Rooted In Culture: Wendy Walker Makes a Living and a Life in the Arts
“Truly, the art saved my life,” Wendy Walker confides. Originally from Winnipeg, speaking French as her first language and learning English along the way, Walker is Cree, Métis and Mi'kmaq. She now lives in Calgary, making music, writing and creating with no formal training. “As a contemporary female Indigenous singer-songwriter, everything that I do is rooted in [culture] because my culture is my foundation… I can't resist a good powwow or a fiddle,” she smiles.
She doesn’t just write music; she’s also co-written a movie screenplay. She’s worked as an actor, writer, director in theatre and even made an Aboriginal awareness video series with a million dollar budget for a corporation. Walker produced and directed the project to educate about Indigenous people, which included a game show called “That’s So Native”, a late night talk show segment as well as a news broadcast Q&A. She even wrote original music for the soundtrack.
“That's why the arts are so powerful, because they can go through places where Chief and Council can't go, where politicians can't go, even where educators can't go, but the arts can travel through there”
“That's what we get to do through the arts, we can share our stories,” she reflects. Walker was invited to perform a song she wrote as part of the presentation of a documentary project about residential schools. Emotional, she turned her back on the audience and stopped just before the end of the song, missing a standing ovation.
“To be that artist and to go in to create new work, you really have to be vulnerable.”
She believes sensitivity is passed down intergenerationally because of what her people have been through. “Doing work in the arts means holding on to that sensitivity, while standing up and being brave and courageous,” she explains. Music is something else that has been passed down to her, coming from a musical family. Her uncle played music in Winnipeg and she grew up singing country music, but she wasn’t an overnight success.
“You will write a whole stack of really bad songs at the beginning and that's perfect. Absolutely perfect. Because that's you learning,” she recalls. She didn’t want to play in bars in a band. She was determined to be a singer-songwriter, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose unconventional songwriting style inspired her.
Her art is self-funded and explores many difficult and nuanced topics, like the injustice of the Colton Boucher case, Idle No More, intergenerational trauma, and the inaccessibility of mental healthcare. She once wrote and performed a piece for the Olympics which integrated a spoken word piece. One of her friends was murdered on the street and she knows how differently her life could have turned out if she hadn’t pursued music and the arts.
“Sometimes we will create things from our own trauma, but then you share that with the people, and it helps them to connect. Because like it or not, we’ve got to connect back to that trauma, because it's only going back there that we walk through it that we get to heal from it,” she muses. One song she wrote talks about the challenges of the music industry and rejection, something she’s dealt with herself.
“Every artist I know, Indigenous or not, has heard all the no’s, literally. If you take the no’s on, you won't go anywhere. That's where it's going to take you reaching inside yourself and finding that gem, whatever that's inside you and bring that out. In spite of what somebody is saying or what other people are saying, you still move forward. That's so important,” she remembers.
Beyond dealing with rejection, she also learned to perform, studied film for three months, contemporary dance and choreography in Europe, then stage combat, fencing, and acting. All of that learning didn’t guarantee smooth sailing, though. Hollywood seemed to be looking for a certain Indigenous look, making it hard if you didn’t fit that image. Once, she arrived at an audition and everyone else there was much younger. She almost walked out but she did her audition, landing a role hosting a show called Profiles of Success.
Throughout her life, she’s overcome self-doubt, shyness, and learned to work around dyslexia. Walker is conscious of her physical, emotional and spiritual health, and of her diet. She quit smoking, sleeps well and goes to ceremony. She walks her dog, does yoga, and spends time in the bush barefoot to connect to Mother Earth. Being in community helps, too.
Walker also sings for her mental health and encourages others to do the same, sharing, “Find a place and a space every day to go and sing. It's not about being a good singer, our voice is a part of our immune system. It's also part of our health… One of the things that we haven't done for a long time, because we come from that intergenerational trauma and trauma is breath. That's where singing will help you, with your breathing.” She learned to breathe and sing better by watching Youtube videos.
Another way she balances her mental health is through writing. “When we process information, part of how we need to process that is through… movement. That's what writing will provide you… that movement, even that slight movement, and that will help you to process what's going on for you. So you can write, everybody can write and truly I believe that everybody can sing. Not everybody's meant to be on the stage to sing. But everybody can sing,” she counsels.
Her words of encouragement for viewers are full of hope:
“Don't let anybody tell you that you're not wonderful.. or that you are not amazing. You're as deserving to be here as everybody else and nobody is above you,”
she urges. Her antidote to that feeling of intimidation is simple: be the best human being you can be.
Rooted in culture as a contemporary female Indigenous singer-writer, she can't resist a good powwow or a fiddle, or a chance to inspire the next generation of artists. In the face of no’s, she said yes to her own way of doing things, and found harmony in being herself and sharing her truth. By finding her place on the stage, she’s also found a way to the hearts of her audience, readers, and students with her wisdom, experience and raw talent. Art saved her life, and now Wendy Walker is living her best life, making magic and music across genres that’s worthy of a standing ovation.
Special thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this blog post
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.