Indigenous Artists and Sultans of String Walking Though the Fire- A Trailblazing Musical Response to the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action

Submitted by Sandy Graham

I have been personally listening to and watching music and videos from Sultans of String for years now, and I consider myself to be one of their biggest fans. Always collaborating with artists that have a cause and especially artist who need a voice, the empathy that this groups shows in their choices for their recordings not only have extremely talented participants, but always presented with a moral compass.

 What do Crystal Shawanda, Leela Gilday, Northern Cree powwow group, a dozen other Indigenous artists, and Roots band Sultans of String have in common? They have all come together in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and Final Report that calls for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to work together to create Walking Through the Fire. This album and live show are a powerful collection of collaborations between the roots group and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists from across Turtle Island, with the CD releasing September 15, 2023, and a live concert tour launching on September 28, leading up to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Check out Walking Through Fire on YouTube here: 

Fire can be destructive, as we have seen with the unprecedented forest fires still burning in Canada. But what we see right afterward is interesting, as collaborating Indigenous art director Mark Rutledge explains, referencing the title and cover art of Walking Through the Fire

“You’ll see the burnt-out husks of trees and the ash and the charcoal on the landscape. But fireweed is the first plant after a forest fire that emerges, and you’ll see rivers and fields of magenta within the barren landscape, and those nutrients are going back into the soil for the next generation of trees and flowers and regrowth.”

There is fear instilled within the very notion of fire because it can be so destructive, not just to the landscape, but to the lives of people. But what lies beyond fear that holds people back from achieving what they want to achieve? 

“The other side of fear is growth and potential with collaboration between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” Mark continues. “When we drop the word reconciliation on people, there’s a large group of people who don’t understand what that means. And when you don’t understand something, you are fearful of it. But if we go through the same experience together, we walk through that fire together, and we come out together on the other end and have that unified experience together, that’s the power in this album.”

Together these artists are making a safe, creative space where new connections can be dreamed of – not in the Western way of thinking and problematizing – but instead a deeper sharing and understanding, with music being the common ground to help cultures connect and understand each other. 

“We are opening doors for each other, as Indigenous peoples, as settler peoples. This project is about creating connections and spaces to learn from each other” explains collaborator Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, violist with Métis Fiddler Quartet.

Nine-time Grammy-nominated Northern Cree and community organisers in Kettle and Stony Point welcomed Sultans of String to their annual powwow for one of these collaborations. Steve Wood, drummer and singer, explains,  “When you’re collaborating with mainstream music, it shows that we can work together to bring out the very best in who we are as human beings, and we can bring out something very beautiful.”

A central theme running through Walking Through the Fire is the need for the whole truth of Residential Schools and the Indigenous experience to be told long before reconciliation can possibly take place. Grammy-nominated Elder and poet Dr. Duke Redbird, who in many ways provided the initial inspiration for this project, explains, 

“The place that we have to start is with truth. Reconciliation will come sometime way in the future, perhaps, but right now, truth is where we need to begin the journey with each other.”

Watch the compelling EPK Walking Through The Fire:

Sultans violinist Chris McKhool, who was recently awarded the Dr. Duke Redbird Lifetime Achievement Award by Redbird and JAYU Arts for Human Rights for working to amplify these truths through collaborations, says, “This country has a history that has been ignored, distorted, twisted to suit colonialist goals of destroying a people. We are so fortunate for the opportunity to work with Indigenous artists, sharing their stories, their experiences, and their lives with us, so we can continue our work of learning about the history of residential schools, genocide, and intergenerational impacts of colonization. Music has a special capacity for healing, connecting, and expressing truth.”

McKhool leads the 3x JUNO nominated, 6x CFMA-winning band, who recorded the bed tracks at Jukasa Studios, an Indigenous-owned world-class recording facility on the Six Nations reserve south of Hamilton, Ontario.

 “We were so fortunate to be able to work at Jukasa, as well as consult with exceptional Indigenous artists on this project,” says McKhool. “We were lucky to be able to work with Indigenous designer Mark Rutledge and Indigenous filmmakers and videographers Eliza Knockwood and Marc Merilainen, working with our usual team, to come up with a look and feel for the album.”

The Honourable Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, said,  “The very fact that you’re doing this tells me that you believe in the validity of our language, you believe in the validity of our art and our music, and that you want to help to bring it out. And that’s really what’s important: for people to have faith that we can do this.”  Sinclair also spoke about the importance of using Indigenous languages so these do not become lost. The recording and concert features lyrics in Dene, Inuktitut, Sm’algyax, Cree, and Michif.

