Named for a sacred site located in Whiteshell Provincial Park where First Nations gathered to share teachings, Manito Ahbee means "where the Creator sits" and is the name of one of North America's leading celebrations of indigenous culture.

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Named for a sacred site located in Whiteshell Provincial Park where First Nations gathered to share teachings, Manito Ahbee means "where the Creator sits" and is the name of one of North America's leading celebrations of indigenous culture.

Now in its ninth year, the multi-day festival -- which takes place in downtown Winnipeg from Sept. 10 to 14 -- features a host of events that aim to educate and inspire, including the International Pow Wow -- the largest in Canada and the second-largest in North America, with over 100 First Nations represented -- and Indigenous Marketplace and Trade Show, a cultural educational day and more.

One of the anchors of Manito Ahbee is the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, which will honour aboriginal recording artists from all over the world in 22 contemporary and traditional categories at an awards show at the MTS Centre on Sept. 12. The event will be televised on Aboriginal Peoples Television Network at 7 p.m.

Jacquie Black, APCMA manager, says the event has grown to become one of North America's pre-eminent aboriginal music awards programs, attracting high-calibre submissions from all over the world. "The level of talent has definitely risen," she says.

The awards also shine a spotlight on our homegrown scene; eight Manitoba artists -- including Leonard Sumner, Desiree Dorion, Indian City, Winnipeg Boyz, Jason Lepine, Jody Thomas Gaskin, Nelson Little and Moodie x2 -- netted a total of 14 nominations.

The APCMA use a two-tier voting system. The list of nominees is determined by a closed panel of industry professionals. Then anyone, anywhere can vote online for their favourite artist, which Black says provides a significant signal boost. "You get people saying all the time that they've found their new favourite artist on our site."

The awards are prestigious, to be sure, but as Black says, "It's not just 'here's your award, yay.'" APCMA wins and nods have translated into tours, festival gigs, label and management deals. "Look at A Tribe Called Red. I was talking to those guys and they mentioned how important to them the APCMAs are," she says. The pioneering electro-powwow act snagged five awards at the 2013 awards and went on to win a Juno for Breakthrough Group in 2014.

Black says the awards have been a big source of inspiration for aboriginal youth. "It's something for them to work for," she says. "A lot of people in our community need music in their lives. Striving for an APCMA is a dream for many of them."

It was certainly a dream for Shawn Bernard, a.k.a Feenix. The Edmonton rapper is up for Best Rap/Hip Hop CD for his latest album, Living Like Stars, and will be performing at the MTS Centre on Sept. 12.

"Living Like Stars was inspired by all the aboriginal people who are doing really well these days -- with acting and music and art," he says over the phone from Edmonton. "These are the people that are paving the way and showing that it's possible. The song is also about being a guiding light in the darkness. It's saying that anything is possible beyond the stereotypes."

Bernard, 41, is living proof of what's possible.

He grew up in one of Edmonton's roughest neighbourhoods, losing both his parents to drugs at a young age before entering a life of drugs, gangs, crime and jail.

It was the drug-related death of his sister that encouraged him to turn his life around. He became a motivational speaker, reaching out to youth in schools. He threw himself into music, naming himself after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of devastation. He focused on being a good husband and a good father.

And then, last spring, he was stabbed in the neck while giving intoxicated people who were known to him a ride. The horrific attack left him quadriplegic.

"I'll be performing at the APCMAs in my wheelchair," he says. "Performing at the APCMAs was a dream of mine."

And nothing stands in the way of his dreams. In fact, the APCMA submission deadline was looming when Bernard was in the hospital after the attack. "My wife filled out the application for me and made sure to get it in on time -- and then I got nominated and asked to perform," he says. "I told them, 'You know I'm in a wheelchair now, right?' And they just said, 'Yes. We still want you.'"

Bernard says he intends to continue down the positive path he's carved out for himself. "I'm still going to talk to kids. I have to show them what the effects are of being around that kind of negativity. I let the devil in when I let those people in my car. It was a life-altering experience. We take life for granted. I don't know why it happened to me. Maybe there's another calling for me. I'm hoping with this performance that I can show people it's still possible. I hope I can inspire people. All people."

Lisa Meeches, the executive director of Manito Ahbee, says that Manito Ahbee, too, is for all people. "We're seeing more and more non-aboriginal folks and families in our audiences, which is great," she says. "We want it to be accessible to both our community and non-aboriginal people as well."

Fostering community connections is one of the most important facets of the festival.

"It's important to build bridges and showcase the best of our community at this level," Meeches says.

"It's also a beautiful reminder of what existed here."

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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