By Vanessa Lynch
A Tribe Called Red’s released their first album in 2012 around the same time Idle No More started. I first heard their music a few months later on a short documentary about Idle No More, Oakland that a friend of mine posted on facebook. I proceeded to download their first album immediately (it’s free on their website) and have basically been listening to it non-stop since then. They just released their second album, “Nation II Nation” which is full of amazing collaboration songs like, “NDNS from All Directions” with Das Racist and a remix of Kanye’s Power with Javiar Estrada. Their music is traditional drums and non stop dance beats.
They’ve just finished their U.S. tour working with Gogol Bordello and bringing the house down all across Turtle Island. We caught up with Bear Witness and Ian (DJ NDN) after their performance at MassMoCa to talk about music, decolonization, and of course, hipster headdresses.
How long have you guys been making music, how long have you guys been together?
Ian: We’ve been together since October 2007 when we first started throwing parties together. It was just an idea that we wanted to throw a party. In every major city there’s this idea that they have cultural specific parties. Like you’ll have Jamaican parties, you’ll have Desi parties, you’ll have Korean parties that sort of thing. So we just wanted to throw a party for the First Nations population in Ottawa and that was it, that’s where everything kind of started. And we eventually wanted to give back to the crowd that kept showing up which was mostly First Nations people and so we started mashing up powwow music with dub step cause that’s what was hot at the time and that’s when we started making music.
Yeah cool. So I know your song The Road was used in a video at Idle No More Oakland where they were talking about stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline. Have you guys been involved in any of that stuff in Canada?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We were there for all the rallies that were going on in Ottawa. Like Ottawa was the hot spot for everything.
Yeah, Theresa Spence.
Yeah, right. I went out to visit her a few times, I was out at all the rallies and there when the Nishiyuu wlkers showed up, it was like all this energy at the time. And Ottawa’s known for being a really sleepy city and so as all of this was happening we were writing our album and all the energy really helped, it was really, really cool.
Great, and is the movement still going strong in Ottawa? I know its spread down here.
Yeah, not necessarily in Ottawa but its definitely still going strong. There’s a lot of things happening behind the scenes people just aren’t really reporting on it, but there’s still a lot of stuff happening.
Bear Witness: Really, Idle No more just represents a groundswell moment in the Indigenous movement. It definitely helped gain a lot of traction but there was just as much going on before as after. I think it just represents a moment where people came up and just said, “We’re not going to be quiet anymore.”
Yeah, and it’s really exciting. they just started the Longest Walk 4; You know Dennis Banks and the AIM movement started the Longest Walk 1 (1978), but they just started the Longest Walk 4 in DC and they’re going to be walking all throughout the country.
Bear: That’s crazy!
Yeah! It’s really good. So we noticed a similar thing and what we’re trying to do with the walk is like you have all these people who do like anti-racism work and then sustainability work and then food justice but they’re all sort of in separate corners and it’s like – well we’re doing the same work. We have to just come together. Cause we’re stronger together – we have to find ways to bring people together. Um. Yeah.
(one of the guys sitting nearby spoke up, “we gotta look to the people we’ve been fighting ever since they arrived on these shores!”)
Ian: It takes a lot to decolonize. Typically it — it takes a conversation. And that’s all that really needs to happen now is just a conversation. What we’re doing right now with A Tribe Called Red is we’re bridging a gap and we’re kind of putting our foot in the door where we can start talking about this stuff.
We’re able to stop and have this conversation. A good point is the headdresses. Like the hipster headdresses. So it’s happening and it’s really racist and it’s really fucked up that it’s happening. But you know, one tweet from us and now a bunch of festivals are banning them. Which is fantastic, you know what I mean? They want everyone at the festival to feel safe and to feel welcome – and obviously I don’t feel welcome if there’s someone wearing a headdress at a party so it’s awesome that we’re able to do something like that and put our foot in the door and it’s like obviously all these kids who are wearing headdresses are listening to our music but we’re able to tweet at them now [laughs] so it’s a cool situation.
Bear: You’re talking about how we have all these really separate political communities that don’t necessarily touch each other, a lot of them are kind of involved in their own separate worlds but when we started the electric powwow party we started a party to be inclusive for specifically Aboriginal people, that was our goal – to make a safe, comfortable, inclusive space for our community but everybody turned up! You know, and that’s one of those things where as soon as we started people from every community showed up because they were like, ‘right, that’s what we want too! so if these guys are going to do that well, we’re going to be a part of it!” you know, so you see people represented from every community at our parties and they’re all there for the same reason, which for once, isn’t to fight with anybody. Its not to protest anything – they’re there to have a party and to have a good time, but to have a conscious good time, and to maybe share some of those ideas in a space where we’re not going to have an argument, where we’re not going to have a fight over these things, we’re just gonna enjoy ourselves, and you know what, that’s the first thing is enjoying ourselves.
