The start of a new year didn’t turn out the way a lot of people had hoped. The news of the sudden loss of Denesułįné and Stoney Nakoda artist Taran “Standing Sunrise” Kootenhayoo rippled through Indigenous peoples across the country and beyond.
Kootenhayoo, a celebrated spoken-word artist, poet, playwright, actor, storyteller, and beloved relative touched the lives of anyone who met him. This is evident in the outpouring of photos, videos, tributes, memories, stories from those who knew him across social media, offering only a glimpse into the impact he had on many, and the joy he spread through storytelling.
In a time of intensified isolation, 27 year-old Kootenhayoo’s legacy has arguably brought people closer as we collectively reflect on his remarkable life and legacy of joy.
Shortly after Kootenhayoo’s sister Cheyanna Kootenhayoo, a well-known Indigenous artist known as D.J. Kookum announced her brother’s passing, support for her family quickly flooded in. Organizers helped to raise funds for Kootenhayo’s family, and set up meal trains to support those closest to him in grieving.
A memorial was held in Vancouver to honour Kootenhayoo’s life on Jan. 11 at Crab Park. People gathered outside, while others tuned in online to witness, listen and share stories.
“Taran, you brought us together here right now today, at this moment. And we need to pick each other up. These are hard times. This is my third funeral in three weeks,” Rueben George, a respected member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, said during the service.
“I’m happily surprised at how many people came today, and it’s because we wanted to do something. That’s the love you carry for him, you carry for each other.”
IndigiNews spoke with people in the community who knew Kootenhayoo to reflect on how he has inspired those around him.
“He was just one of those people who left an impact on me because of how he treated people and how he approached everything about life,” says Justin Louis, founder of the Indigenous apparel brand Section 35. Kootenhayoo modeled for Section 35, named after the section in Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act that recognizes and affirms Indigenous rights.
“Everything good about him came through the camera lens when he would shoot with us.”
Adrienne Huard, Anishinaabekwe editor-at-large with Canadian Art Magazine says Kootenhayoo had a natural gift to share stories and engage audiences.
“There are people in this world who carry an embodied gift of storytelling. For Taran, it came naturally. He was a poet, actor, and writer on paper, but these talents extended further than that — he lived it,” Huard says.
She reflects on a visit she had with Kootenhayoo in Montreal where they went to an exhibition opening which featured art by artists Dayna Danger and Skeena Reece.
“Skeena [Reece] had a performance where she interacted with the audience, pulling some folks up to sing or dance or speak. As she walked past Dayna, Taran and myself, she lifted my hat off my head and placed it on hers. She then proceeded to pull Taran up to the front, where he performed a spoken word poem on the spot. It was incredible. His words captivated the audience and had them holding their stomachs from laughter,” Huard says.
“Carefree and effortlessly, Taran Kootenhayoo managed to touch a group of people he just met.”
Stō:lo, St’át’imc, and Nlaka’pamux multimedia artist Ronnie Dean Harris says “all you would have to do is witness him working with kids and Elders.”
“Taran was a genuinely kind and thoughtful person whom I thought I would be doing storytelling work with for a long time”.
“There is work that will never be the same without him. He will be missed,” he adds.
His work and legacy will no doubt continue to make waves and inspire countless others to share their gifts.