TV & Movies

"It’s a Conscious Effort to Keep Us Impoverished": Tanya Tagaq on Indigenous Issues Right Now

The Inuk throat singer—known for her fearless advocacy and haunting sound—talked to FLARE about the realities of living as an Indigenous person today

Indigenous singer Tanya Tagaq posing in a black lace dress

(Photo: Vanessa Heins)

Tanya Tagaq isn’t shy. The Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, passionately speaks out about the issues facing many Indigenous people—including the nation’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the environmental impacts of colonialism—both in her art and activism.

Her Twitter account is a place where she is frequently vocal. It’s a mix of 140-character quips—”I’ve had people say my career success depends on my weight. To that I say a great big f-ck you and raise you a bag of s&v chips in cheers”—and commentary on the state of Canada: “Not only are Indigenous people forced to shoulder the burden of colonialism; we are expected to celebrate it. #Canada150.” But it’s also a place where she receives a lot of backlash. Tagaq is a defender of the Inuit seal hunt, and after she posted a photo of her baby daughter next to a dead seal on Twitter in 2014, she received an array of online harassment and even death threats.

Tagaq’s presence offline is just as political. Her music is a contemporary take on traditional Inuit throat singing—which is typically performed by two women—where she merges electronic beats, howls, shrieks and spoken word to create her distinctive sound. The 42-year-old’s stage performances have even been compared to watching “someone in a sonic trance.” In 2014, she won the Polaris Music Prize for her album Animism, and has been nominated again this year for her latest record, Retribution, which dives into themes of protecting the planet and respecting women’s rights.

FLARE caught up Tagaq backstage right after her performance at WayHome Music & Arts Festival and talked about how Canadians need to educate themselves on Indigenous issues, her two kids, and when she’s the happiest.

You just got off stage. How was your set? 

It was very energetic. It was wonderful to see the people there and the landscape is so beautiful. It was so much fun.

How do you feel when you perform?

Say, if you’re going for a run, and after about 20 minutes when the adrenaline kicks in, it’s like that.

You bring a lot of political themes into your work, whether it’s about the environment or women’s issues. Why is it important to you to convey larger messages through your art?

Don’t you feel that, as a woman, you have the obligation to speak out on women’s rights considering you can’t go down the street without someone saying something to you about the way you look? When you’re trying to talk to men about how terrible it feels when you’re with your children and somebody’s yelling something about what you look like… I’d like to project that onto Canadian society. That’s what it’s like to be an Indigenous person.

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq posing with her hands in the air wearing a dark dress

(Photo: Vanessa Heins)

We’re hearing a lot about reconciliation this year with Canada 150. What would you like to see non-Indigenous people doing?

I would like to see them learning and taking an active measure; taking the time to understand the history of Canada. It’s very basic—there’s basic things that you can look up.

Many Indigenous communities face issues like lack of access to clean drinking water and inadequate healthcare. You talk about these important things publicly, and you face backlash for it.

Well, that’s the problem when you speak out. What happens is the second you talk about even the most basic needs, people will come back [with criticism]. There are people that understand and know what’s happening, and then the majority of Canadians don’t have the knowledge, and it’s not their fault because it’s not common knowledge. There’s nothing taught about the present in school. It’s seen as this thing that happened hundreds of years ago but it isn’t—it’s happening right now. It’s a conscious effort to keep us impoverished. It’s hard to convey exactly the magnitude of what’s happening.

What’s been one piece of advice you’ve carried with you into your career?

Diligence. Without diligence, there’s nothing.

What do you to do relax?

I hang out with my two daughters. They’re 13 and 5. Hanging out with my kids is what grounds me, 100 percent. I’m so happy I had them. Those are some good babies.

Where are you the happiest?

In the most perfect vision I have, it’s in Nunavut with my whole family. It’s so beautiful up there, and if we all went to Starvation Cove, that might be my number one utopian vision of what’s perfect.

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