Two-spirit Indigenous artist Shawnee Kish sees music as ‘medicine’

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Shawnee Kish already has a lot to celebrate in June.

The singer-songwriter from Welland, Ont. — a two-spirit Mohawk — has both Pride and Indigenous culture, which are officially celebrated this month, along with the June 25 release of her self-titled EP.

“Yeah, celebration month!” said Kish, 33, down the line from Edmonton where she lives with her wife, former Olympic rugby player Jen Kish, whom she married on May 15 at a ceremony presided over by former Alberta premier Rachel Notley.

“And regardless of any restrictions, I am in full celebration mode. Celebrating my people, celebrating my history and my culture, and celebrating my two-spirit pride,” she added. “And doing that through my relationship and doing that through advocacy and letting those young guys know, the little youth, that they are loved for who they are, and through music.”

As a strong LGBTQ advocate, Kish supports both Kids Help Phone and We Matter after she endured suicidal ideation as a teenager and eventually found her way forward through songwriting, starting around the age of 14. (She was a Shania Twain impersonator at age 12.)

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“When I was younger, I didn’t understand my gift and my place in the world,” said Kish, who returns to performing in front of live audiences on Aug. 6 at Edmonton’s Together Again Festival.

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“And I struggled with things like my identity and knowing myself as an Indigenous person, knowing things like my sexuality. Who am I? Where do I fit in this world?” she said. “I use music as medicine because it’s such a powerful tool. With that, I used getting to know my culture and going to my first powwow and going to my first sweat lodge and understanding myself just gave me greater purpose and meaning to walk the rest of my life.”

Kish’s great-grandmother was removed from her Six Nations reserve for residential schooling and she and her own mother lived off-reserve in Welland, Ont.

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Her 63-year-old mother, who is recovering from a stroke in St. Catharines, wrote a book about her great-grandmother’s experience called Where Mary Went.

With the discovery of potentially 215 student bodies at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and the removal of historical statues of those linked to residential schools — such as Sir John A. MacDonald and Egerton Ryerson — Kish said it’s time for people to finally address the subject.

“I’m really glad that the conversations are opening up about our history and what Indigenous people have faced and currently do face,” said Kish.

“In a lot of situations, the Indigenous learning has been taken out of schools so most people are unaware of our history. I think it’s been really shocking to a lot of people in Canada. But in our communities, it’s not shocking to us because we live it every day. We’re very much still in survival mode.”

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