Roles, tone, and our truths: an interview with Ronnie Dean Harris

Culture Film
The Road Forward ensemble; the cast of the award-winning musical documentary sings together; a photo of Elder (chief) Leonard George; a still of the performance of 1965 Song from The Road Forward; Ronnie Dean Harris (left) and Doreen Manuel (right). All photos provided and are copyright of Rosamond Norbury.


I sat down with Stō:lo/St’át’imc/Lil’wat/Nlaka’pamux multimedia artist Ronnie Dean Harris to discuss The Road Forward, a National Film Board of Canada musical documentary that he co-stars in about indigenous activism in B.C. from the 1930s to today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SR: So first off, you’ve have a long history in the music scene as the musician Ostwelve, as well as in other film and TV productions. Who inspired you to pursue a career in the media when you were young?

RDH: There weren’t many people in my midst that were doing media. It was just what I gravitated to my whole life. I loved to make beats and, you know, hear my voice. And I just really loved to do rap. So it’s kind of the people I listened to, and the sign of the times were a really big influence of pushing me towards rap and using that as a way to express myself, I think. ‘Cause there’s still rap within our families, that’s for sure.


SR: One of the “sets” in the film was at The Warehouse in Vancouver, which is huge and legendary — all sorts of really well-known artists have recorded there — and I wonder what that must have felt like for you, knowing who’s been in that booth?

RDH: That’s the hub of Vancouver music, really. It was just amazing to be able to walk in there and be part of that space — especially as indigenous artists — to be able to take [up] space in that place. As a musician, it’d be near impossible for me to be able to rent time there. It was really nice to spend time there and feel comfortable in there.


SR: I’m sure you’ve heard this, because I hear it from my aunties and uncles all the time, but just existing as an indigenous person in Canada is a political act — let alone being active in lobbying for change and our rights and humanity to be recognized. I know that’s been a big part of what you do as it’s shown up in your music and other work. When did you start actively pursuing that change [legislative and socially for indigenous rights]?

RDH: As far back as I can remember. When stuff really hit for me is the summer of 1990, during the Oka Crisis. It forced me to be part of that world. It forced me to be literate and know the issues and forced me to defend my life against violence. I was a kid, 11, 10-years-old. That’s what really started me in rap as well: the need to voice myself over that. No one was hearing me; I was too young to be a warrior, I was too young to go protest anywhere. I could sit in my room and write angry raps that talked about how I felt. The political awareness then as well – that time pushed me towards music like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, and a lot of the more conscious music that was coming out of hip-hop because of that anger.

Shortly after the Oka Crisis were the L.A. Riots. I feel like I was grown in that world of hip-hop: the narrative, the media, the struggle of our people was just right up-front. My grandparents were quite progressive and were very keen on making me understand sovereignty and that I need to know what sovereignty is. I remember my grandma telling me about the Royal Proclamation, the British North America Act, and then the Indian Act. And then when I moved in with my mom in my teenage years, she would drill me on it: the Delgamuukw Decision, the Sparrow Decision, the Calder Case. Going into highschool, I had a very cursory knowledge of indigenous governance, so it’s not something I’ve ever been like, “oh I should probably learn about this.” I’ve just kind of always known about it. Not everybody’s lucky to have people teach them like that . . . I’m really blessed that I’ve had that in my life.


SR: Going off of that, you released a song after Idle No More that was inspired by it, “Stand for You”: that was a really powerful time. You’ve talked about it a bit already, but are there any other ways your activism intertwines with your music and acting career?

RDH: I mean, consciously, I’ve chosen to make sure that what I do professionally has some sort of contribution to what we do politically and culturally. You don’t see me doing a lot of Hollywood film and I’ve turned down record deals. We have enough celebrities, but we don’t have artists or people doing activational work . . . We have power to use what we have. Look at Chief Dan George or Pauline Johnson; they’re these people that embodied who they were. That in itself was political. I really try to challenge what a “Hollywood celebrity” is, and try to embody a new way to tell stories and use media in a way to raise consciousness.


SR: I’m curious what advice you would give to indigenous youth who are trying to break into a career in music and acting?

RDH: I think that we all have a role in our communities and in our families. We all have things that we love, right? Like, I love to rap. There isn’t a lot of space for that in traditional roles. But there are skills and values and understandings that come from rap that I use in traditional ways. So if you go back a thousand years, I’d probably be speaking on the floor of a longhouse. I’ve been looking at it like that: “okay, so I have a voice to stand up and speak, and to say things that other people can’t say.” So then it’s my job and my duty and my role — since Creator has given me the skills to do these things — to use that skill, talent, and experience to give back to the community.

So no matter what it is, that young people go and find themselves, or find and pursue their dreams, be prepared to come home and give back to the community. And be proficient: I always say it’s important for us now as indigenous people to be proficient. Proficient in what it is that makes us indigenous. Proficient in what the system has made us deficient in. And once we’re proficient in those things, be prepared to teach it to the youth. The Elders always say that the Creator gave us a role; it’s a seed that’s planted within us. And so identifying that in our youth is very important . . . we have to look at those things that we’re really great at, the things that we really love, and build from those things.


