Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone
Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series.
Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists.
Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.
This month we spoke with Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone.
Aanii~Hi I’m Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone, which means Water Flower in Anishinaabemowin. Actually in my language my name means so much more than just Water Flower. Anishnaabemowin is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. One that I am trying to reclaim and learn, for myself, and my children, and my grandchildren.
Part of my journey of having a spirit name has been to find out what exactly it means because not only does it describe my spirit, but it also tells me what I’m meant to do here while I’m on the earth. Thus far, I’ve learned that I’m heart medicine and grief medicine. Every single thing I do whether it be singing, writing, drumming, dancing, teaching, even healing and creating safe spaces for others to heal, all comes back to heart medicine.
I come from the Turtle Clan, which means I’m a peacekeeper and justice keeper for my community. This I am very proud of as I’ve recently put my weapons down and I’ve picked my medicines back up. It’s taken many years for me to understand that my blood line has given me the great gift of peace.
I am of mixed ancestry. I identify as Anishinaabe and Métis,because I’m mixed blood. I am Two-Spirit and identify as an IndigiQueer genderless being. If I could give myself a title, I’d simply say Free Spirit. I am very proud of myself for coming to a place on my journey where I can love and honour all aspects of my being. I didn’t always believe I was worthy. One of the most beautiful parts about sharing my life experiences as an IndigiQueer person has been the love and acceptance from family, friends, and community members.
I identify strongly as a drummer, because I’m also a drum maker, and I was raised around the drum. I do believe it’s because of the drum that I’ve gotten as far as I’ve gotten in my life. My journey with the drum began young. This was such an invaluable gift. So many in my generation were not given that same opportunity. Waabishkaasin Kwe~White Stone Woman~My mom was the first to teach me how to drum. I always sang, but it was my mom who brought the drum into my life. My aunty Charlene from Mattawa gifted me my first drum when I was just a young woman. There have been many drums since then and they’ve each played a special role in my life. The Drum has healed me in so many ways and aided greatly in my sobriety. I just had my 5 year anniversary!
Wow, that’s perfect for my next question because I went through your website. And I was like, wow, you do everything from workshops to acting in music- everything. So is there anything that you’re working on or any skills that you’re developing to add to those you have right now?
Yeah! There are so many skills I don’t have, especially on the production and tech side of things. I’ve always felt overwhelmed by that as an artist, but now with multiple concussions, it’s a whole other level of confusion. I don’t learn the same way; my brain is different. Although I am in recovery at the moment, it does complicate things. If I didn’t have these concussions, I would be at a very different level in my career ri
Now I am so thrilled to have learned that I don’t need to play any other instruments other than my hand drum and shaker or even read or write music, to produce my own album. I am a gifted songwriter and consider myself a storyteller. Each song, each lyric, each sound comes to me, usually when I’m in an immense amount of pain. The feeling can be unbearable and that is when my story just comes flowing out of me in the form of words laced together with sound,vibration, rhythm and a melody that is directly from my heart. You see the vibration my voice makes soothes me while the tears run down my cheeks and my voice releases what’s been inside of me for far too long. ght now. I essentially live with a disability and have for the last 3 years. It has given me great understanding and humility for all abilities and ways of learning and comprehending knowledge. I am learning gentleness and patience, which has led me to asking for help.
I’m working on my debut album for my band Red Rhythm and Blues called Alive. I’m naming it that because there were times in my life where I was brought close to death. I feel it’s a miracle that I’m still here. I want to remember that when things are hard. It really is a miracle to be alive… each one of us. Also a cool thing about the name of my band…Red Rhythm was the name of an all Nations hand drum group I had back when I taught at Eastview P.S. The girls chose our group name and when I heard it I thought, they’re cooler than I am! I have so many amazing memories sharing the stage with them and watching their cute faces steal the show! I just love them! Now anytime I hear my band name Red Rhythm & Blues, I think of them.
