What she lacks in indie-rock cred, Susan Aglukark makes up for by an early trailblazer of modern Indigenous music.
Yes, we are indeed in the midst of an “Indigenous renaissance”. In the last number of years, high profile artists like Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red, Iskwé, and Jeremy Dutcher have been speaking truths that need to be told, and opening eyes to realities that need to be seen. They are winning awards and winning over hearts across the country. It’s easy to get swept up in the electricity and energy that Indigenous artists are generating recently. And it’s just as easy to forget that about a quarter-century ago, back in the internetless 90s, a musician named Susan Aglukark became the first Inuk performer ever to have a Top 40 hit.
Aglukark’s “O Siem” wasn’t a visceral blend of punk and throat singing or a hard-hitting blend of rap and EDM — it was an adult contemporary-country crossover ballad. It takes its name from an exclamation of joy at seeing one’s family and friends and is the epitome of heartfelt musical earnestness. In 1995, your granny would have thought Aglukark was “lovely”, your parents probably had a copy of her album This Child on cassette in the back seat of their car, and your grunge-loving cousin would have hated it.
And yet, for all the prettiness and pristine production of This Child, Aglukark was anything but precious about the music she was making. On “Suffer In Silence”, Aglukark holds an outstretched hand to others in her Inuit community who’d endured trauma and the pain of addiction, assault, and abuse. “Kathy I” is a touching ode to a niece that committed suicide and it’s still as relevant in many Indigenous communities now as it was then. Aglukark’s blend of Inuit and English lyrics pigeonholed her as a folk singer and filed her album under that dreadful “World Music” category. Despite it all, though, she managed to crack into the pop charts with an album full of socially conscious music like “Slippin’ Through the Cracks”, which documented the tyranny of colonialism on Indigenous communities.
She may not be a name that immediately springs to mind when discussing an “Indigenous renaissance”, but there’s a foundational link running from the folk-pop of Susan Aglukark’s This Child through to the provocative punkishness of Tanya Tagaq’s Animism. Aglukark is just as outspoken and active about the injustices and issues Indigenous peoples face and has never shied away from using her art as a vehicle to educate as well as entertain. What she may lack in indie-rock cred and cool factors, Aglukark makes up for by being among the early trailblazers of modern Indigenous musicians reclaiming and proclaiming their heritage with pride.