iskwe Takes on Callous Coverage of Indigenous Youth Murders In 'Little Star': Video Premiere

Matt Barnes


iskwe is a mesmerizing alt-electronic pop singer who tells it like it is, calling out injustice and recounting the hard and shameful truths about non-Indigenous people's treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada — from unsolved missing and murdered women to land and environmental protection.

She's also continually educating herself about her heritage, culture, traditions and language, which has led to the recent adoption of the Cree Standard Roman Orthography spelling for her name — all lower case and a macron over the 'e.' She was born Waseskwan Iskwew — meaning "blue sky woman" — to a Cree/Dene/Metis mother and father of Irish decent.

On her new single, "Little Star" -- for which Billboard is debuting the stop-motion animated video by Sarah Legault -- iskwe recaps the callous and racist way the media covered the murders of two Indigenous youth, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014 and 22-year-old Colten Boushie in 2016.

"They place the blame on her like she was nobody's child," she sings of Fontaine, later changing the pronoun to him for Boushie. "You see the way they play/they say that they'll be a part of change/I think they lie. Happens time and time and time again."

Set to the drum beat of an Anishinaabe honor song, with additional vocal production by Latin Grammy winner Juan Cristobal, the "Little Star" lyric about these widely covered crimes is painful but spot-on, but the video offers some hope, uniting a group of young activists of every race and clique, reading the headlines in disbelief and watching as the newspapers peel off the buildings — hopefully shedding the systemic racism.

Billboard spoke to iskwe about the new song and video, social injustice and Donald Trump and his Pocahontas slurs.

For those not familiar with the separate murder cases of Tina and Colten, talk about how they inspired the lyric.

The lyric "Little Star" is in reference to an element of Cree culture. I am Cree from Treaty 1 territory [outside Winnipeg, Manitoba] and in Cree culture we are taught that we are the descendants of the star people. When you look up into the sky and you see a falling star or a shooting star, what you're actually seeing are the comings and goings of spirit between the walking world in the sky world. The lyrics of this song, especially with reference to 'fire down,' for instance, in the bridge, I'm referencing this movement of spirit leaving the walking world and entering back into the sky world.

We're actually at the one-year anniversary for both of their trials and the people who were on trial both being acquitted for these murders, even though there was strong evidence to indicate that they should have been convicted.

In part as a result of Tina's murder in 2014, the government ordered the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

The problem of systemic racism begins at the very beginning of time in terms first contact and how things were established between the nations. I'm not going to speak on the United States because I don't feel versed enough to speak on the full history of the relationship between Indigenous People and Non-Indigenous there, but in Canada we were not a conquered people. We signed treaties and developed agreements that were based on elements of truth and of trust. Those treaties were the pieces of the puzzle that started to deteriorate because the other side didn't hold up their end of the deal.

Then we'd have things like residential schools that were put in place designed to "kill the Indian in the child." South Africa during apartheid sent government officials to come and study the residential school system and The Indian Act to bring back and further implement into apartheid. So this is not so far gone that these systems have been continuing to impact us. That was during the '90s. These systems have had been established so steeply into Canadian society that folks don't even recognize their prejudice or their bias towards this one specific demographic. That is really dangerous because what ends up happening is people aren't aware of the fact that on these juries, even though Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented as both accused and crime victims, they still remain grossly underrepresented on juries throughout Canada.

These two cases were a perfect example of that, where that underrepresentation on the jury was extremely blatant. One might consider whether or not the outcome would've been different if representation had been different.

In the video, the cityscape is covered in headlines and those were real headlines that were running throughout those trials. One of them was how Tina's body at the time of death was found with drugs and alcohol in her system, the toxicologist reports. This is a 15-year-old girl whose body was wrapped up in a blanket with rocks in it and thrown into a river. Why the fuck do we care if she had booze in her system? That only further perpetuates those stereotypes and the bias that people don't recognize they're receiving, They're teaching people how to be prejudice every single day when we run those types of headlines. In the video, when you see all these headlines and you see these children of all kinds of demographics, all shapes, all sizes, all abilities, all colors, they are looking up to us. They're looking up to the ones that are their elders of whatever age that might be, and they're saying, "What is this that you're feeding us?" Well, we're feeding them all of this bias, all of these stereotypes, all of this prejudice. The power of these kids is they're fighting back against that. That's what the purpose of this video is, that these children are standing there collectively all together, coming together to tear down those messages and get rid of them. Fight back against that. It was inspired not only by Tina and Colten's stories but the young ones in the United States who were fighting back as well [March For Our Lives].

Your first album in 2013 wasn't political or issue-driven. The next one, 2017's The Fight Within, was. Then as you toured, did interviews, it seemed you were on a personal quest to know more about your ancestry. Many adult Canadians, non-Indigenous, are learning our real history — our dirty little secrets — for the first time.

