Singer Kym Gouchie can breathe easy now that she and her band Northern Sky are set to tour Haida Gwaii.
At home on the Lheidli T’enneh Nation near Prince George, Gouchie says the wildfire smoke isn’t so bad right now — but it was another story at the Roots and Blues Festival in Salmon Arm.
“There were times in between shows when I was actually wearing a mask to save my voice,” she said.
Together with her five-piece folk and bluegrass band Northern Sky — a group of standouts like Saltwater Hank and Danny Bell — Gouchie will kick off the Haida Gwaii Arts Council season by playing shows in Masset and Skidegate on Sept. 14 and 15.
Gouchie said it was a dream to play Edge of the World two years ago, and she’s glad to join the select few musicians who can turn heads by telling people they’re touring here.
Northern Shining Star Woman is Gouchie’s traditional name, given to her at a sweat lodge ceremony 20 years ago, and also the title of her first full-length album, which came out last year.
A mother and grandmother whose children are all grown, Gouchie said she never expected to be where she is now, touring her debut album.
But the timing is perfect.
Gouchie grew up rooted in music — her two brothers and father have all performed — but less so in her Lheidli T’enneh culture. It was only after Bill 31 that she gained a status card, and only lately that she started living on reserve with her mother.
Among her songs is one she co-wrote with her grandmother Mary Gouchie, a 97-year-old who is one of the last three speakers of the Lheidli T’enneh dialect.
“It’s my way of preserving the language,” Gouchie said.
And at the same time she started recording music, Gouchie began writing a one-woman play, Her Blood Runs Through My Braids, where hair is a thread linking stories from her grandmothers.
It’s a little bit of comedy, music, her own painting, puppetry, and projected images, she said, shaped together with dramaturge and actor Michelle Thrush.
Northern Shining Star Woman looks to the next generation, too — the album has one song by her daughter Shayna Desjarlais. Gouchie said she was so excited the day she heard it air on U.S. radio.
“I let her know and she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool.’”
“Really? I’m freaking out over here!”
Just before she tours Haida Gwaii with stops in Prince Rupert and Telkwa, Gouchie will play a Prince George show for the Red Dress campaign — a campaign to remember Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered.
Gouchie got involved two years ago, when her friend and fellow drummer Brenda Wilson put out a call to help finish a Highway of Tears walk from Prince Rupert to Prince George. Brenda is the sister of Ramona Wilson, who was just 16 when she was murdered in 1994.
It was the 10th anniversary of a series of Highway of Tears forums that Brenda Wilson had helped organize, and few of the 33 recommendations made then had come about. Some families had still not been able to speak publicly about their lost loved ones.
“People were feeling really disheartened — why tell my story when nothing is going to be done about it?”
Gouchie joined the 2016 walk to keep the issue front and centre, walking sections from Vanderhoof to Prince George with a hand drum and the chant and melody that became the closing song on her album, “Cleansing the Highway.”
“It’s something that’s been part of my conscience my whole life. Being an Indigenous woman and living here, I don’t feel safe,” Gouchie said.
“I live out of town, on the reserve, and when I want to go for a walk I don’t feel safe.”
Gouchie was glad to see the difference Wilson’s walk made for families — they were acknowledged and knew that people cared. She is more tentative about the changes made along the highway so far, like public bus service.
“There’s been some change,” she said. “Definitely not fast enough, but at least it’s something.”