Lummi violinist performs Friday in Blaine
By Tara Nelson
Swil Kanim steps out onto an empty stage illuminated by a single lamp and looks out to a dark audience.
“I remember the day I decided to commit suicide like it was yesterday,” he said, walking to a stage prop modeled to look like the Aurora Bridge in Seattle.
To most American audiences the thought might have been a somber one but this time, speaking to a mostly Native audience at the American Indian Film Institute award show at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the crowd erupted in wild laughter.
“Part of the reason I think it was funny was because they knew me as the character ‘Mouse’ in the movie The Business of Fancy Dancing and they thought I was bringing up that character,” he said. “But it’s also an inside joke about how depressed we can get and yet we use our humor to overcome it.”
A member of Lummi Nation who grew up on the Lummi Reservation, Swil Kanim has played his hand as a musician, story teller, U.S. Army chaplain’s assistant, street performer and actor, but it was not a joke when he said playing the violin saved his life.
“If it wasn’t for the violin, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “It helped me process the trauma of being a foster child in my youth.”
Most recently, Swil Kanim was a featured speaker in author Clyde Ford’s Precious Cargo, a film that speaks to minority youth about the power of reading. He was also featured on the soundtrack of a documentary about Indian boarding schools (the film won best documentary award) and invited to perform for the Dalai Lama in April at Key Arena in Seattle for The Seeds of Compassion event.
A unique mix of self-taught styles combined with storytelling, poetry and audience participation make Swil Kanim’s performances unusually engaging.
American Indian author and film director Sherman Alexie calls Swil Kanim’s music “a colonial cocktail of Western civ, indigenous hip-hop, sacred profanity, folk, rock, non-sense, and old standards that sound new and visa-versa.
“I am not sure why Swil Kanim and the violin fell in love with each other, but their children are sure strange and beautiful,” he said.
Seattle-based photojournalist Jerry Gay calls his music “unique, thought-provoking, upbeat and a joy to watch and listen.”
“It’s the kind of music that makes you want to be alive,” he said.
Q: What was your experience working with Sherman Alexie?
A: Meeting Sherman Alexie was a lot like meeting that guy in math class who has all the answers done way before you finish the first problem. That guy. He’s just really smart. And he’s a brilliant storyteller but, just like that kid in math class, he’s not about just giving you the answer.
As a director, one of the most difficult scenes for me was the drug abuse scene where we made a bathroom cleaner sandwich. That was pretty disturbing to do but one thing he was able to tap into was the fact that he knew I knew someone who had drug abuse issues. And I’m not sure, but I think my dad lost his memory pretty early related to alcohol abuse so I really didn’t have to look very far. So it was very difficult but worthy of tapping into.
As far as playing Mouse, it was sort of like playing myself because I’m a Native American violinist and I don’t really fit in many places and spaces.
But what made me different from Mouse was that I believe I have faith and he was faithless. Often times I think what would I do and how would I act if I didn’t have that faith.
Q: When you came home from the U.S. Army, how well were you received as one of – if not the only – Lummi violinist?
A: Coming home and asking my uncle what can I do to make my music more Lummi, I felt guilty because I was a foster child and I had food, clothing and shelter, whereas for a lot of the kids on the reservation, that’s a stretch.
And he said, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you your experience isn’t Lummi, because that you were denied your culture is the Lummi experience,’ and that woke me up and helped me realize I was dealing with what everyone else was dealing with except I was dealing with it alone. It also helped me realize I didn’t need to impress anyone or prove to anyone that I was Lummi. I believe the creator put in me a desire to play violin.
Q: You mentioned it’s no surprise that youth have such a high rate of diagnosis with ADD and depression given the lack of funding for music and arts programs.
A: I’m not a statistician by any means, but I do know that we’re taking away kids resources, and I do know that in child development, emotion is expressed through motion. If we deny that to kids that opportunity to move, whether it’s playing the violin or dancing, we are setting them up for trauma.
We have kids in society where bad things are going to happen and we’re not giving them the ability to express themselves or their feelings. In a free society, that needs to happen.
I also want to show people that in self-expression, you don’t blow up if you start to crack. And I know there are certain toxins that are only released through tears.
Q: Talk about your invitation to perform at the Smithsonian.
A: Every Native person that I’ve ever met that has been there has said that every Native should go there because it’s so awesome.
It is really an honor to be able to play there. It offers to me the opportunity to communicate my life experience to this institution, which is America, really, not just the Smithsonian.
What’s more is I feel like this will be an opportunity for me to communicate to America what it means for me to be Laqtemish (Lummi).
Swil Kanim will perform at 7 p.m. Friday, September 12 at the Free Church Unitarian at 1218 Harrison Avenue in Blaine. Refreshments will be provided. For more information, call Linda Pratt at 384-6248.
The performance is part of a series of fundraiser concerts to cover gas and travel expenses as part of an invitation to perform at the Smithsonian Institute’s Discovery Youth theater on November 7 in Washington, D.C. as part of American Indian Heritage Month.
Those who do not plan on attending the event but want to donate toward their travel expenses can visit www.swilkanim.net, call Lori call 425/530-7008, or email email@example.com.
His performance at the Smithsonian Institute’s Discovery youth theater is scheduled for Friday, November 7. For more information about that performance,visit www.si.edu/events/20081107.asp.
The trailer for Clyde Ford’s film can be viewed by visiting www.clydeford.com.