Image: Red River Jig, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, 3360.

Dr. Suzanne Steele has a lifetime’s worth of experience in the humanities — from being Canada’s first poet and potentially the first Indigenous person to serve as an Official Canadian War Artist to be sent into a war zone (2008-10, Afghanistan), to broadcasting her work to national and international audiences to completing a fully funded PhD at the University of Exeter — to now being the first humanities postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Fine Arts at ULethbridge.

Dr. Suzanne Steele

Steele, an artist-practitioner and scholar, is working with Dr. Monique Giroux, music professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Music, Culture and Politics, and Dr. Michelle Porter of Memorial University for the postdoc. Their research focuses on music, dance and song in Red River Métis family networks, historic as well as contemporary.

Titled La Danse di la Rivyairre Rooj, Oayache Mannin, the project seeks to trace a “cultural DNA” of scholars, artists, practitioners and community members of the Red River Jig family network. According to the researchers, the Red River Jig is known by some as the Métis national anthem and is heard and danced to widely at cultural events and celebrations, as well as for spiritual practice.

Steele says her current work is grounded in a Métis worldview and utilizes a Métis approach (methodology) based on community building, adding that she sees the research as a connection project, especially for families separated and in diaspora. She likens the archival component of the work to storing delicious foods in a root cellar rather than one of digital hoarding; the archive of belongings is where peoples can store their music, dance, and story, and where the Métis community, and others, may share the contents if they wish.

“The Métis are an open and tolerant society, but little recognized. Many of us are 'hidden in plain view' as the scholar Susan Sleeper remarks in her book on 19th century Indigenous-French women. We are pursuing this current Red River Jig project specifically, because we decided we needed a space that focuses on the Métis and their family networks, as we are very underrepresented in academia,” says Steele.

Steele brings a wealth of knowledge and experience with her into the role, as well as through her own Métis family networks (Gaudry/Fayant), which include family connections to southern Alberta. She was the first in her family to earn a PhD, and has recently written (with composer Neil Weisensel, her project co-director) the libretti/book for a new opera on Louis Riel, receiving one of the largest Canada Council for the Arts grants ever for the work and translating the opera into three Indigenous languages.

It was through a Métis music and dance network that Steele connected with Giroux and Porter, which led to her postdoctoral position at the University of Lethbridge.

“I am absolutely thrilled that Dr. Steele is joining the Faculty of Fine Arts as a postdoctoral researcher,” says Giroux. “She has significant experience doing community-based Indigenous research and brings with her a steadfast commitment to research-creation that centres relationality and processes that matter to communities. I have no doubt her vision for a Métis-centred arts-based research practice will support and enliven my own research program, and just as importantly will support and enliven research-creation in the fine arts at the University of Lethbridge.”

On being the first postdoctoral researcher in fine arts, Steele says it’s an extremely important position within the university community.

“Mature researchers bring a lot to the table. I have life experience and teaching experience and am published widely beyond academia,” she says. “I think the post-doctoral positions are really great for the university, because they bring in people from a lot of different backgrounds. I’m very pleased to hear I’m the first, just as I was the first poet in Afghanistan and among the first Indigenous librettists to stage a large opera in Canada.”

The opera is Li Keur, Riel’s Heart of the North, with composers Neil Weisensel, and Métis fiddler Alex Kustoruk, and will premiere in 2023 in Winnipeg. It is written in five languages — two Michifs, Anishinaabemowin, French, and English, with a little bit of Latin. To write the opera, Steele worked closely with Indigenous translators and elders, including: Madame Vera de Montigny of Brandon, Manitoba (Michif, or 'Cree-Michif'); Drs. (Hon.) June Bruce, Lorraine Coutu and Agathe Chartrand (French Michif); Mesdames Donna Beach and Debra Beach Ducharme of Animo-ziibiing [Lake Manitoba First Nation] (Anishinaabemowin); Monsieur Jules Chartrand, of St. Laurent, MB (French Michif), and the late Monsieur Francis Fontaine, our beloved and greatly missed French expert. An outcome of this work was a SSRCH-funded database of Indigenous Languages and Aesthetic Translation, hosted by the Canadian Mennonite University.

For Steele, one of her biggest goals at ULethbridge is continuing the Red River Jig Network project through sustained funding, culminating the work in a ground-breaking and cross-disciplinary anthology of work on Métis approaches to music-making and dance. Most important are the relationships she hopes to make through the project ‘visits’ with other artists and practitioners of the Red River Jig, as well as (re)connecting her family throughout the diaspora.

“Everything I do is about connection and reconnection,” she says, referencing how her grandmother left community at a very young age and was raised by nuns in a residential school setting, all of this a result of her family being forced into diaspora following the 1885 Resistance, and their subsequent loss of social and financial capital.

The result of her work as a war artist was a war requiem titled Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, which was commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and broadcast internationally and nationally, with performances most recently in Toronto at Massey Hall.

“I don't seem to be able to work on a small scale,” she jokes, as typically over 250 people perform her work on the big stages of the country! At present, Steele says she is in talks with other composers for a new major composition, adding the exciting part of the project is not yet knowing what will happen.

As for her time at ULethbridge, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of this current Red River Jig project, and I think that’s good scholarship, actually, embracing the unknown,” she concludes.

For more on the Red River Jig Project, follow:

Red River Jig website:

Instagram: @redriverjignetwork

Twitter: @RedRiverJigNet

Facebook: Red River Jig Network - RRJN

UNews: Multi-year research project to examine cultural and historic impact of Red River Jig to Métis peoples | UNews (