I always say that once your eyes are opened to something, you can never close them again. Once you've borne witness to whatever it is, you'll never unlearn that, whether you hold that memory close or whether it enters your spirit. And so over the past few years, I don't know if "goal" is the right word or my "wish" and" want" has become more clear to me — and that is every single day I see more and more things in a new lens, in a broader lens and a more inclusive lens, even when it comes to my culture and wanting to share that culture with people. I'm not looking at this as it's my responsibility to teach somebody not to be racist, but it's my responsibility to utilize my voice and my platform and my access and my opportunities to support my community, and by doing that to encourage people to learn how to humanize us and recognize the bias that we've been taught as a society.

Nobody wants to be called a racist, right? Nobody's going to just come out and say, "You know what, I'm a racist." Most people, that's not the goal. I assume that human beings generally like to be good people and view themselves as good people. So when society is failing us and is ingraining these bits of racism and prejudice into us, we don't even recognize it's there. It's hard to peel back those layers and go, "Oh, wait a second. I've been taught to devalue this other human being. I'm taught to not recognize them and their humanity as equal to my children or my grandchildren."

So through this evolution of these albums that I've been really releasing, I've been becoming more comfortable with that role of an amplifier for these teachings. It's not to say that I'm an expert on anything, but I do feel like I'm somebody who participates in having conversations that are difficult, that is somebody who is interested and is able to provide examples of bits of our culture and community and our pride and our beauty to help further that vision of humanity, recognizing that we are people too and we deserve to be treated as such and not have to work twice as hard as our Canadian counterparts just to achieve the same level of respect or room to grow up healthy or room to stay alive.

Then you've got the President of the United States calling Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" and his son joking about the Trail of Tears and Native American genocide. It makes it okay for other people to do that.

Ellen Page was just on Stephen Colbert. To me that was so powerful because what it addresses is the root of the problem. If we are not holding our leaders accountable for the safety of humanity — politics aside, at the end of the day, do you view another human being as being equal to you because they're a human being? Versus so and so is white, so and so is black, and we started listing all of these different things that can separate us and can create these divisions. Out of sight is out of mind. "That person is different from me. I'm not going to think about them. I'm not going to humanize them." I might not even realize that I'm dehumanizing them, but because of all of these different tools that I'm being provided and, in this particular instance by the top-most leader of that nation, it's going to be really challenging for folks to take that position of turning off those blinders themselves and saying "Wait a second, something really terrible is going on here if our leader is throwing out racial slurs and not being held accountable for it."

Do you think it's time for another Civil Rights movement and era of protest songs?

Yes. I do feel like we've been in an upswing of the conscious thought and the conscious space in music, where people are gravitating more to feeling that support. To quote Nina Simone how it's an artist's duty, as far as she's concerned, to reflect the time. We're in a time right now of some pretty serious chaos. The thing that I find really interesting about it all is that we've been living in this state of chaos for quite some time. I'm going to say since the beginning of time, since North America has been deemed North America, we've been living in this state of "us against them." There is forever this idea of conquering and taking over and consuming and annihilating and assimilating, all of these things to create one dominant demographic.

But the thing is, right now, we're in a wave of it because we're being faced with it point blank. We have leaders like Donald Trump who gets on Twitter and starts throwing out all the racial slurs and derogatory slurs and sexist slurs, and all of these really terrible things, because he can. That's where we're at right now. Canada, I feel, is still a little bit behind that. We're far more comfortable pointing our fingers elsewhere saying, "Look at all of these things that other people are doing to each other, but in Canada it's not racist. Canada's not a racist place." I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. I'm like, "Well sure. It's not racist for you perhaps. Maybe if you came out of your comfort zone and listened to the people who were talking about how it is, instead of shutting them down by just denying it, then we'd be in a place where we might be able to move forward in a much more productive way."

You have an album coming out later this year. How is this manifesting in your new songs?

It's definitely the main theme of what I talk about now. it's so important to me to make sure that while I'm striking these conversations of social justice related topics, my other goal is to build this element of beauty and these teachings that showcase and highlight my culture that I'm so proud of and that I love so much, as a way to humanize us first, so that the empathy can be a natural state for folks second because, at the end of the day, if we're not being humanized, we're not going to receive that same level of empathy.

Coming back to the one-year anniversary of these acquittals, had the empathy existed in the first place, had that humanity existed in the first place, then the fact that the 15-year-old girl whose 72-pound body was found wrapped in a duvet with rocks in it and thrown into the river, that would have had a different outcome. This young man who was shot fairly close to point blank in the back of the head, where the man who is accused, on trial said he did it, was still acquitted because of technicalities. These are the things that should infuriate everybody because these are children who have been killed. If these were not people of color, these were not Indigenous children here in Canada, I would have to question whether or not those results would be different, and whether the opinions of the masses would be different.

2021 Tour Dates:
February 22 - Montreal, QC - Le Ministère
February 23 - Toronto, ON - Massey Hall Presents iskw? at Mod Club