SR: One thing that you talked about it in the film is your longhouse voice. The way you explained it in the film I found to be really beautiful, powerful, and accurate. Is there anything else you wanted to add about that voice, or what it was like growing up and hearing that voice?

RDH: The elders, the uncles, they talk really hard at us and nowadays . . . people are really sensitive. But that’s how I grew up. When it was time to talk about business, there was a certain tonality that came out of these Elders. And tonality is the big thing that we don’t notice anymore. You don’t use that tone at a funeral; you don’t speak that tone at a celebration or a memorial. That tone was a medicine: the words come out, that’s part of it. For me, using my voice as my job and as a thing I love to do and now as my role, that tonality is very important. So I’ve been learning a lot more about it as, I use that tone to bring awareness and light to issues that are of  so much importance to us. And learning what that role is gonna be and carrying that voice in a good way. It’s not something I fully understand, but at that point when we shot the film, it’s what I understood it to be. It’s not changed a whole lot, but I’m sure like, by the time I get older, I’ll have a different understanding of what all that means and that role will be different. The deeper understanding will be there.

For me like, that’s where we are, we’re here telling truths, right, the reconciliation part of the world, and that truth is gonna come out in that tone. It’s important for non-indigenous people to understand that. When I spit a poem or something like that, you get the eye-rolls, and the “here comes this again,” right? So if we now understand that tone, maybe they won’t be so quick to do an eye roll.

It’s deep, deep work. What I always say about the longhouse voice is that people see me doing it and they see men on the floor, taking space, doing the longhouse voice. But in the longhouse tradition, the longhouse speaker would have a lady standing right beside him as the floor manager. The floor manager is usually the auntie or the grandma. And so when I use my longhouse voice, I always have my auntie standing right there with me. So, it’s not a patriarchal thing for me to be up there barking these things, because I speak on behalf of the aunties, the floor managers, of life and creation, of our societies, and our communities. For me, that’s what I think is very important to translate and let people know that’s the mindset behind it. The way it should be is men speaking up on behalf of the floor manager, ladies, matrilineal connections, land, water, and stars.

SR: Mhm, and it’s always been said by our leaders that the men never did anything on their own, they listened to the women.  

RDH: Yeah, the smart ones, anyways.


SR: In the film, you talked about how George Manuel is a hero to you — you even said he’s a deity — and he is to me too. So how was that experience for you, getting to portray someone who’s so important and so well loved and respected?

RDH: I know a lot of that family, but to be connected to George in that way — to help tell that story — is a new level of responsibility in my life, really, in that I had to carry myself in another life. I’ve already been given responsibility to carry myself in a way, but it just sort of adds to that. As long as his family is happy with the performance and the portrayal, then I’m good with it. It’s kind of frightening to do, but if I can be a small part in telling that amazingly large story, then I’m really good on that and I’m really happy to be a part of it. I hope more people learn about George Manuel and the work that him and that generation were doing that set the grounds for us to be here today. It’s just super exciting.


SR: Do you have separate hopes for what indigenous and settler viewers will take away from the film, or do you have a universal hope, apart from what you’ve discussed already?

RDH: I was just want everyone to be honest with their understanding of their own sovereignty and their understanding of their knowledge of these things. ‘Cause we’re quick to be like “oh, yeah I knew that” or “oh, I don’t know.” Just be honest with it! Let’s be honest with ourselves, our understanding of reconciliation, and where we are with it. That’s the only way to move forward.


SR: How does this film compare to the other pieces you’ve worked on, in film and TV?

RDH: I kind of always want to be in this vein of storytelling and sharing. On Moccasin Flats, I spent a lot of time being accountable for that role: a dealer and a junkie. And for this it’s the same thing — I have to be accountable for sharing the knowledge and keeping the message and conversation going.


SR: Do you have other upcoming projects that you’d like folks to know about?

RDH: I’m working on a music album but there’s been no set announcement for it . . . There are a lot of projects that I’m working on that are research-based . . . More writing, more performance. Just doing the things I love, and raising awareness about the Wild Salmon Caravan. I also work with the Working Group for Indigenous Food Sovereignty … It’s always just trying to do work that contributes to the people and find out how, at 38 years old, I can be a better person for my family and for the nations.


SR: Is there anything I’ve missed that you want to add or comment on?

RDH: I’m really grateful to Marie Clements and to Jennifer Kreisberg. It’s been a long journey with The Road Forward; we’ve been at this since 2010. The team was always really generous in having me be a part of it. I’m just really thankful for them and the compositions, their writing, and the vision that they had; for allowing me to be part of this amazing project.


The Road Forward will run at Cinecenta December 11 and 12. Stay tuned for my review!