Finding Community Through Art

One of a Series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

The route from punk band singer to cultural activist, for Cheryl L'Hirondelle Waynotêw has to do with trying to determine who she is and what she is part of. This search for a sense of self and community has remained a theme for L'Hirondelle throughout her career.

Cheryl calls herself a “mixed-blood interdisciplinary artist.” Her maternal roots are from Alberta's PassPasschasis First Nation, and the Kikino Métis colony; her paternal line is German.

When she was eight years old and going to St. Margaret's School in Calgary, she was inspired by artists who visited and performed there. “It was magic to see our gymnasium turned into a performance space,” she says. In the following year, when her teacher assigned a book review, she submitted a performance rather than the conventional written analysis.

That performance bent, and her search for context led her, in the '70s and '80s, to sing with punk-rock bands in Calgary. But in the early '90s she had gravitated to a life closer to her roots, singing with Anishnawbe Quek, an intertribal women's singing group in Toronto.

By 1995 Cheryl was in Saskatchewan where she met Joseph Naytowhow, a Cree singer and story-teller from Sturgeon Lake. Soon they began to sing together as the dynamic duo Nikamok.

Since then they've performed their traditional and original songs in Cree and English hundreds of times, on reserves, at treaty days, at story-telling and music festivals and conferences, and in Native and non-Native schools.

Through their performances Waynotêw has felt the ability of the artist to provide connections among Saskatchewan people in isolated towns, urban areas and indigenous communities. “Artists combat regionalism and isolation. They draw people together into a sense of larger community,” she says.

She can speak with authority. Since 1996 Nikamok has performed in – to name just a few locales– Southend, LaLoche, Deschambeault Lake, Onion Lake, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Regina, Creighton, and across Canada and in the USA. And there was the memorable performance in 2001 for Prince Charles at the Prince of Wales dinner, held in Saskatoon by Saskatchewan's Lieutenant Governor, Linda Haverstock.

L'Hirondelle and Naytowhow attribute the success of Nikamok to their ability to sing traditional Cree songs but in harmony and with a contemporary twist. Cree elders like them for the traditional and linguistic authenticity; non-aboriginal audiences like their harmonies, humour, and the access they provide to native musical culture by blending English with Cree.

They have a unique sound created by voices that can meld or contrast. Cheryl's voice has amazing range and power, hitting the high notes, or often dropping down to provide a baseline for Joseph's falsetto.

Audiences have included farmers, students, families, educators, seniors and ranchers. Nikamok's tours and first CD have been helped by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Saskatchewan Arts Board. Their CD, simply called Nikamok, was well reviewed by Toronto music critic Brian Wright MacLeod and CBC's Cate Friesen, and is receiving play on CBC and aboriginal radio.

Meanwhile, Nikamok has made its way into the festival circuit, onto compilation discs and to publication in the USA. Next spring Nikamok will be singing in Kansas to recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jimmy Carter. He's in for a treat. To hear Nikamok is to bob or tap to the beat and to feel a shiver up your spine. Such is their power.

Between 1996 and 2000, a time of the growth for Nikamok, Cheryl was also, with Naytowhow, co-artist-in-residence in Meadow Lake, for the Meadow Lake Tribal Council.

But L'Hirondelle Waynotêw is also a solo artist and an arts facilitator and consultant. From 1997 to 2001 she sat on the Media Arts Advisory for the Canada Council, and on Saskatchewan Arts Board's Aboriginal Advisory Committee.

In 2001 she created a performance piece entitled Cistêmaw Iyîniw Ohci, which translates as For the Tobacco Being. It is based on the story of a native runner who was part of the “moccasin telegraph”, the news carriers.

L'Hirondelle was told this story by Harry Blackbird of Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation. He recollected how, before they had electricity, his grandfather, Cistêmaw Iiyîniw, and other runners delivered information and invitations to ceremonies to neighbouring communities. They travelled between Makwa Sahgaiehcan, Onion Lake, Joseph Bighead, Chitik Lake, Thunderchild, Waterhen Lake, Island Lake and Flying Dust First Nations.

L'Hirondelle used this story as the basis for a piece performed on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan reserve near the town of Loon Lake. In the 'performance', the artist – Cheryl – is the runner. But it's more than a solo work; it's a participation piece. And it's about community and communication.

Three artist-collaborators – Louise Halfe (poet), Cheli Nighttraveller (performance artist), and Joseph Naytowhow (singer, story-teller) — went, in advance, from home to home. At each home they asked if the residents would honour the old tradition of giving food and drink to a travelling stranger.

If the answer was yes, the collaborator wrote or displayed the word for water – Nipiy — in Cree syllabics on the house. Cheryl could then stop there for rest and refreshment.

Many residents welcomed the visitors. One teen-age boy begged to be visited. L'Hirondelle thought it was “cool that someone his age really wanted to engage. People on reserves want more interaction with the outside world,” she says.

Cheryl and her collaborators gathered stories and asked questions about aboriginal culture. The team of artists participated, witnessed, and photographed the event. At the same time, Blackbird told the story of his grandfather in Cree, on three radio stations – two aboriginal and one non-Native. And there was a feast.

The piece — really an event — was very well received by the community. L'Hirondelle was pleased by the response, because it showed that she could take the practice of performance art – usually restricted to urban locations and small visual art circles – to a community that was not knowledgeable of this form of artistic activity, and could have a positive impact. Documentation of this piece can be seen on the web at

Shortly after completing this piece Cheryl became the Performing Arts Consultant at Saskatchewan Arts Board, where she now works on behalf of professional performing arts organizations and individuals in the province. About the switch to an administrative role she says, “it's no different than what I've always done. It gives me an opportunity to be an activist and to provide assistance to the art-supporting system from the inside, and to those outside the system who need access.”

L'Hirondelle still has time for her own artistic pursuits, and is working on new pieces. It seems that Cheryl L'Hirondelle Waynotêw has found her place, in a community of artists, in the aboriginal community, and as creator and an enabler of artistic expression.


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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