Folk Alliance International – all conferences I have been invited to or recommended to attend by newly made contacts such as Cynthia Lickers-Sage, Kerry Swanson and David Barnard. So when Cynthia sent a message asking me if I would like to take part in another cool opportunity, I said yes before even thinking about it. It wasn’t until 4 days later that I clicked on the attached link and saw that Riddu Riddu is an International Indigenous Festival — in Norway!

So here we go: Toronto to Copenhagen, Denmark, to Oslo, Norway, and then one more flight. Once you are about to land in Tromsø, you can see the snow in the mountains as you fly into the small city of 75,000. The next morning we head into Kåfjord. Picture a Mountainesque village of 600 people where the melting ice on top of each surrounding mountaintop pours ice-cold glacier fresh water streams from all sides. At one point, several of the streams combine to form a wondrous and mystical river that crosses through the middle of the valley with houses surrounding the ridges. At the North end of the village in the valley of brush, lilacs, and yellow birch trees, sits a welcome/community centre and library. Down into the lower grounds sits a 30×20 MainStage, a smaller 15×15, and several breakout and workshop tents. On the South side of the grounds there is a tandem Nordic Tent with Buffy Saint Marie painted on the side!

The opening night on Thursday is dedicated to the Children’s Festival. I find out later that the Children’s Festival started as a small side event to keep the organizers’ children occupied for the weekend: Now it has grown so big that people from all over the country bring their children and dedicate their whole trip to this Festival! Hundreds of children are spread out at stations learning life skills. Some are building traditional huts; debarking logs and hearing lessons and stories of the importance of each process. The style, structure and materials are very similar to a wigwam – the traditional lodge of the Anishnabek. There are workshops on gardening, storytelling, food preparation, fabric weaving and rope making. Of course, in the centre of all of this, sits a Children’s Stage featuring Indigenous performers from all across the Northern half of the planet! Also present were some traditional Tibetan musicians! Their throat singing style is almost similar to what you would hear in the Northern parts of this country.

Friday featured some Nordic Sami musicians. The Sami people, much like the Indigenous peoples of Canada, are still on their way out of the colonization period. While there were not many Sami performers presented, it was great to hear that the amount presented every year is growing as more and more Sami are becoming inspired to discover and follow their roots.

Saturday was the final day of the Festival. I took in the “Northern People of the Year” featuring the Inuit from Nunavut. Their songs were extremely powerful, ending with throat singing and chanting over an acoustic guitar and a spoken word piece that hit very close to home. It included pieces and points of residential school and assimilation. Many of the Canadian Indigenous attendees were brought to tears, including myself, from the beauty and emotion of the moving melodies and the heart-breaking reminder of history. After sharing some traditional seal stew, a delicacy of the Inuit, the delegate group moved into the Artist Cafe and met with some of the previous organizers of Riddu Riddu. It was inspiring to hear how the early years were an ongoing struggle of locating source funding, maintaining volunteers and securing artists and programming and how the event grew to become what it is today. Definitely inspired me to keep going through the struggles that I personally face in my ambitions as an Arts and Music festival back home in Northern Ontario.

Saturday night’s final performer was the one and only Buffy Saint Marie. Hearing her always inspiring words in between her amazing, world-renowned songs is something that I never tire of. A red dress flew in the wind on stage to commemorate missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A powerful image striking a powerful message. Saint Marie also brought Tanya Tagaq onto the stage with her and a few other guests. All in all the final Main Stage performance was invigorating and a true celebration of Canadian Indigenous Artists!

My trip, offered and sponsored by both the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and the Canadian Arts Presenting Association, was the experience of a lifetime. It was really empowering and inspiring to see how other communities – and countries – work together to maintain a world-class festival in an extremely rural area.

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