Digging Roots won contemporary Indigenous artist or group of the year at the 2023 Juno Opening Night Awards with their album Zhawenim – unconditional love in Anishinaabemowin.
“When we went up to make the acceptance speech, I dedicated this to all of the stolen generation. All of those children that were stolen from our communities and were taken to residential schools, and for the ones that never made it home,” said Raven Kanatakta, who is at the helm of the group alongside his wife ShoShona Kish.
The album was in many ways a medium to showcase the duo’s traditional value system and channel anger and shock from discoveries about unmarked graves and other injustices to Indigenous communities into a positive place. “And I feel that music is medicine, and that music is a tool to fight against oppression,” he said.
Aside from the heart-rending stories recounted in the album, there’s another reason it holds a special place in the husband-wife powerhouse’s hearts – their son Skye Polson, 27, was the drummer.
“He played such a pivotal role in creating this album with us by bringing his rhythm and just his skills as an artist,” said Kanatakta. “Just having his imprint on there kind of made me a proud papa.”
From a young age, Polson was drawn to music. “I was actually always the type of kid to tap on everything and make noise in class and got in trouble a few times and had to sit on my hands,” he said.
Growing up, he’d always give his opinion of his parents’ music – whether they had asked for it or not – and played the shakers or small parts on previous tracks. But this album marks his first significant contribution to Digging Roots.
“Being able to just work on this with my parents and writing songs with them, the whole process of creating art with them was really, really special,” said Polson, who expressed immense gratitude towards his parents for the collaborative experience.
For Polson, the win was a step for Indigenous musicians across the country. “It is really a beacon of hope for artists in my community willing to put the work in because there is all this space for this beautiful art, and it really needs to be at the forefront of our Canadian music,” he said.
Another mastermind behind the making of the album is Hill Kourkoutis, who became the first woman to win the Juno for recording engineer of the year in 2022.
“She’s a wonderful human being, and a hyper-creative person,” said Kanatakta of Kourkoutis, co-producer of the album.
Their appreciation for one another goes both ways; Kourkoutis was a big fan of Digging Roots long before they began working together.
“They’re just incredible at what they do, as people, as artists,” Kourkoutis said of Kish and Kanatakta. “I’m just extremely proud of them. And I was really honoured to play a part in this work, because I think it’s a very important album for people to hear,” said Kourkoutis, who mixed and co-engineered the album, on top of writing and playing a couple of the songs.
After meeting through a mutual friend, their connection was instant. Soon after, it grew into a friendship which evolved into a collaborative relationship.
“This album was many years in the making, and it’s vulnerable. It’s honest work. It’s extremely powerful. It’s resilient,” Kourkoutis said. Pre-production for Zhawenim began in the fall of 2019 but came to an unexpected halt because of the pandemic. “The energy of making an album together is so profound. It feeds a lot of the process,” she said.
Despite the challenge, the team adapted and continued some of the production remotely each from their home studios. But by the time production neared the end, restrictions had eased. “What was really beautiful is we got to bookend it with being together.”