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Cree singer-songwriter Lena Daniels spreads healing through music

Daniels to perform for National Indigenous Peoples Day in Athabasca
Cree musician Lena Daniels is set to hit Athabasca’s Riverfront Stage June 21 to perform for the Athabasca Native Friendship Centre’s National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration. Daniels has history in the community, and fond memories of the Friendship Centre and the opportunities it afforded her.

ATHABASCA — Lena Daniels said she always had her sights, and her soul, set on singing. Hailing from Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeastern Saskatchewan and with roots in Manitoba, Daniels, 36, is an Edmonton-based musician with a growing list of accolades populating her online biography. 

“I grew up very poor, and I never got vocal lessons or a guitar until I was 25 … but once I did get my guitar, I never put it down,” said Daniels. “It’s my passion, it’s in my heart, music is my soul.”

She was recently awarded both 2024 Adult Rising Star Female Vocalist and Best Traditional Country Music Video at the North America Country Music Association International (NACMAI) in Tennessee and was nominated for Country Music Alberta’s Roots Artist of the Year. 

Although she’s been professionally making music for 11 years, Daniels has fond memories of singing in church on Sundays and putting on shows at seniors centres as a girl, and always knew she was destined for the stage. 

“I remember singing and humming and even my sisters and my family, they knew that was what I wanted,” said Daniels. 

The stylings of the rootsy, bluegrass country singer can be heard on the Athabasca Riverfront Stage June 21 as part of the Athabasca Native Friendship Centre’s National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration. Daniels will join drummer Brian Cardinal and Calling Lake powwow dancers as the entertainment for the afternoon event. 

For Daniels, her performance in front of the wide, winding river will be more than a regular show. She spent time in Athabasca as a young girl in foster care and has fond memories of the community and its music scene. 

“(I used to) listen to the radio there, knowing one day I would want to be on that radio, or on that stage, like the River Rats Festival coming up,” said Daniels. “That was one of my very first concerts that I ever went to.” 

 In addition to the musical memories, Daniels said the welcoming environment of the Friendship Centre — a space she visited frequently during her time in Athabasca — still sticks out in her mind. 

“Being an Indigenous youth and having a place that felt warm, that felt like family … they gave me opportunities to go to youth camps and to do stuff with our lives, because as children, we just want to express ourselves.” 

Now, as an adult who survived growing up amidst sex abuse, drug abuse, poverty, and violence, she takes her platform on stages across the province, western Canada, and parts of the U.S., very seriously. 

Daniels’ first released song, entitled “God Took You Home,” came out in 2021 and was written alongside her husband Rian Woolf. The heartfelt lyrics describe the couple’s healing journey after the death of their two-month-old child and other painful issues facing the Indigenous community. 

“I wrote that song about my daughter, but not only about my daughter that I lost, but about the MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) that is still actively going on, and also the 215 unmarked graves that were found,” said Daniels. 

“I dedicated my song to those that have ever lost anybody,” she added. “That’s how I heal, so I figured if I make music that it might help somebody else heal.” 

Along with emotions imbued in her songs, Daniels stressed the importance of highlighting Indigenous identity through the medium of music. 

“I try to bring as much culture as I can,” she said. On her recent trip to Nashville to attend the NACMAI awards night, Daniels made it a point to showcase her true colours. Donning traditional attire from head to toe, she used her platform to put her Cree identity on the night’s agenda. 

“I wanted to take every single piece of Indigenous culture there and represent Indigenous sashes, Indigenous earrings,” she said. “It was amazing — it was amazing to walk into the awards ceremony and have the only Indigenous dress, and everybody was in awe of the beautiful print, the beautiful ribbons.” 

With her return to one of the communities she considered home in her youth, Daniels is hoping to be part of the cultural resurgence that inspires the next generation. 

“We need to empower our youth; we need to share our knowledge; we need to share our language(s)” she said. “Because if not, our culture will die and we cannot have that happen.”

Daniels hopes to use her career to change the lack of visual examples of Indigenous artists, musicians, and cultural ambassadors in Canadian consciousness she remembers from childhood. 

“I dream of maybe one day, this little girl is just in awe of me and she’s like, ‘I wanna do that,’” said Daniels. “She’s just that shy little rez girl, she wants to be something, but she doesn’t know. And then she sees me, and boom. It clicks for her.” 

Daniels hopes that in inspiring others to pursue their dreams and express their culture, the recent resurgence of Indigenous identity will continue to grow in strength and vibrancy.

“We’ve been here for generations. It’s just that everybody’s finally starting to see us.” 

Lexi Freehill,

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