Sultans of String is a fiercely independent band that has always tried to lift up those around them and has exposed many of their collaborators and special guests to new audiences at their shows, including at JUNOfest, NYC’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club, Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, and London’s Trafalgar Square. Led by Queen’s Diamond Jubilee recipient McKhool, they have collaborated with orchestras across North America and have played live on CBC’s Canada Live, BBC TV, Irish National Radio, and SiriusXM in Washington. They have recorded and performed with such diverse luminaries as Paddy Moloney & The Chieftains, Sweet Honey in The Rock, Richard Bona, Alex Cuba, Ruben Blades, Benoit Bourque, and Béla Fleck. Their work during the pandemic on The Refuge Project amplified the voices of new immigrants and refugees, earning them CFMAs and Best Musical Film at the Cannes World Film Festival.

Says Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots: “We have to move beyond ally-ship, and we have to move into relationships of being co-conspirators, get down into the dirt and start working together and start moving forward. We’re all equals here, and we all need to communicate as equals. We actually need Canadians to step up and take that first move.”

Under the direction of Chris McKool, this latest collaboration offering is beyond amazing. The packaging, liner notes, choice of participants with a beautifully put together request to find peace in reconciliation has truly touched my heart. You should have it touch yours as well. Pre-order here:


1. A Beautiful Darkness                  feat. Marc Meriläinen / Nadjiwan (Ojibwe)

2. The Rez                                           feat. Crystal Shawanda (Ojibwe Potawatomi)

3. Take Off the Crown                    feat. Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots (Anishinaabe Algonquin /

Onkwehón:we  Mohawk)

4. Kǫ́                                                      feat. Leela Gilday (Dene) & Leanne Taneton (Dene)

5. Nîmihito (Dance)                         feat. Northern Cree (Cree)

6. Lost and Found                            feat. Shannon Thunderbird & Kate Dickson (Ts’msyen)

7. Black Winged Raven                  feat. Shannon Thunderbird (Ts’msyen)

8. Our Mother The Earth               feat. Dr. Duke Redbird (Chippewa/Anishinaabe)

9. Sweet Alberta                              feat. The North Sound (w/ Forrest Eaglespeaker – Blackfoot)

10. Humma                                         feat. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit)

11. Highway of Tears                      feat. Don Ross (Mi’kmaw) & M.J. Dandeneau (Métis)                                   

12. Chanson de Riel                         feat. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis)

13. Tkaronto Reel                             feat. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis)

14. Quviasuliqpunga                       feat. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit)


2023 Tour

With Leela Gilday, The North Sound, Don Ross, Shannon Thunderbird, Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, Marc Meriläinen (Nadjiwan), and a multimedia extravaganza including Northern Cree, Kendra Tagoona, Tracey Sarazin, Duke Redbird and more.

Sep 28 – Markham                           Flato Markham Theatre
Sep 29 – Stratford                             Stratford Symphony
Sep 30 – St Catharines                     Niagara Symphony
Oct 1 – St Catharines                       Niagara Symphony
Oct 2 – St Catharines                       FirstOntario PAC Education show
Oct 3 – Brantford                               Brantford Symphony
Oct 4 – Lindsay                                   Flato Academy Theatre

With Shannon Thunderbird, Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, Marc Meriläinen (Nadjiwan), and a multimedia extravaganza including Northern Cree, Kendra Tagoona, Tracey Sarazin, Duke Redbird, and more.

Oct 10 – Sudbury                              Café Heritage – Education & Evening show
Oct 11 – North Bay                           Capital Centre
Oct 12 – Timmins                              Timmins Museum, O’Gorman HS 
Oct 13 – Geraldton                           Geraldton Concert Series
Oct 14 – Thunder Bay                      Sleeping Giant Folk Music Society
Oct 15 – Dryden                                Dryden Entertainment Series
Oct 16 – Sioux Lookout                   Sioux Hudson Entertainment Series
Oct 17 – Red Lake                              Red Lake Entertainment Series
Oct 18 – Kenora                                 Lake of the Woods Concert Group
Oct 19 – Fort Frances                       Tour de Fort Entertainment Series
Oct 22 – Burlington                          Burlington PAC
Oct 23 – Burlington                          Burlington PAC Education show
Nov 12 – Walkerton                          Victoria Jubilee Hall

Jan 19 – Ottawa                                 Centerpointe Theatre
Jan 23 – Kingston                              Kingston Grand Theatre – Education & Evening show
Jan 25 – Brampton                            Rose Theatre – Education & Evening show
Jan 30 – Guelph                                 River Run Centre Education show
Jan 31 – Guelph                                 River Run Centre Education show
Feb 1 – Guelph                                   River Run Centre – Education & Evening show

Mar 2 – Winnipeg                             Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Mar 3 – Winnipeg                             Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

April 15 – Markham                         Flato Markham Theatre – Education Show
April 16 – Markham                         Flato Markham Theatre – Education Show