By Ken MacDonald, co-creator, "The Spirit Horse Returns"

In 2017 my husband Trevor and I became Ojibwe Horse caretakers when we welcomed a beautiful two-year-old filly, Asemaa'kwe, onto our family farm. We soon became board members of the Ojibwe Horse Society which maintains the breed registry and archives. We work with all the caretakers (a term that is preferred over "owners" in acknowledgement of how the the breed traditionally lived freely around Indigenous peoples) to preserve the future of this small herd, which are North America's only Indigenous-developed horse breed.

Surprisingly, it was only after several years of conversations with one of the leading caretakers, Rhonda Snow, that we learned what an extraordinary visual artist she is, and spoke to her about being musicians ourselves!

At the time, I had already been giving educational workshops featuring the Ojibwe Horses as a Teaching Artist through Canada's National Arts Centre Music Alive Program. Composer Andrew Balfour and I had been holding performing and storytelling residencies in many First Nations and rural areas across Manitoba. We started to incorporate Rhonda's artwork which has immediate appeal as well as historic and spiritual significance as one looks deeper.

In 2019 James Campbell, Artistic Director of The Festival of the Sound, invited me to bring these workshops to Parry Sound schools as part of their Music Scores program. It was there I met Jodi Contin, who wrote a wonderful song for Asemaa'kwe for the occasion.

Jodi and I then held electrifying sessions as part of the Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival, actually bringing Ojibwe Horses to Parry Sound's Stockey Centre for attendees to meet in person.

Rhonda Snow, Ken MacDonald and Jodi Contin presenting the workshop that led to the creation of "The Spirit Horse Returns"

These sessions led very naturally to the discussions about a concert experience which would bring together artists of diverse backgrounds to address truth and reconciliation themes viewed through the lens of the Ojbwe Horses' experience.

We offered tobacco to Elders Dan Thomas and Alison Cox to guide us in this project, and the list of consulting Elders and Knowledge Keepers is long. We are immensely grateful for all the support the work has received.

Thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and early support from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, we begun to develop a script and musical score. The creative team, now consisting of myself, Jodi, Rhonda, Andrew, and composer Kevin Lau, were hosted by the Festival of the Sound for a workshop in Parry Sound in the summer of 2021.

We also brought Ojibwe Horses back to visit Wasauksing First Nation for the first time since the breed was extirpated from the region. According to Elders, the last such horses were last seen there perhaps around the late 1950s. This visit was memorably documented and is featured in the exhilarating finale of our show.

Jodi Contin walking Tatonka and Animikii in Parry Sound, with Ken and friends
Jodi Contin walking Tatonka and Animikii in Parry Sound, with Ken and friends

Our aim was to capture some of the energy that arose around our campfire those magical evenings, when deep sharing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in the presence of these special horses laid the groundwork for "The Spirit Horse Returns".

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra premiere performance

BIOGRAPHIES

KEN MACDONALD Performer, writer, artistic manager

Acclaimed as a "French horn master" by the Toronto Star, Ken MacDonald has performed in every province with a variety of Canada's top ensembles. He is currently Associate Principal horn with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, having played principal horn with the Hamilton Philharmonic (for seventeen seasons), Symphony Nova Scotia, and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. He has also performed as a guest artist with the Vancouver Symphony, the Canadian Opera Company, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Orchestra London, the Victoria Symphony, and the Regina Symphony, to name but a few.

As a chamber musician, Ken has enjoyed longstanding associations with the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario, and with the national touring ensemble Octagon, who were featured in Winnipeg's Virtuosi Concerts last season. Solo appearances include the Winnipeg Symphony, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, and national CBC broadcasts of newly- commissioned works.

Ken is a National Arts Centre teaching artist and, in co-operation with the Winnipeg Symphony, has travelled to several of Manitoba's northern communities for educational workshops with composer and conductor Andrew Balfour. He also teaches at the University of Manitoba. He lives just outside Winnipeg with his husband, two children, six goats, and a variable number of chickens.

JODI CONTIN – Performer, Composer, Knowledge Keeper

Jodi Contin is an Ojibway Band Member of Wasauksing First Nation where she resides with her family. She is of the Martin Clan.

As a child Jodi was brought up in Carling Township, Ontario, she is the youngest of 7 children. Her father was English, and her mother was Ojibway, they were amazing parents and great teachers of life.

In 2017 Jodi was hired as the Cultural Coordinator for the Shawanaga First Nation Healing Centre.
Where she has engaged in many unique projects such as hand drumming and singing, hand drum making workshops, youth hunting camp, full moon ceremonies, sweat lodge, Anishnaabemowin classes, solstice feasts, organizing annual community Powwow, Regalia making, skirt making, harvesting medicines, birch bark, cedar, Birch Bark Canoe Building, birch bark basket making, teaching lodge build, mural painting, medicine walks, and cultural camps. Jodi has been a hand drummer and singer for more then 15 years, and in 2018 participated in the production “Sounding Thunder” via Festival of the Sound and she had the opportunity to write the lead song “Wasauksing Enydaayong” she travelled to various venues and sang in the live production in the summer of 2018.

Spirituality is very important to Jodi and she has travelled all over Turtle Island to learn more about her spiritual identity. She has been a part of the Grand Medicine Society and is a devoted Sun dancer for more then 10 years, where she is now the lead female dancer, sweat conductor and clan mother of the lodge.

