March 30, 2023

There’s much we can learn about life and relationships from animals. Just ask Craig Ginn

UCalgary professor inspired by Indigenous experience and perspectives to write, produce and perform songs about animal kinship
Craig Ginn's Songs of Justice Project features original songs and video.
Craig Ginn's Songs of Justice Project features original songs and video. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Do you remember the last time a song moved you to tears, or influenced a change in your perspective? Think about a song or a piece of music that transformed the way you look at the world. Chances are, it was written with the intent to inspire the very thing you felt when you first heard it.

Music has the power to influence social change and bring communities together. It can help us to navigate complex social issues and inspire healing, reconciliation and education. Dr. Craig Ginn, PhD, of the University of Calgary hopes the music developed through his Animal Kinship Project (AKP) will provide open educational and motivational resources underscored by an exploration of human-animal connections and traditions.

Exploring connections through song

The AKP follows Ginn’s 2021 Songs of Justice Project (SOJP), which featured 10 original songs and lyric videos exploring the historic relationship between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples. As a lifelong musician, Ginn, a Métis scholar and associate professor (teaching) in the Department of Classics and Religion, felt songwriting would be a good way for him to help motivate students and audiences to learn about Indigenous perspectives.

The concept for developing an album focused on human-animal relationships grew out of conversations with students about Indigenous world views and the strong connection with animals. During his work on SOJP, Ginn wrote several songs that refer to animals. Call This Land, a song about the naming of Manitoba, refers to bison, while Voice of Tradition, a song about Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, references eagles.

Having grown up alongside all sorts of wildlife⁠ — including polar bears⁠ — in Churchill, Man., Ginn draws upon his childhood experiences to explore Indigenous relationships with animals through song.

“For many Indigenous Peoples, the Seven Sacred Teachings are the guiding principles on how to live our lives. These teachings are centred around animals and what humans can learn from them,” explains Ginn. “The wolf, for example, teaches us to be community-centred in hunting and survival, and to be committed to a larger community.”

Ginn recalls his experience trapping beaver in northern Manitoba and later finding the experiences that Blackfoot people had with the beaver were much different. Through conversation with a Blackfoot Knowledge Keeper and researching Indigenous sources, he learned that the beaver is highly revered as sacred. This led to Ginn writing a song about the beaver focused on its powerful role in controlling and engineering the flow of the river. Originally, Ginn thought he would write the song about the beaver in an acoustic-folk genre, but, after researching beavers and the impact they have on the river, he wrote in a rock genre to better depict the gravitas of the beaver as “Lord of Rivers."  

Craig Ginn

Incorporating student perspectives

Part of Ginn’s work with the AKP involves collaborating with students to produce articles, images and video footage for each song on the album. This past fall, he partnered with colleague Dr. Adela Kincaid, PhD'15, in her INDG 399 course, Animal Human Relationships, to make the AKP an optional assignment for students who want to get involved with the project. Elders and community members are contributing to the class by providing teachings. Ginn has also reached out to the School of Creative and Performing Arts to connect with music students, inviting them to join him in the studio to record some of the songs.

Over the past three years, Ginn has also worked with Monique Riel, BA'22, a graduate student research assistant provided through the Indigenous Summer Student Program.

“Working with Craig has been absolutely wonderful. I consider the opportunity to contribute to his projects an honour,” says Riel. “Craig is really in his element working with music and Indigenous perspectives and I learned so much in the creative and collaborative processes of working together. I always knew that my input, ideas and contributions were very valued.”

Funded in part by Evolve to Innovate (e2i), the AKP has also received a 2022 University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant that will see the project through the recording and sound-engineering phase, and then on toward building an official website. Ginn hopes to have all of the AKP songs finished in June, and the music videos later in the year.

“I hope that the Animal Kinship Project contributes to a wider community understanding that the other-than-human beings with which we share this world have always been integral to our experience of it, from buffalo to sled dogs,” says Riel. “I hope it evokes in the community a sense of animals as being immensely valuable allies and teachers — as equals.”

SOJP songs seen as open educational resources

Meanwhile, the original SOJP album can be downloaded or ordered as a CD free of charge. Instead of purchasing the album, Ginn encourages listeners to make a donation to CUPS, a community-based charity that builds resilience and improves quality of life by providing a range of economic, social and emotional supports. A donation link is provided on the SOJP project website.

By making his songs available as open educational resources, Ginn sees them as motivational pieces that can be used by high school teachers and post-secondary instructors as a way to bring Indigenous ways of knowing and being into their curriculum. By providing lyric videos for each song, they become more accessible to those with language barriers or hearing impairments.

Select songs and videos from the Songs of Justice Project were shared publicly on March 27 at the Boris Roubakine Recital Hall at UCalgary. Contact the SOJP to order a CD directly. In the video below, Craig Ginn wrote and performs lead vocals on I Cannot Escape.

Monique Riel and Craig Ginn

The University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants and Scholars Program at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is designed to enhance student learning experiences through the integration of teaching and learning research and educational leadership. Successful applications can receive up to $40,000 in funding.

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