Brock prof awarded new federal funding for Indigenous research

Rocks, trees, grasses, streams and animals are only a small sample of natural elements that speak to us in so many different ways — if we listen.

Indigenous nations have long translated this language of the land into music and stories passed down through the generations, forming the very bedrock of identity, health and well-being.

But the activities and attitudes of colonial populations have damaged not only the natural environment but also Indigenous ways of relating to the land, says Brock University Associate Professor of Educational Studies Spy Dénommé-Welch.

To revitalize Indigenous understandings of memory, land and space, he and his team have created the research project “Sonic Coordinates: Decolonizing through land-based music composition.”

Dénommé-Welch is one of 157 early career researchers to receive funding under the federal government’s inaugural New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), an initiative “that supports high-risk, high-reward, interdisciplinary and international research to help Canadian researchers make the next great discoveries in their fields.”

In his case, Dénommé-Welch and his colleagues are drawing upon the areas of Indigenous studies, education, music, holistic health and the arts.

“This project has the potential to develop and support original and innovative approaches that help restore and revitalize Indigenous knowledge systems and literacies through new research methods that include examining the way knowledge is acquired and transmitted,” says Dénommé-Welch.

The team, which includes Indigenous researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University, Ryerson University and the University of Regina, will start by examining theories and practices related to Indigenous knowledges, land, music, decolonization, and cartography, among others.

Later in the process, Dénommé-Welch, who is a professional artist, composer and musician, will sketch out musical compositions based on both the sounds of nature — wind, birds, trees, water and — and on human-produced sounds such as the humming of machines.

He and his team will record and organize the sounds to form the basis for musical compositions. In some cases, the sounds of nature and industrial activity will be contrasted to show the impact of colonialism on the land.

The land-based research, guided by Indigenous land patterns such as trail marker trees, mound sites, sacred spaces and trade routes, will be conducted in parts of northern Ontario and Québec.

“This research challenges the rigid colonial notions of land mapping, such as imposing borders to control resources and people, that has resulted in the social, cultural and political erasure and displacement of Indigenous territories, communities and knowledge systems,” says Dénommé-Welch, who is Anishnaabe.

“We’re studying how land-based music compositions deepen Indigenous understanding of the land so that we can begin reimagining, reinventing and reclaiming Indigenous self-determination and spiritual sovereignty,” says Dénommé-Welch.

He says he hopes the research will result in new forms of teaching and learning that would enhance Indigenous musical expression and land-based storytelling and that the research will contribute to reconciliation efforts and critical decolonization strategies currently underway.

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