Sandra Sutter

A photo of Sandra Sutter by a stream
Sandra Sutter | Photo: Courtesy of Sandra Sutter

Sandra Sutter

Original Peoples Investment Program showcases FNMI artists in our community

Sandra Sutter has been part of the Calgary arts scene for many years, working alongside great arts leaders such as the late Joane Cardinal Schubert at the Calgary Aboriginal Arts Awareness Society, as well as sharing her powerful voice and music in music venues across this city.

Her album Cluster Stars has her working with Elders Reg and Rose Crowshoe of the Piikani Nation to create music that gives voice to the land and mountains and tells the eternal story of the stars.

In 2019 Sandra applied to the Original Peoples Investment Program for a project related to her album Cluster Stars and I got to chat with her recently over Zoom to learn more about her community work here in Mohkinstsis, and her career as an Indigenous singer songwriter.

Sable Sweetgrass: When did you begin professionally in music as a singer songwriter?

Sandra Sutter: As an Indigenous singer songwriter there was a point where I started that is later than when I started performing as an artist. I’ve played in bands, cover bands since I was 16-years-old.

But when I moved to Calgary, I met a woman you may know, by the name of Susan Dumont, and I met her at a band rehearsal with this band that I was playing with for Stampede. She was having dinner at the same house I was rehearsing at and I had got there a little bit early. So, I met her, and we had very similar stories as Indigenous women who were adopted and raised in non-Indigenous families who had found and affirmed our identity when we found out who our biological families were.

Through her I started getting to know some of the Indigenous arts community in Calgary. I met Joane Cardinal Schubert when Susan and I crashed what we thought was a social event in her studio that was actually a Calgary Aboriginal Arts Awareness Society board meeting and we both ended up on the board. It was awesome!

So Joane and Susan recognized what they saw as talent in me as a singer songwriter, and an activist for Indigenous rights, and they asked me to start working for the community in that way, and commissioned me to write an opening song for Native Awareness Week.

I found that moving a piano was far too difficult and heavy so I ended up buying a guitar that I really didn’t know how to play. I performed with that at the very first event for Native Awareness Week, with my song duct taped to the back of my guitar, because I only knew three chords. It was a memorable event and what a great opportunity. So that was part of the start of it.

Sable Sweetgrass: Who were your influences, Indigenous and non-Indigenous?

That’s a great question and it’s a challenging one too because, I don’t know about you but, for me it changes every day who I listen to and who influences me.

Buffy Saint Marie—you could mention her name in any circle and people would know her, in North America and many other countries.

Joane Cardinal Schubert was a huge influence for me in the way that she challenged peoples’ thinking, and her artistic practice and how she would go underground and disappear for a while and work on a beautiful project, created with so much deep thought.

I love the work of Lyle Lovett. I love his songwriting and the way he pokes fun at humanity. I think that there are people in the spiritual networks that I listen to, like Deepak Chopra and Mariane Williamson who recently ran for President of the United States. She has some really interesting concepts that she thinks about spiritually. I like to listen to those things and how people think so that they can broaden the way that I speak about the things I want to speak about through my music.

Also, I always thought I was going to marry Peter Frampton but apparently he’s not available.

Sable Sweetgrass: With your album Cluster Stars it’s filled with songs of faith, hope and spirituality, what was the process like putting that together?

Sandra Sutter: That work was many years in the writing and making. Reg and Rose Crowshoe, they challenged me to put that work together for the people. So, as you know, when an Elder asks you to do something, you have to do it. So, I thought a lot about what I wanted the album to speak about and met with Reg and Rose so that I could understand what their vision was. They vetted all the lyrics, they vetted all the music, they titled the album.

Cluster Stars is based on the Blackfoot story of the five brothers and it translates most closely in English to bunched stars but we didn’t think that would translate into mainstream society so we called it Cluster Stars. It goes back to that story and how, in order to understand one another, we need to find that ethical space, you know—when the sun or the moon shines through the patterns on the tipi and creates that ethical space on the floor of the tipi—that’s where we need to stand and communicate in order to be able to understand one another. So that was in all of the songs.

