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Healing cultural relationships through music

Mohawk College music students are getting an opportunity to experience the healing powers of music in Indigenous cultures through Musical Sharing: An Indigenous Artists and Mohawk College Student Cultural Engagement and Exchange Initiative.

For hundreds of years, Indigenous communities have used music and dance in a variety of ways, most commonly to connect and heal.

Johanne McCarthy is a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous education at Mohawk College and is one of the organizers of the upcoming initiative between Applied Music students and Indigenous artists. McCarthy, a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, said that in her culture, “music and dancing are considered medicine.”

Johanne McCarthy poses for a photo in front of a sunset background.
Johanne McCarthy is a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous education at Mohawk College.(Johanne McCarthy)

“When you go to a traditional medicine healer, one of the first things they will ask you in their assessment is ‘When was the last time you danced?’” McCarthy said. “Because if it has been a while, that’s why you’re not feeling well.”

McCarthy also explained how music, dance and art are used to build stronger relationships in the community.

“When we’re doing ceremonial gatherings, we use music and dance to connect with the Creator and to show our gratitude,” she said. “When used in social gatherings, it is about really connecting with each other.”

Indigenous communities continue to deal with intergenerational trauma from residential schools across the country. In these schools, language, culture and traditions were beaten out of Indigenous children and the impacts are still being felt today.

“We are on a journey to heal,” McCarthy said. “It is about taking control back to find out who we really are. Relearning our languages and cultural teachings, and music is a huge part of that.”

McCarthy went to medical school but considers herself an artist before a doctor. After the bodies of children were discovered at former residential schools across the country, she shared an embrace with a fellow community member in mourning.

A photo of a painting, titled The Hug, by Johanne McCarthy
Johanne McCarthy said creating her painting, titled The Hug, turned her emotions into art and was incredibly healing. (Johanne McCarthy)

McCarthy went home and painted the moment, which she titled The Hug. She said that turning the emotions into art was an incredibly healing experience, like music and dance can be.

Bob Shields, who is coordinating Musical Sharing: An Indigenous Artists and Mohawk College Student Cultural Engagement and Exchange Initiative, shared a similar sentiment about the importance of music in healing.

Music is a form of communicating the ineffable, those things that we cannot always communicate through words, like matters of the heart,” he said.

Using music to communicate can transcend the boundaries of language and borders and make difficult subject matter easier to consume, relate to, and understand, he explained.

The initiative aims to give students and artists an opportunity to connect, without the traditional limitations of a classroom setting.

“We wanted to create a shared space, an unconditioned space to bring multiple cultures together, to share music and experiences, and let the outcomes be emergent,” Shields said. “There is a vital need for these shared spaces in which people are more communally oriented and non-competitive, which provides the conditions necessary for real relationship building, for actual friendships.”

Mohawk College President Ron McKerlie said he hopes to see more initiatives like this be created throughout the school.

“A major part of our goal as a college is to be a welcoming and supportive environment for all, no matter your background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or disability,” McKerlie said. “We are trying to pull back these barriers in place that make it difficult for Indigenous peoples to really participate in society and to have opportunities for success. This initiative is a great way to open our eyes a little bit to our positions of privilege.”

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