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Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Ojibwe women singers learn from their ancestors' voices

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Darcey St. John of Duluth
Darcey St. John of Duluth, Minn. sounds a drum while rehearsing with Oshkii Giizhik, a community singing group on the Fond du Lac reservation, Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at Fond du Lac Community College in Cloquet.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Growing up, Fond du Lac band member Elizabeth Jaakola didn't hear women singing — men were in charge of the songs, women stood in the background.

Now, that's changing, at least here at the Fond du Lac reservation. Jaakola is the creator of Oshkii Giizhik, or New Day Singers, an ensemble of Ojibwe women singers who are finding artistic success on the reservation — and beyond. 

Jaakola said the singing is a reminder that Ojibwe culture has always had a role for women as leaders.

"Not to take a role away from anybody, just to take back what is rightfully ours in that balance between a male and female," she said. "Using our voices is really important in that process."

Jaakola and other members of the Oshkii Giizhik Singers rehearse every week at the Fond du Lac Community Collage near Cloquet. The singers perform Thursday in Minneapolis where Jaakola will receive a national award.

The group won the 2009 Native American Music Award for their first CD titled, "It Is A New Day" and are working on a second recording project. The group's first appearances were mostly on the Fond du Lac reservation, but as word spreads they've performed at national events as well.

One selection, "The Anishinaabekwe Song," calls Anishinaabe women to the circle and back to their culture. 

"Even though none of us in the group are fluent speakers or first speakers we're pounding through just because it's so important especially for our children," said Sarah Curtiss, one of the vocalists.

Jaakola said she doesn't know the origin of "The Anishinaabekwe Song," only that it's been around for a long time.

All the songs have a story or a legend behind them, she said, including "The Strong Woman's Song." Jaakola said she learned the music from an elder who said Ojibwe women in a Canadian prison sang the song to stay safe during a prison riot.

A TOUGH, BUT BENEFICIAL COMMITMENT

Rehearsal attendance is spotty as members balance family, jobs and transportation. About 10 members perform with the group, but only five came to a recent rehearsal. More than 40 Anishinaabe women have been a part of the group at various times.

In between songs, conversation veers into the latest news about kids, the health of friends and neighbors and the joy of having some time together.

Fond du Lac band member Darcy St. John said among other benefits, singing has helped her kick her smoking habit.

"I can finish a whole vocable or a whole lead now, where, you know before I'd run out of breath, and then I'd complain because the song was going too fast," she said.

The Oshkii Giizhik singers have a wide range of vocal experience. Christal Moose sings in groups and solos. She's a newcomer to the group and said singing traditional tunes with other Ojibwe women fills a void.

"I love music, I sing constantly," she said. "I feel like I'm growing more and more into who I was created to be."