Many of the songs can mean something different depending on what perspective you take to look at it from. They’re meant to do that so that they can have broad appeal and emotional impact through the music and the lyrics for people who are consuming the product, so to speak. That way we can expand it on different platforms to continue the Cluster Stars project of understanding one another and building bridges to understand: What did residential schools do to people? How do we move into a future where we support one another in all circumstances and create an environment that understands the deep rich culture, beauty, knowledge and ways of being of Indigenous peoples?

Because without that, society is not going to survive. That’s the bottom line. Without the land-based teachings humans will not survive on this planet.

Sable Sweetgrass: In 2019 you applied to the Original Peoples Investment Program for a project that was related to your album, could you talk about that project?

Sandra Sutter: Thank you to Calgary Arts Development for supporting the work of so many artists and myself included. We did this crazy seven concert series where we involved youth and people from different spectrums so that we could make the product available, make the music available, in different circles.

We performed at the Jack Singer Concert Hall at an event with the People’s Republic of China and that was really cool. We got to perform with this master airdoo player, which is a single stringed instrument and it is just the most beautiful thing you can imagine. He performs with all sorts of different kinds of music.

A woman named Jessica Ewin, she set all of that up through her studio. She’s a master pianist who travels all over the world doing this kind of work. They wanted to do something for reconciliation so this was a perfect project to bring two cultures together that usually aren’t exposed to one another and create a work for an audience to see and enjoy. It was really wonderful.

We did a few mini concerts for different people. In downtown Calgary we did one, it was in the middle of a big snow storm, there were vendors, there was stew and bannock, it was very good and lots of performers. Actually, it was in the Legion and so there were lots of youth and different age groups which is really important because often, pre-COVID, if you did a performance youth couldn’t attend and a lot of what Cluster Stars seems to do is to encourage young people. So how do they get to see the music if you’re playing in a place that has an age restriction?

We did one concert, also in another big snow storm, at Knox United Church downtown. We videotaped it live; we did it with Calgary Civic Symphony and I did it with the band I’d been playing with—Prairie Justice—and Reg Crowshoe he performed in Song of Heaven with us. It was amazing! So, Reg Crowshoe sang with the symphony. The song that he shares is a real educational opportunity for us as well because it’s an honor song. I don’t have the permit to sing that honor song, I have not been given that honor song, so it’s only Reg who can share it, when he’s able to come and share it with us at events. For him to be at Knox United Church, which has some history in his family, which is not all good, and share an honor song with the symphony and the project that he and Rose engendered in Cluster Stars, what a remarkable set of circumstances. And without Calgary Arts Development we would not have been able to have done that, so thank you.

Sable Sweetgrass: You’ve been in Calgary/Mohkinstsis since 1988, what is it about this city that you love?

Sandra Sutter: I love the mountains being so close. I love the green spaces in our city. I love that you can walk out your door and go a very short distance and be on the pathways and get pretty much anywhere in the city. We have national parks near the city, we’ve got Nose Hill Park, we have sacred spaces within our city.

The people of Calgary, there are the First Peoples, there are many diverse interests in cultures that inhabit Mohkinstsis. Then there are the new Canadians who I find to be more open than some of the settler society. There is the cowboy culture, there’s the epicurean culture. I don’t cook so it’s really important for me to be close to restaurants and coffee shops and the like—I tell you I would not survive on the land; I don’t think I even know how to start a fire. It’s a good thing I was born now instead of a long time ago.

I think of the rich diverse culture of Calgary, we have a fantastic art scene and its growing and changing and evolving as more youth get involved and people who’ve been exposed to different artistic practices across Canada and globally come to our city. I just think it’s a vibrant city where there’s something for everyone here. So, I love it.

Sable Sweetgrass: In this year of 2020 as an artist who does live performances, how has this pandemic affected you?

Sandra Sutter: It’s a tough year. I’m fortunate because I have my hands in a few different things. I’m not experiencing the stress of being financially destitute that many of my artist friends are experiencing, especially the people whose only income in a family is through the arts. I can’t even imagine how some of those folks, some of my friends, are managing to hang on.

