Plains Cree musician Joel Wood cracks up his wife as he describes how he emerged from his mother’s womb.

“I kind of came out singing — Waahh Yaaahh Hoka hey,” Wood says.

Despite a lifetime of performing, Wood was caught off-guard as he danced his way to the stage in Halifax Saturday with his wife, album collaborator and comedian Tonia Jo Hall, to accept his first Juno award for traditional Indigenous artist of the year.

After joking that he only attended the Junos for the food and hadn’t prepared a speech, Wood offered an impromptu message to Indigenous youth:

“I want to give a shout out to all those little rez girls and boys back home, who turn over their mom’s laundry basket and they jam them powwow songs, sun dance songs, and prayer songs. This is for all of them back home.”

‘Representing all First Nations people’

In an interview with CBC News Tuesday, Wood, who grew up in Maskwacis, Alta., south of Edmonton, said he knows what it feels like to “endure the hardships of being from the rez, but also loving being from the rez.”

“I must have been just feeling it so much — the joy and the pride of being First Nations and representing not just myself, or my family, but I felt like I was representing all First Nations people across Turtle Island in that moment where I just really wanted to dance,” said Wood.

“I was just crying the whole time,” Hall chimed in. “Mind you, I was also aware that the cameras are watching me so I didn’t want to make that ugly cry face. But I felt so proud of Joel, my husband, because he has been working so hard.” 

Joel Wood — whose Cree name is Mikwanak Kamôsakinat or ‘one who picks up feathers’ — grew under the guidance of the man he calls “the greatest mentor in the world” and “the greatest father,” long-time Northern Cree band member, Steve Wood.

Wood was raised on song, whether it was his dad’s daily Morning Song, to thank the day, or birthdays and round dances. 

It wasn’t long before he was performing with Northern Cree himself.

Love bloomed from a fateful meeting in 2012 at the Eagle Stop Gas Station in South Dakota following a powwow.

Wood was playing with Northern Cree when he said he bumped into “a dazzling young lady” —  a Lakota, Dakota, and Hidatsa jingle dress dancer.

In 2017, Wood and Hall decided to give their relationship a shot and became a blended family with three daughters, two dogs and lots of plants.

“We’re a very prayerful family. We do a lot of prayer within our home. We absolutely love one another. We absolutely love the life that we live. We’re absolutely grateful for for the things that we do have,” Wood said.

Wood released his debut solo album Singing is Healing in 2020. His 2022 compilation Mikwanak Kamôsakinat focuses on language revitalization and being proud of who you are.

Juno-award-winning compilation Sing, Pray, Love was born out of personal hardship.

“Joel said ‘let’s make an album. Everyone goes through hard times.’ But he kept encouraging me to sing,” Hall recalled.

“Most of all we just want people to listen to this album and get that healing and that medicine that we got from it.”

Hall said the award is far from theirs alone, pointing to her husband’s acceptance speech.

“That little message was actually huge for our people because when one of us wins, we all win.”

When one of us wins, we all win– Tonia Jo Hall

The 2024 Junos included some big wins by Indigenous musicians, including Oji-Cree singer-songwriter Aysanabee who won songwriter of the year and alternative album of the year, and William Prince from Peguis First Nation, who won contemporary roots album of the year.

For Wood, the growing recognition of Indigenous music on the mainstream stage is long overdue. 

“Our music is the original music of this land. Before the other instruments such as the fiddle, the guitar, the piano, we had music here on what’s known as North America, Turtle Island,” Wood said.

“I think there’s space at these types of events for everybody, especially our people, especially our music, especially our wardrobes that we love to wear — there’s space for us to be who we are.”


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