Winter counts are traditional plains pictorial accounts chronicling the life of a band. Usually a solitary image or a small collection of symbols would be drawn in a circular or outward spiraling pattern on an animal hide to make note of a major occurrence for the years included.
This song entitled Can’t Break Us, written collaboratively with ten young men in detention at the Paul Dojack Youth Centre (Regina, SK), is a similar continuation of a narrative progression. Their individual points of view sequentially move line upon line to tell a consonant story of how they are living through their sentences — in a good way. Because the modus operandi of nêhiyawin (Cree Worldview) is pimâtisiwin (life), my challenge in the larger collaborative songwriting project called Why The Caged Birds Sings that this song is part of, is always to encourage positive, uplifting lyrics and creative contributions. Because Cree language uses metaphors and metonymy, it is always useful to agree collectively on this as a framework and an overarching poetic device — hence ‘winter count’. For this rendition, the young men unanimously chose ‘happiness’ as the theme for their song. The significance and symbolism is important since this value correlates to the fourth pole in the construction of mîkiwahp (tipi) and is one of the two poles that makes a doorway.
Witnessing is an integral part of how and why a winter count works—there is an imperative that the history is heard and remembered. To aid in this, the keeper of the winter count would choose a younger member of the band to learn and in turn remember and add to the calendar making it an eternal continuum. For this online rendition, an animated gif depicting a group of witnesses eternally plays and a sound cloud strip accompanies them, further allowing new witnesses and comments regarding the sentiments contained within the songs’ lyrics.
Cheryl L'Hirondelle is an Alberta-born mixed blood (Cree/Metis/German/Polish) community-engaged multi / interdisciplinary artist and singer/songwriter, who has been presenting and exhibiting her work since the 1980’s. Her creative practice investigates a Cree worldview (nêhiyawin) in contemporary time-space. L’Hirondelle uses song, voice, audio and more to develop endurance-based performances, interventions, site-specific installations, participatory projects while she keeps singing and writing songs where ever and with whom ever she can. Currently Toronto-based, Cheryl has performed and exhibited her work widely both in Canada and abroad, and her previous musical efforts and new media work have garnered her critical acclaim and numerous awards.