Indigenous Musicians Rising: An Interconnected View on Contemporary Creative Approaches

“There’s this kind of an unspoken language between some Native artists … in terms of setting our own definitions of Indigeneity and not having it be the defining throughline in all of our art … we kind of have our own little internal networks of outcry, and also, collaboration and beauty.” – Mato Wayuhi (Oglála Lakȟóta)

Indigenous Musicians Rising: Introduction

Article by Vee Hua, interview support by Dane Valerio (Carrizo-Comecrudo), guest editing by Amanda Sorell
Moving into the mid-2020s, Indigenous creators across North America are experiencing a heightened period of recognition and visibility in the mainstream media. With it has come the freedom for them to define and expand their own creative parameters, while paying homage and respect to their individual and cultural identities in ways that are often delightfully unapologetic.

Never Forget or INDIAN LAND by Nicholas Galanin of Ya Tseen

Never Forget, aka INDIAN LAND (2021) by Nicholas Galanin, at Desert X 2021, calls for “land back” to the area’s original stewards, the Cahuilla People. (Credit: Lance Gerber)

“We’ve got some serious intellectual and artistic traditions that challenge everything Americans think they know about anything; everything Americans want to believe,” says Mali Obomsawin, a bassist, composer, singer-songwriter, and community organizer from Odanak First Nation. “I think the fact that we’re having a ‘moment’ says more about Americans than it does about Indians.”

Other occasions of acclaim have indeed come and gone. Following a particularly high-profile period of the American Indian Movement (AIM) — a grassroots effort founded in 1968 to address systemic issues like poverty, discrimination, and police brutality — Native creators received an influx of attention. Yet it was relatively short-lived and often conformed to external standards of what was palatable for Western audiences.

“It only ever lasts so long,” says Obomsawin. “We’ll see in time if it’s all just New Age tokenizing or not. Regardless, I’m sure Native folks will continue putting out brilliant work.”

Mali Obomsawin

Odanak First Nation bassist, composer, singer-songwriter, and community organizer Mali Obomsawin. Her latest album, Sweet Tooth is “centered around compositions and archival pieces from Odanak, a Wabanaki/Abenaki community that was pushed across what’s now the US-Canada border into Quebec between 1660-1790.” (Credit: Jared and Abby Lenk)

This extensive, multi-part article features interviews with over two dozen musicians from across what is now known as the United States and Canada. With the acknowledgement that there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. alone and many more that are unrecognized by colonized systems of government, this article does not proclaim to be inclusive of all Indigenous people or identities. It does, however, synthesize a broad range of viewpoints representing diversity in tribal affiliations, musical styles, gender identities, sexualities, geographic locations, and cultural backgrounds to provide a snapshot of Indigenous musicians creating contemporary work.

Included are the following musicians:

  • 9a – Oglála Lakȟóta
  • Adrian Wall – Jemez Pueblo
  • Air Jazz & Captain Raab of Khu.éex’ – Tlingit & Afro-Indigenous, Siksiká
  • Andrew Joseph Stevens III aka Drives the Common Man – Mi’kmaq
  • Chloe Alexandra Thompson – Nêhiyaw (Cree)
  • Delbert Anderson – Diné (Navajo)
  • Fawn Wood – Nêhiyaw (Cree), Salish
  • Jessa Calderon – Gabrielino Tongva, Chumash, Yoeme
  • Katherine Paul of Black Belt Eagle Scout – Swinomish
  • Mali Obomsawin – Odanak
  • Mato Wayuhi – Oglála Lakȟóta
  • Nicholas Galanin of Ya Tseen – Tlingit, Unangax̂
  • Raven Chacon – Diné (Navajo), Chicano
  • Renata Yazzie – Diné (Navajo)
  • Clayton Benally & Jeneda Benally of Sihasin – Diné (Navajo)
  • Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Haisla
  • Suzanne Kite – Oglála Lakȟóta
  • Tall Paul – Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, White Earth Ojibwe, Red Lake Ojibwe, Oneida
  • Tanaya Winder – Duckwater Shoshone, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Southern Ute
  • Warren Realrider aka TickSuck – Pawnee, Apsáalooke (Crow)
  • Becki Jones & Greg Yazzie of Weedrat – Diné (Navajo)

Additional thanks to those who were consulted but whose responses were not used extensively, including Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson of The Medicine Singers (Pocasset Wampanoag), HATAAŁII (Diné), Preston Singletary of Khu.éex’, Robert Doyle of Canyon Records, and Quinn Christopherson (Ahtna Athabascan).

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have removed responses from Liam McDonald, or the artist OPLIAM, from our article. While his responses were thoughtful, we have since been alerted to controversies surrounding his cliams to Indigeneity which raise cause for concerns. Upon researching this, exchanges with Native American Calling and thorough research done by Raceshifters give us enough reasoning to remove previous inclusion.

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Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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