For me what I experience is a lack of connection to my own community. These things, meeting you on Zoom, is fantastic! I saw that you were able to do a socially-distanced interview with some folks, that was fantastic! It’s not easy. You’ve got not only the inability to be in front of the people who are important to you and connecting with them, when you see them you can’t hug them. That’s kind of a hurtful thing for me, not having an audience to gage a response to music. When I’m doing a new song, I can do it on Zoom but I can’t really see the feedback of whether or not it’s reaching my audience in a good way.

You can see the likes if you’re able to distract yourself from your performance to watch what’s happening on your screen, which is not what you want to do either. You build new art and you’re not getting that feedback. Mostly I didn’t realize how much it was impacting me emotionally until I did a pop-up concert, a socially distanced concert with Arts Commons, at St. Patrick’s Island a couple of weeks ago. There were people there and the sun was shining, it was a 20-minute performance and we got to interact with people even though they were socially-distanced from us. I soaked that up, I couldn’t get enough, oh my gosh there’s people here and we’re communing through music and art. It lifted me and the audience members who came to talk with us after said that it was an incredible experience for them.

What a great idea to have a pop-up concert for people who are just there anyways. So, I recognize that it’s impacted me emotionally but like many people I pretend that it hasn’t and it really has, not being able to be engaged and communing with other artists and our audiences.

Sable Sweetgrass: Has it been a time for creativity for you?

Sandra Sutter: You know it has; it definitely has. I’m working on a new body of work around how COVID-19 and the pandemic and how isolation impacts us emotionally. Recognizing that it’s like a seductress, like somebody trying to seduce you into a way of being and thinking that is dark. And once you’re in there how do you get out? Especially if you can’t have your community around you, even to check on you, how do you get out of that darkness, and it is very seductive. It’s definitely been a creative time but I wouldn’t say that it’s been a time to create about joy.

Sable Sweetgrass: What are your hopes for 2021 and beyond?

Sandra Sutter: I hope we’ll be able to see our peeps, that would be great, and hug one another again. I recognize that like everyone is saying, the world will not be the same. I hope to have a new album out. I’m working on one in the studio right now that is about joy! It’s not the COVID content that I’m working on. It’s a Christmas album! So, it carries on some of the thematic elements of Cluster Stars and also just some Christmas songs! We are going to take some risks and do some things a little bit differently.

So, in 2021 that album will be out although it will be out at Christmas time this fall. Some of those songs will be able to carry through without the Christmas theme and some will remain as Christmas songs. Calgary Arts Development has also generously funded a song book for Cluster Stars, so that will be ready by the end of 2021. It will be the lyrics, chord charts, and a picture book of photographs that represent the thematic elements of Cluster Stars and coloring sections for kids. And so people can actually play the music, just take the book and play the music, and if they want to understand some of the things we talk about on the album a little bit more deeply, then there is visual representation for them to do that. Hopefully we are going to get funding to also translate some of the lyrics into different Indigenous languages.

Sable Sweetgrass: What is your advice to young Indigenous youth who are considering a career in music, here in Calgary or in Canada?

Sandra Sutter: It’s a tough road. One of the really important things that young artists need to do is ensure they have a circle of mentors around them—our aunties—to help them on their path. To ask as many questions as they can and to get involved with the arts organizations, like Calgary Arts Development, like Factor, like SOCAN, like the Canada Council for the Arts. Recognize that there are people who are available to help you.

When I was a young person starting out in the arts, I didn’t have a clue how to apply for a grant, and without a grant, gathering enough money when you work a minimum wage job, to create an artistic project is very, very difficult. I know that Calgary Arts Development hosts workshops and online events to help people understand how to write grants—that would be one of the first things that I would encourage a young artist to do is to get familiar with grant language and funders and those kinds of relationships, so that they can create a way to build their art.

About the Original Peoples Investment Program Showcase

The Original Peoples Investment Program (OPIP) supports the preservation and revitalization of First Nation/Métis/Inuit (FNMI) art through art-based projects and activities that are supported and validated by FNMI artists, community, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers.

Reflecting on the 143rd anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7—signed on September 22, 1877—and our ongoing journey of Reconciliation, Calgary Arts Development is pleased to highlight a handful of projects that were funded through the program in 2019.

Check back each day this week for a new profile.

Original Peoples Investment Program Showcase graphic