UC Davis hosts Arctic Indigeneities, Media and Social Justice Symposium

The Arctic Indigeneities, Media and Social Justice Symposium, held at UC Davis from March 12-14, demonstrated what’s possible with rigorous interdisciplinary study and socially engaged scholarship.
The symposium combined cross-disciplinary forums, scholarly research presentations, visual art exhibits, interactive workshops, and lecture-demonstrations and performances by Inuit vocalists Tanya Tagaq and Celina Kalluk..
Jessica Bissett Perea, assistant professor of Native American Studies, and Christyann Darwent, professor of Anthropology, co-organized the symposium to bring together scholars and artists of the circumpolar north for a new Arctic Studies Working Group. The symposium combined cross-disciplinary forums, scholarly presentations, visual art exhibits, interactive workshops, and breathtaking lecture-demonstrations and performances by Inuit vocalists Tanya Tagaq and Celina Kalluk.
The symposium kicked off with a provocative conversation on “Decolonizing Ethnomusicology” with renowned ethnomusicologist Beverly Diamond, from the Memorial University of Newfoundland.  The meeting brought together faculty and students from musicology, ethnomusicology, Native American Studies and Cultural Studies.  The opening forum interrogated the methods and history of a discipline that has often focused on music of indigenous peoples and/or developing countries.  The conversation was organized in part around the controversial new field of “settler colonial studies,” which some charge reproduces the colonial and white privilege it seeks to unsettle.
Highlights also included a fascinating lecture-demonstration of traditional Inuit vocal games with Tanya Tagaq and Celina Kalluk, cousins from the Nanuvut Territory of Canada. Tagaq’s album Animism has recently been awarded Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize for best full-length album of the year, and a Juno award for Aboriginal Album of the Year.
While often referred to as throat singing, the traditional Inuit vocals that Tagaq incorporates on this album might better be referred to as “vocal games,” according to Bissett Perea, because of the spirit of play that animates the practice.  Tagaq and Kalluk demonstrated this at the lecture-demonstration in the C.N. Gorman Museum.  The first player to laugh loses the traditional vocal game, which is played by two women standing face-to-face.  So the lecture demonstration exuded joy as each “song” ended in peals of girlish laughter.
Tagaq and Kalluk also showed their serious side in a dialogue titled “Arctic Cultural (In)Securities” with Arctic poet author and filmmaker Cathy Tagnak Rexford.  The informal dialogue included the women’s concerns about  poverty, and public health issues in far north indigenous communities, and missing and murdered Aboriginal women (According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, between 2000 and 2008 roughly 10% of all female homicides in Canada were of Aboriginal women, who represent only 3% of the total population). Tagnak Rexford, Tagaq, and Kalluk also discussed their strategies of resistance and survival – their lively and thriving artistic practices high among them.
The symposium’s most spectacular element was Tagaq’s performances on Friday and Saturday nights with percussionist Jean Martin, violinist Jesse Zubot, and Kalluk. The group reclaimed the 1922 film Nanook of the North, which is sometimes billed as the first documentary and often discussed for its problematic depictions of Inuit people.  At the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Tagaq, Kalluk, Zubot and Martin improvised a new soundtrack to the “silent” film that included Inuit vocal games, operatic melody lines and vocal histrionics that defied genre.
The symposium was made possible by grants from the UC Center for New Racial Studies and an Andrew Mellon Performing Arts grant, as well as support from the Native American Studies, Anthropology, Music, and Theater and Dance departments. In addition, the Office of the Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost; the dean’s offices in the divisions of Social Science and Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies; the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas; the Herbert A. Young Society; the Institute for Social Sciences; and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts all contributed to this impressive interdisciplinary event.
– Amanda Modell, doctoral student in Cultural Studies