RHONDA SNOW – Visual artist, Ojibwe Horse Knowledge Keeper

Métis artist Rhonda Snow is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Rare Breeds Canada for her tireless work preserving the Ojibwe Horse breed. Her vivid Woodlands style canvases captivate viewers and share the knowledge she has gained from the Elders about the “small horses of the big woods”. She has personally cared for over 60 Ojibwe Horses, playing an important role in the comeback of the breed from near-extinction.

Rhonda is currently working intensively with breeders to help establish educational and equine assisted learning programs that feature the Ojibwe Horses. She is also actively researching the history of the breed, interviewing elders and knowledge keepers to collect stories of how Indigenous peoples related to horses both before and after contact with Europeans.

KEVIN LAU - Composer

Composer Kevin Lau’s music has been performed by groups such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Against the Grain Theatre, and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. He is the composer of two ballets, Le Petit Prince and Dark Angels, both choreographed by Guillaume Côté (National Ballet of Canada. His music is featured on several commercially released albums, including the JUNO nominated "Spin Cycle.”

ANDREW BALFOUR - Composer

Of Cree descent, Andrew Balfour is an innovative composer/conductor/singer/sound designer with a large body of choral, instrumental, electro-acoustic and orchestral works, including Take the Indian (a vocal reflection on missing children), Empire Étrange: The Death of Louis RielBawajigaywin (Vision Quest) and Manitou Sky, an orchestral tone poem. His new Indigenous opera, Mishaboozʼs Realm, was commissioned by LʼAtelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and Highlands Opera Workshop.

Andrew is also the founder and Artistic Director of the vocal group Camerata Nova, now in its 22nd year of offering a concert series in Winnipeg. With Camerata Nova, Andrew specializes in creating “concept concerts”, many with Indigenous subject matter. These innovative offerings explore a theme through an eclectic array of music, including new works, arrangements and innovative inter-genre and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Andrew has become increasingly passionate about music education and outreach, particularly on northern reserves and in inner-city Winnipeg schools where he has worked on behalf of the National Arts Centre, Camerata Nova, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and various Winnipeg school divisions.

In 2007 Andrew received the Mayor of Winnipegʼs Making a Mark Award, sponsored by the Winnipeg Arts Council to recognize the most promising midcareer artist in the City.


CONSULTING ELDERS AND KNOWLEDGE KEEPERS

DAN THOMAS, Sagkeeng / Traverse Bay - As a ceremonial leader in the Indigenous community Dan conducts Midewiwin ceremonies and an Ojibwe Sundance. He has conducted sweatlodge ceremonies for 35 years. He carries a Little Boy Water Drum and sits with a Grandfather Waterdrum.

Dan is one of two Elders in Residence for Seven Oaks School Division. He descends from grandparents from Sagkeeng Anishinaabe Nation and Traverse Bay Metis Community.

Dan worked as a teacher, as a Consultant for Manitoba Education, and a Specialist for Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center. He is currently an Elder instructor for the University of Winnipeg Masters in Indigenous Governance – Pathways to Indigenous Wisdom and the UWinnipeg Faculty of Education. He is also an Elder in Residence at the University of Winnipeg Aboriginal Student Centre. He has authored a number of documents, videos and other educational materials for the province of Manitoba and for First Nations.

ALLISON COX - Alison is of the Anishinabe Ikwe Bear & Eagle Clan, Midi-win-win Society, Red Robe Drum Society, and the Okii ji da Ikwe Society

NORMAN JORDAN, Lac La Croix First Nation - Norman is an Elder of Lac La Croix First Nation and a knowledge keeper and caretaker of the Ojibwe Horses.

SKUYA FASTHORSE, Lac La Croix First Nation - Skyua is a knowledge keeper and caretaker of the Ojibwe Horses.

DOUG CUTHAND, Little Pine First Nation - Doug is an independent film producer, director, writer and journalist. His work frequently has been recognized and honoured by the media industry. Weekly columns in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader Post, and features in the Winnipeg Free Press have made Mr. Cuthand a respected voice for the aboriginal community. The Spirit Horse Returns is grateful to Doug for sharing many generations of horse nation culture and teachings, especially those of his father, Stan Cuthand. From interpreting for Elders and chiefs in meeting with Indian Affairs in his early days, chairing the school committee in Lac la Ronge in the 1940s, to approaching City Hall on behalf of the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in 1970, to participating in roundtables for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1992-93, Stan's advocacy spanned decades and bridged and bridged cultural and language barriers.

ANITA CHECHOK (Jiigibiikwe), Wasauksing First Nation - Anita, along with her husband Vince, ran Rez91, Wasauksing First Nations' community radio station, which for over 20 years was recognized for providing information on cultural and other events, music with a focus on Indigenous artists and information in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language). Their regular program — Anishnaabembda Noongo (Let’s speak Anishinaabemowin today) — helped beginners learn some basic Anishinaabemowin words and phrases.

WABISHKI-ANAANG, Sagkeeng First Nation - an ancestral caretaker of Ojibwe Horses, Wabishki-anaang has given traditional names to Ojibwe Horses and is the owner of Pride Dragons apparel and accessories.