H&L A writer, singer, speaker, workshop leader, mom and wife – you wear many hats.
Susan I’m not unlike any other mom. I think it comes down to: I love my work and being fortunate to earn a living doing it I find a way to balance the rest.
It’s about setting priorities. When my son was young it was all about him. Now I say to him, “Do you want a miserable Mommy or a happy Mommy? Mommy’s happy working.”
H&L Does he give you grief?
Susan Sometimes. But we’ve always told him, “If something bothers you or if we hurt you, tell us.” Now he’s old enough to talk about his feelings and we listen. He’s very balanced. My husband and I both love what we do and this helps make our home balanced.
If I ever stop learning through my work then it would be time for me to move on. My work is my living. My living is my learning. The learning is what has enabled me to stay committed.
This comes from an Aboriginal person who grew up in a small isolated town, convinced that this was ‘it’. I couldn’t allow myself to want, or wish, or dream. We grow up thinking we can’t dream beyond this. We never get to understand and feel the power of self-confidence. I’ve just come into that in the last seven years.
Susan In my early 30’s we were working on follow-ups to the debut album ‘Artic Rose’. I reached a place where I realized to keep this career and life and to allow it to flourish and grow – I had to find self-confidence.
H&L That’s quite an awareness to have!
Susan It really was. I realized if I’m going to be part of a change for the Aboriginal community I can’t pretend my life is great and then on the inside I’m struggling and fighting.
I realized I have to be honest and true to teach my son that his feelings are honest and true.
Truthfully, I’m very scared.
H&L That takes a lot of courage to admit.
Susan This career is very scary, but I want it more than I am afraid of it. A large part is confidence. That’s been my journey for the last seven years. That was the most ‘impactful moment’ and was the major turning point in my life both personally and professionally – I want this. And, I wanted my son to understand if you want something you fight for it but begin with the want, the desire to dream for it.
H&L So, the passion for what you desired to create in your life was greater than your fear?
Susan Yes. Until that point and through touring ‘This Child’, I hadn’t yet committed to ‘the artist’ in my mind and my heart. During the tour I struggled with everything it came with – the fame, the celebrity, the role model. It’s only recently I’m used to people knowing my name. “Oh really! You know me?” I struggled with that for a long time.
Maybe it took that for me to come to the realization, this is what I want. This is deeply in the core of me. I want to write, share stories and work with children. There needs to be a bridge between ‘this world’ and the ‘Aboriginal world’ – I want to be that bridge. I’ve committed to it. I’m going to make this work. I have days where I don’t want to do it. It’s scary. Then I say to myself, “Okay, let it go, move on, figure it out, it’s your dream.” I also have incredible people I work with who help me through these places.
H&L Being the bridge for these ‘two worlds’ comes out in an artistic form yet the singing and performing is fairly new in your life.
Susan The performing is. As a very young child I loved music and my family is very musical, so I used to sing a lot.
I remember as a child watching The Tommy Hunter Show on Friday nights. I would watch the performers and think, “They’re great.” But you have to understand being an Aboriginal child, growing up in that environment, you don’t allow yourself to want it or wish for it. You don’t learn how, so you just sit and enjoy it. That was a totally ‘different world’ we knew we’d never experience. It wasn’t a part of our world.
Even moving was something you didn’t imagine. So my move to Ottawa was the beginning of many new things.
H&L Since this was so outside the realm of your experience why did you move?
“ When I write a song I get images that become a part of the song. More often than not they’re images of real people. ”
Susan A couple of things. But there is a main reason – this is the first time this is coming out in an article. Till now I’ve only talked about it in my presentations to Aboriginal youth, especially high-risk youth.
We had just finished taking our abuser to court. We had spent as much time, if not longer in court, a year and a half to two years, as he served in jail. What I remember after all that is I had my job; I was content with my life; I was with my sisters and family and things were going great. Then I realized I was just pretending things were great. He had come back into town. It’s not so much the abuse itself but the ‘slap in the face’ of him being in the same town, realizing that nothing had changed. Was I supposed to just live with this? To be okay with this? I just couldn’t do it anymore.I got a one year contract from Indian Northern Affairs in Ottawa, so I took it to get away and see what else I could do with my life. That was why I left. I couldn’t walk around that small town and see him.
H&L That’s devastating.
Susan It is. And I wasn’t the only victim. We were all pretending we were okay, and we weren’t. I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I wanted to get beyond it and to live my life.
H&L Are you ready for this to come out in an article?
Susan It’s hard but somebody has to put their foot down and take the brunt of the burden. We can’t keep pretending it will get better or wait for someone else to do it. And I do bring this out in my music. ‘Anger and Tears’ was about the abuse.
Originally I had been asked by some people to do an album. I thought, “Here’s an opportunity and these people believe in me so we’ll do this one album and move on.” Convinced it would be just one album I wrote very personal things. Then, all of a sudden, here’s this young Aboriginal artist speaking up. I started getting calls at my day job to speak and sing at various events. I refused, telling them I wasn’t a speaker or a performer. But they had a lot of faith in me and believed I had something to offer so I was willing to try.
I began my first national tour with “This Child”. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were victims of abuse. I remember after the tour in 1995 / 96 saying to my husband, “I don’t think I can keep this up. It’s not about the career anymore it’s about the ‘other thing’ [the abuse] and there’s a lot of people out there who are hurting and I don’t know if I’m the right person to speak up for them.” It scared me.
H&L Did you feel that you were taking on their ‘stuff’?
