The Sound Cafe
New Album, Gal’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi, To Be Released On Canada Day Sung Entirely In Sm'algyax
By Devon Leger.
THE ROOTS/COUNTRY ALBUM FEATURES SONGS INFORMED BY INDIGENOUS LORE, KNOWLEDGE, AND SCIENCE, INCLUDING A TRANSLATION OF HANK WILLIAMS
An Act of Resistance: Ts'msyen Artist Saltwater Hank Announces New Album Sung Entirely in Sm'algyax, a First Nations Language. The new Album, G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi, Set for Release on July 1, Canada Day, as Statement of Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism
Releasing on July 1, 2023, for Canada Day, G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi, from Ts’msyen artist Saltwater Hank is a statement of resistance and resilience built on a bedrock of roots and country music. Based out of Kxeen (Prince Rupert, British Columbia) and writing original songs in Sm'algyax, the Ts’msyen language, Hank is pushing back against two centuries of cultural eradication by the Canadian government aimed at “killing the Indian in the child,” as Canada’s first prime minister John A. Macdonald once said.
To fight this historic and continuing erasure, he’s using a language that dates back literal millennia, thousands of years before Ancient Greece. Living and working on land that’s been occupied by the Ts’msyen since time immemorial, he’s able to draw from ancestral knowledge and science, plus a deep understanding of the structure and spirit of Ts’msyen song. The goal with the album is first of all to connect with other Ts’msyen looking to understand their own language, as there are sadly no first generation speakers left under the age of 60. After that, Hank made this album to show the power of creating in Indigenous languages. “The fact that I’m singing in my language is an act of resistance,” he says. “Over 150 years after Macdonald and being able to still speak and sing in our language…This really goes to show that he failed. We succeeded in keeping our language and our musical traditions alive.”
A member of the Gitga’at Ts’msyen community in Kxeen (Prince Rupert), Saltwater Hank is the nom de plum of songwriter, fiddler, and guitarist Jeremy Pahl. Pahl took the name Hank, as his father and great-uncle were both named that. By day, Pahl works in the archives of the Ts’msyen nation, teaching and studying the Sm’algyax language. These deep dives into the oral histories and traditional songs of the Ts’msyen inspired a number of the songs on the new album. It also inspired Pahl’s unique approach to country and roots songwriting. Noticing that old Ts’msyen songs bend notes in similar ways to the blues, Hank adapted this into some of the harder rocking songs on the album like “‘Nii Wila Waalt” and “Ba’wis”. “‘Nii Wila Waalt” in particular is an example of how Pahl’s research dovetails nicely with his songwriting. The song speaks of the Ts’msyen belief that the seaweed harvest should be finished before stripping cedar bark, since stripping the bark brings moist wind and weather. “I looked into it recently,” he says, “and I found out that cedar trees give off something in the air that attracts moisture when they’re stripped of their bark. This can cause a microclimate of moist air where it’s being done. It’s a practical lesson to follow what the old people said.”
Though most of the songs on G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi are original, Pahl does include some traditional songs like “Uks Yaan Ḵ’a̱sḵ’oos,” learned from a songbook from Txałgiiw (Hartley Bay), a Ts’msyen village in British Columbia, or closing song “Goosnł Waals Noon”, also from Txałgiiw. Both songs speak of harvesting food along the beach. Foodways are important in Pahl’s songwriting, both traditional foodways, like “Liimi Maḵ’ooxs”, a song about picking salmonberries, and the less traditional, like “Dm Yootu Stukwliin”, that finds Pahl musing about BBQing the rabbits wandering around Nanaimo’s University campus. Oral history is important too, especially stories of the Ba’wis, or Sasquatch. Pahl’s great-great grandfather met a Ba’wis walking on the boardwalk in Txałgiiw (Hartley Bay) and was knocked out by its breath, and Pahl himself has seen a Ba’wis, though from a safe distance away. G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi is clearly Pahl’s love letter to the traditional knowledge of the Ts’msyen, but it’s also a thoroughly modern album inspired by his love of country and roots music. Pahl comes by this love from his grandfather, who played country dances from the 1960s to the present day. For this album, Pahl pays homage to his roots by translating the classic Hank Williams song, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”, into Sm'algyax as “Akadi K’uł Waal Nsiip’nsgu”.
There’s subversion in what Pahl’s doing, in filtering country music through the lens of an Indigenous language and Indigenous knowledge. This subversion is linked to how the Ts’msyen coped with the suppression of their culture and traditional laws by the Canadian government. Pahl tells the story of a basketball tournament that his hometown was famous for. In reality, the tribe was using the basketball games as a cover for potlatches (which had been banned by the government) and traditional ceremonies. One aspect of the culture presents in a Western form, the other moves behind it preserving and supporting the traditional ways. And for those times when subtlety just isn’t enough, then you have to come out and say it directly. Pahl’s song “Na Waaba Gwa̱soo” speaks to the scourge of police violence against First Nations peoples, especially concerning the Wet'suwet'en and neighboring Gitksan asserting their rights to their own unceded territories. The title translates to “The Pig’s House” and the song uses traditional insults to speak against police oppression.
It’s not that the new album, G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi, from Saltwater Hank brings together an ancient, traditional past with the modern sounds of country music. It’s that Pahl’s showing that Indigenous culture is always current, and was always current. That it’s possible to create in Indigenous languages today and to claim the country canon as your own and that this is what the Ts’msyen have always been doing in response to colonization. This is how a culture survives, in an unbroken chain of transmission. “I feel like I have a responsibility to pass it on,” he says. “That’s what all the elders say, that’s how it’s been since time immemorial. I feel lucky to be able to be a vessel for song. I feel like it’s not really me that’s behind all the songs that have come out of me, there’s something bigger that I am fortunate to be a part of.”
Video recorded at the Koksilah Music Festival .