I am producing the album myself and am excited to be speaking with different sound engineers to bring my vision to fruition. I’ve waited a long time to record due to my concussions, so I’m wanting to take my time and have more musicians on this album.
I was so fortunate to work with FabCollab for their Women In Song Summer Thunder show. I had a full band with me which was a dream come true and the players inspired me. Each artist on stage added a beautiful layer to my songs, it gave me so many ideas. I’d like to play with some strings and work with some incredible Indigenous artists I’ve worked with in the past.
That kind of superhuman approach excites me! I’m so excited to buy your album when it comes out. You mentioned multiple concussions, I’d like to know how you’ve overcome or conquered these challenges?
The concussions are really big because I literally could not play or listen to music. And I’m a drummer! Tell a drummer not to drum and it’s not pretty! Unfortunately the drum is one of the hardest sounds because it’s a vibration. It’s a very deep vibration, it’s meant to go through all the layers, all the blocks, and all the walls we put up inside ourselves. The vibration goes to our hearts and heals them.
I had to put my drum down, and even when I picked my drum back up, it had to be a much smaller drum. And there are teachings around that, you start with a smaller drum because your voice is small and as your voice grows in strength, truth, and power, so does your drum. I’m back to using my big blue buffalo drum that was gifted to me by Tribal Spirit Music during the recording of Hand Drum Stories, which I am currently giving to anyone who is in need of medicine music for free! I started making music because I love it and honestly it feels like the most natural thing in the world to gift it to people who want it.
More recently, I started listening to music again. And I weep when I listen to music because I’ve gone years on and off without being able to do that. For me, music is the universal language of love. To me, music is a vibration that connects me to the divine; to Creator; to my ancestors. Music for me is prayer. Music for me is ceremony. Music for me is healing. It’s one of the most therapeutic and cathartic processes…making music, singing to yourself…lullabies, humming… and so to have that all taken away, and that’s what it felt like, that it was taken from me. It was life-altering. I began to question my existence and value because I identify so strongly as a singer (someone who makes noise in a beautiful way). So now there is a deep level of gratitude that cannot be fabricated.
Was your medicine acting and dancing, did that come during the time when you couldn’t interact with your drum?
No, actually, those are from young. I grew up with a single mom on disability. I was very playful and creative; I acted, danced, and sang growing up. There was so much playfulness in my home. I was fortunate to grow up being encouraged to create.
But some of the things I did, had to stop. I started doing watercolors, not professionally, but as part of my PTSD healing. I am a part of Parkdale Project Read, I adore them, they are like my extended family. They had a mural and they invited me to do water colours on a wood panel. The artist, Janet Romero said “If you stopped painting at 7 then you’ll paint at a 7 year old level. And that’s ok.” This was a really important thing for me to hear. It has been a beautiful, spiritual, and transformative process to paint water colours. It has taught me more humility as well as deep appreciation for all the years I’ve been singing and drumming.
And I encourage artists as I’m a mentor with VIBE Arts and with theNeighborhood Arts Network to explore other art forms that aren’t necessarily their modality or medium because, for me, it is the most freeing thing to express myself without any words. There is no pressure to perfect or produce when it’s just for fun. I love how abstract the colours and shapes are in my paintings because I feel reflect the abstract feelings within me that perhaps I don’t even understand in the moment. It’s been very enriching as I believe all art forms influence each other.
I just want to give you the opportunity to share a final thought with us.
I want to share a message of love…and hope. I have encountered much hatred in my life and understand that many times it even begins from within, but I want you to know that you truly can overcome.
For my Indigenous relations and community, I’d like to say please know that although we’ve inherited intergenerational trauma, we’ve also inherited great power, wisdom, and strength which connects us to our mother earth, father sky, grandmother moon, and grandfather sun…we have a universal family and we are gifted to be the resilient and relentless physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of our ancestors…we exist because of them…despite the colonizers and genocide…we cannot be stopped. Native people…our people…I love you.
Thank you to Aqua for sharing with us!