Somebody said to me earlier, ‘Oh you know, I think a lot of your message might have gone over a lot of people’s heads tonight”, but it’s not about that at all! If you come out and enjoy this music with us then that conversation that Ian was talking about that needs to happen particularly between the Indigenous nations and the settler nations here is really difficult. We get to a standstill, people get their backs up, and the conversation never happens.
Because that experience is so different, between the colonized and the colonizers. If you can come now and enjoy our music, enjoy something that’s rooted in our traditions, there’s something that we get out of that. There’s something that we feel when we hear those drumbeats, when we hear those songs. If all of you can show up now and feel that same way then that conversation is already started and it’s started in a nonverbal way, it’s starting in a non-confrontational way, it’s coming from a place of enjoyment.
Right. as opposed to like an angry, protesty way.
Bear: which is not to say that that doesn’t have a place, that fully has its place. But if we can start an understanding from this place of celebration I think that’s a really powerful tool.
Absolutely. Yeah, and it’s really exciting. I feel like with Idle No More and the music you guys are doing, indigenous voice, aboriginal voice is coming up more – people are talking about it more and it’s really exciting. The Wampanoag Nation now is reclaiming their language. This year in Mashpee on Cape Cod the first man graduated high school in full regalia and sang a traditional song and it’s really happening, and it’s exciting! But, I do peace walks. And so what we do is we walk, talking about nuclear power and uranium mining because basically all uranium mining happens on Indigenous land because they feel like they can suppress that voice because they’ve been doing it for a long time.
The two largest exporters of uranium are Australia and Canada and two years ago we did a walk through Western Australia called the Walk Away From Uranium Mining towards Aboriginal Sovereignty, and it was really amazing. A group of Aboriginal people in Australia where they want to build a new mine went to Canada and a lot of the communities are affected by uranium mining. But they [uranium mining companies] come in and say “here’s a million dollars for a school” or something and don’t really talk about radiation or anything, do you have any connection with, or do you know anything about uranium mining in Canada?
Bear: Definitely there’s a community just North of us in Ottawa that’s dealing with that right now. The tailings are going right into the water table in the community and no one can drink the water – it’s all contaminated and the Government just delivers water to people’s houses and they have no choice but to drink bottled water. Yeah there were a bunch of actions around that. Also a new issue that people are dealing with is the new fracking that they’re doing, I think it’s a big thing lately in our area, but with — you know you were talking about the Black Hills and that, and that’s such a crazy thing because the Black Hills are this incredibly sacred space. Like nobody lived there because it was too sacred. That was not a place you lived, that was a place you prayed. And when they first started pushing the people onto that land it was land that nobody wanted right? Like when you talk about Pine Ridge being the poorest community in North America – it’s because they killed Custer! [laughs] That’s not a mistake, that’s a long memory! This was the biggest defeat of the American army ever and it was by the people on Pine Ridge, so they’re still suffering that. But then when this uranium was found it’s like, ‘okay now we gotta move you’.
Or even gold and nickel…
Bear: Exactly, and it’s like you wonder why that was such a sacred place to begin with, because people were migrating from all over to that area, right? Pre-contact there was a whole war over that area over who was going to live there because everyone wanted to be around that power spot.
Right. and then the US made Mount Rushmore and dug up all the uranium.
Bear: On the most sacred part! Like that is the spot!
Center of the Universe..
Bear: Again, is that a mistake? [laughs] is that a coincidence?
Yeah.. well thank you so much. Definitely next time you go to Pine Ridge connect up with Charmaine White Face and the Defenders of the Black Hills. They’re doing amazing work reclaiming culture and with young people and.. well.. defending the Black Hills! Trying to get everyone out and really talking about decolonization. Something we were trying to pass in March, Charmaine White Face wrote a bill “The Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act” and that would call for a clean up of all uranium mines in the US, so Navajo land, Lakota land, all over the country. And if we have no uranium we have no nuclear weapons, obviously so that’s a big start. And it’s always kind of scary talking about decolonization, it’s like “well will everyone who lives there have to move?” [laughs], so people are always going through that, so that you so much for helping to start that conversation and thanks for the awesome beats!