Susan Oh yes! It was all overwhelming. I went into a career unprepared for success, then all of sudden – a hit song, video and awards, I wasn’t ready. And then there’s this incredible following of fans and people who valued my stories, I thought, “Wow! I don’t know if I can do this.” I knew I had some thinking to do. What was my fear really about? What do I want to do? Where do I want this to go? I felt a responsibility to the people but I knew I had a responsibility to myself. I wasn’t ready then. I answered my questions for myself and seven years ago I was ready. Now I can do this. I knew what I wanted and I had moved beyond the abuse, but I’m not over it. I still have moments where I’m very angry but being angry is okay, that’s perfectly normal.
H&L Absolutely. And the anger served to get you to that place of being able to write about it, getting it out, to start to go beyond it and to assist others to go beyond it.
Susan Yes. At first I didn’t know what to do. There’s been no role-model in our community.
H&L Being the pioneer must feel overwhelming. How do you balance that with fun?
Susan My fun has been reading, writing, watching movies, sewing and I do a lot of beadwork. I’ve always been a loner, but now I have ‘girlfriends’ – women my age. We do things together and I have a lot of fun with them.
H&L What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Susan My family is up north, in Arviat, where we spent most of our life and that’s where a lot of my memories are. I loved going to our camp far away from our village from late May to early August. I loved fishing and taking long walks out into the tundra.
H&L Is this where your creativity and imagination developed?
Susan It was more imagination. We weren’t introduced to this concept of creativity growing up. We weren’t taught to draw or write poetry even in school.
One of my other favourite times was walking along the water’s edge singing and imagining the people I’d meet. This is how I write now. When I write a song I get images that become a part of the song. More often than not they’re images of real people.
H&L You’re so open and willing to go to remote places to offer a glimpse of hope.
Susan There are many remote communities in Canada and I wouldn’t know about them if I didn’t sing or speak there. My commitment comes from growing up in an isolated community.
I didn’t know until I moved and started this career how disjointed the isolation makes the people feel. As an Aboriginal people we have problems we need to work through, but we just want to be a part of Canada. We want to contribute in any way we can. But how can we when we don’t know that we’re disjointed and dislocated. A lot of it is geographic, but that shouldn’t hold us back from contributing or feeling a part of something.
I love to say to them, “I grew up like you in an isolated community but I’ve learned to contribute, to be a part of something bigger – the country Canada.” That’s all the people really want to know. “Oh, okay. She’s come here. We’re not so far away that she can’t reach us. And she’s telling us about the other world we will never see.” I bring this to them so they feel a part of something not so far away. It gives them hope. It may inspire them to think, “It’s worth the grade 12 diploma, or going to the next city for college or university. There’s something out there and we’re a part of it.”
H&L With Aboriginal communities in more populated areas, I get the sense the people also feel isolated, not included.
Susan You’re right. There’s still an invisible barrier. There are a large number of us who live in cities, but we know we’re different. If it wasn’t for the group of girlfriends I have where I live I wouldn’t feel comfortable in my town. We’re all just people, so why does the Aboriginal community feel different? I don’t have the answer. It frustrates me. We just grew up in different ways. Why does being different separate us and keep us from engaging in the rest of Canada? I don’t know.
H&L What hinders the meeting of these two worlds?
Susan A combination of reasons. To understand I’ve been writing a paper I call, “The Post-colonization Syndrome Period”. And to understand this I had to study the psychology of the Aboriginal people pre-colonization. I’ve discovered there was no transition. We were simply told, “Your way is wrong so you must change.” I’m talking specifically about what was communicated to the Inuit people.
This was only about 55 - 60 years ago. People still have memories of the good and bad traditional ways they had to let go of. My mother remembers traditional life on the land and when they were put into villages to live. The album ‘Unsung Heroes’ is dedicated to the people who went through this. There was no transition phase; no choice or help to understand the change. When you’re not presented with a choice it shows a lack of regard. So of course we’re going to grow up feeling that we’re not worth the trouble, or worth anything. This is part of the theory I’ve been researching.
When I speak to remote communities I help the young people understand our history and why things are the way they are now. This helps them make a transition; to see possibilities; to teach them about choice and self-respect; of discovering themselves and developing self-esteem – to show them hope. The music really helps deliver the messages of our history and our present, the young people relate much easier.
H&L Tell us about receiving the Order of Canada?
Susan When I won the Juno award I didn’t get it, because I didn’t feel I was a performer. When I was offered the Order of Canada, I really didn’t get it. Not that I wasn’t grateful or felt honoured – I guess I didn’t feel I deserved it. I talked to someone from my community I respect very much and he said, “You must accept it. It is an honour to be recognized in this manner.” This was another turning point in my life, of believing in myself.
H&L Well we’ve talked about many important issues, let’s lighten up for a minute. What’s something you can’t do without every day?
Susan I would have to say chocolate.
“ The music really helps deliver the messages of our history and our present, the young people relate much easier. ”
H&L Ahh, a woman after my own heart. (We both laugh).
Susan Yes, chocolate. And talking to my son at least once a day, no matter where I am.
H&L You’re a true storyteller and philosopher Susan, what message would you like to leave with everyone?
Susan The same message I hope to leave with the people in my workshops: learn who you are and what you’re all about. There’s so much inside of us affected by the outside, learn about all of it. So much we haven’t learned about ourselves, so learn all about you. And most importantly believe in you. It may be difficult at times but when you believe in yourself you can accomplish anything, especially being the person you desire to be. Know yourself, and believe in you.
Susan’s latest recent CD Red Blood Earth is in music stores. Give yourself or someone you love an amazing musical treat and pick up a copy. Visit www.susanaglukark.com