Too often, Native American and Indigenous people are depicted as a thing of the past, even in art, literature, and music. I remember in elementary school learning how the Ojibwe nation I descended from used to live, the games they used to play, and the music they used to create, as though there were no more Native Americans worth discussing in class.
While tribal history is an incredibly important source of knowledge, it is also important to recognize the impact that colonialism has had on Indigenous people. Art (including visual art, literature, music, and film) has tremendous potential to explore the way colonialism has affected Indigenous people, and also tremendous potential to de-center colonialism and represent a people in resistance to a society that would rather have Indigenous people invisible.
Here is just a selection of contemporary Indigenous artists doing radical decolonial work to look to for expressions of Indigenousness.
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat-singing “polar punk” whose 2013 debuting album Animism won several awards and accolades, including Canada’s Polaris prize. Her musical style includes incorporating elements of metal, industrial, hip-hop, and electronica with her throat-singing. She includes both contemporary politics and tradition into her work, and is an incredible example of the strength and resilience of Indigenous women. The last track on Animism, titled Fracking, features Tagaq giving voice to the pain of the Earth as corporate interests drill and drain; Fracking is a truly terrifying song for a truly terrifying aspect of colonialism and resource extraction. Another component to Tagaq’s fierce concern for tribal rights is her public defense of the Inuit people’s traditional seal-hunting.
Recent collaborations with First Nations musical powerhouse A Tribe Called Red on the song “Sila” and with rapper Shad in the track “Centre” are excellent tracks to check out, as is her newest album, Retribution.
Heid E. Erdrich is a Minneapolis-based poet who’s written five poetry collections as well as a cookbook titled “Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest”, a book that contributes imperative knowledge to food justice advocacy. Her video poems are an absolute must-see, including her work titled “Pre-Occupied,” which in a stunning six minutes explores the colonialist implications of the Occupy Wall Street movement along with the pollution of the Mississippi River and with the representation of Native people in the Superman cartoon. It’s a lot to pull off in one poem and in one video, but it succeeds!
Wendy Red Star is a Portland-based multimedia artist who aims “to explore the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures, both historically and in contemporary society.” What really strikes me about Red Star’s work is the way she juxtaposes Native women in particular settings, such as in her series Four Seasons. Here, she models herself against backdrops similar to those found in museums depicting Native Americans as a people of a time long past, displays which align with the goals of colonialism. However, in Red Star’s series, the photos depict a living Native woman in her traditional regalia, challenging the colonial presumption that Native American tradition is long dead. Check out the rest of her work— it blooms with a very smart critique of the effects of colonialism, and frames Native people front and center.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is basically a woman who you’d want desperately to be your auntie. She’s been making music for a long time (since 1964, to be exact) and she’s still making it. Sainte-Marie is sort of a style chameleon, creating music that falls under the categories of folk, country, jazz, and electronic. She’s fiercely political and critical of colonialism, and in particular of the resource extraction industry— her songs “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Universal Soldier,” and “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone” are all classic examples of this. She was even blacklisted by the Nixon and Johnson administration, as well as investigated by the FBI and CIA for her political messages in her music. She also raises awareness about the tradition of cradleboard, a traditional way of carrying children that many tribes across the continent took part in. Buffy Sainte-Marie is a wonderful musician to listen to, especially for the perspective of a Cree elder who’s made music responding to multiple political antagonisms toward Native people.
Tommy Pico is a contemporary poet who writes about the complexities of Native American identity on and off of the reservation. His debut book, IRL, follows the the summer of Teebs, a “reservation-born, queer NDN weirdo trying to figure out his impulses/desires/history.” Pico is a poet who enjoys humor, so if you look for a laugh in the poetry you enjoy, Pico is a good poet to look to. Pico is also a great poet to look to for representation of the queer Natives.
Tall Paul is an Ojibwe rapper based out of Minneapolis who combines both English and anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people in his track “Prayers in a Song.” A lot of his music speaks to the process of going back to your people’s culture after being isolated from it in a big-city, non-reservation, and non-traditional setting. This is radical because of the effort made by white colonialists to destroy the traditional languages of pretty much all Native peoples in boarding schools. By rapping in Anishinaabemowin, Tall Paul makes it clear that Native people are still here, that our language still exists, and that it too can be made into art.
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[Feature Image: A photo of Tanya Tagaq. She is wearing holding a microphone to her mouth, her eyes are closed and she is wearing a red dress, blue cuffs on her wrists and a white beaded necklace. She has a dark line down the middle of her face. Source: wikimedia]