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Willie Thrasher’s Long Journey Home

Inuit rock and the return of Spirit Child

/ November 25, 2015

This article was originally published by our partners at IMPOSE


At the top-west corner of the Northwest Territories of Canada, 70 miles south of the Arctic Coast, the seaside hamlet of Aklavik is icy, flat and crystalline. It’s a trapping and fishing community, population 633—less than half of the number that lived in Aklavik when songwriter and performer Willie Thrasher was a child there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “It was one of the most beautiful lives,” he recalled. “My mom and dad lived off the wild, and the Arctic Ocean. We hunted caribou, and we used to go up to the Arctic Ocean to go whaling for about a month out of the year. The Inuit people would get together, all the hunters and whalers and trappers, and they would go off to the great north land. This was always a time when they had a lot of free time to spend how they wanted, and they spent it living off the land.”

Thrasher’s was a whaling family. His great-great-great grandfather came to northern Canada on a whaling expedition from Europe, and his group stopped to rest in one of the Inuit communities after a long stretch of hunting grey whales and Belugas. There, he fell in love with a girl in the local community and began spending time with her. When the ship packed up to go back to Europe, Thrasher’s great-great-great grandfather stood on the deck and looked back towards the shore, saw the girl he loved standing at the dock, and jumped from the boat into the water. He swam back to her, and when they married they took the name of the whaling boat—Thrasher. The family has had that name ever since.

At least, Thrasher told me, that’s what he thinks. “My brothers from the north, they know much more about it, and they have pictures and legends,” he told me. “I haven’t learned too much about how my dad got the name, but I do know it came from a whaling boat named Thrasher.”

Last year, Light In The Attic Records released a compilation album of native songs, entitled Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985. The collection was amassed and meticulously curated by Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, an ethnomusicologist of Canadian native music and a passionate fan who spent a decade and a half collecting largely undervalued and unknown gems from the vast landscape of Canada’s musical history. The songs date from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and almost without exclusion saw underwhelming response from their initial releases. On Native North America, Thrasher appears alongside the greats of native Canadian music: the songwriters Willie Dunn, Willy Mitchell, Éric Landry, and Inuit garage rock band Sugluk. Yet none of these musicians, who make up the backbone of native music in Canada, have much name recognition today. As with any little-known genre endemic to a culturally marginalized group of people, burden rests heavy on the head of the collector: Howes has curated a canon without a paper trail, and without a guide, those same songs could easily be passed over.

In his adult life, Thrasher has had to work hard to return to the legends and history of his family and the Inuit community. When he was 5, he was removed from his parents’ house and forced to enroll in the Indian Residential School System, a Catholic missionary-run program funded by the state whose mission was to assimilate native children. The system formally came into place in 1876 after the passage of the Indian Act, and the last residential school system closed in 1996. “It happened all over the north,” Thrasher told me. “The traditional people, they all went to residential schools. I remember when my mom took me to the residential school, that was the biggest, darkest change in my life.” Thrasher was not allowed to speak his language or participate in his family’s rituals and cultural traditions. The missionaries cut his hair so short that his scalp bled. For the next decade, he spent ten months out of every year at the Roman Catholic-affiliated Guy Hill Indian Residential School, over 1500 miles away from home. “The job of the missionaries was to rip the language out of us and turn us to Christianity and rub out our traditional ways,” Thrasher explained. “It was a dark moment in history—I’ll put it that way.”

Thrasher is a kind, luminous man, who uses the word gorgeous a lot and sees beauty in nearly everything and everyone. He did what any kid would do: he got his soul saved by rock and roll. Guy Hill had a set of drums in the gymnasium, and Thrasher, a shy kid who didn’t have a lot of friends, starting coming to the gym alone and teaching himself how to play. “Well, I’d seen drums before, so I sat down and starting kicking around on them,” he said, “and then I saw A Hard Day’s Night. I remember thinking, Ringo Starr was pretty damn good. He was my favorite one and that’s how I learned to become a drummer.”

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