Photos courtesy of Falling Tree Photography/A Tribe Called Red
Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have been camped out in North Dakota to halt the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which they believe threatens their only water supply and will harm sacred cultural sites. Thousands of people representing nearly all of North America's indigenous communities, along with many non-Natives, have joined the protest, pledging to hold their ground through the winter.
All three members of A Tribe Called Red—DJ NDN (Nipissing First Nation), Bear Witness (Cayuga First Nation), and 2oolman (Mohawk First Nation)—are from tribes that stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. The Ottawa-based, Juno award-winning group have supported the indigenous community since their inception, emerging in 2008 from a monthly party, Electric Pow Wow, that Bear Witness and DJ NDN started at Ottawa's Club Babylon in an effort to create a safe space for the city's indigenous people. The idea was to create a nightclub version of the pow wow—the celebratory music and dance ceremony common to indigenous people across North America. Soon the party took on a life of its own as the crew began mixing dubstep, moombahton, trap, and whatever else was rattling the low-end of club sounds blended with indigenous call and response chants.
Since then, the group has continued to support indigenous activism. In 2012, the group recorded "The Road" in tribute to the Idle No More movement, which was launched in response to an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. To spark a government inquiry, a female First Nations chief went on a six-week liquid-only hunger strike while camped out in a tepee on an island across from Ottawa's Parliament Hill. The bold move took place in A Tribe Called Red's backyard. The group has also spoken out against cultural appropriation, including asking non-native fans not wear headdresses at shows and calling out racist sports team names.
On this year's We Are the Halluci Nation, A Tribe Called Red flexes their established credentials with wide-ranging collaborations, including Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, veteran American rapper Yaasin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and Colombian-Canadian art pop artist Lido Pimienta. The album titled was bestowed by American Indian Movement activist John Trudell, who participated in the 1969 All Tribes' takeover of Alcatraz. Trudell passed away in December of last year shortly after recording the album's opening incantation.
Ahead of a 19-date North American tour that kicks off in Portland on November 16, THUMP spoke with 2oolman, who discussed the roots of their contemporary pow wow music, and the state of indigenous political protest from Standing Rock and beyond.
2oolman: I'm Mohawk, part of the Six Nations confederacy of tribes. We have communities all across North America, especially New York, Wisconsin, and Ontario. As indigenous people, I think we're political from the moment that we're born. The very fact that we're alive and we continue to do the things that we're doing and fighting for makes us political. We're fighting for our language and culture and reclaiming ourselves after the drama of residential schools.
Indigenous rights are gathering momentum. It's not reaching everybody in the wider public, because it's really evident that some non-indigenous people just like where they are. Those folks are going to have a tough time because not only are they going to hear from the native community, they're going to hear it from their own community.
As indigenous people, I think we're political from the moment that we're born.
I think that Canada, in particular, has been growing so much to recognize its indigenous people. I'm really proud because this level of recognition is something I've never felt in my entire life. I'm sure the conversation right now would surprise my grandfather. My father is surprised. It's an exciting, scary time right now. I'm glad that people don't want to be ignorant anymore about our history and that they want to educate themselves.
There are still fights for indigenous rights going on everywhere. There's a protest called the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia – that's the longest running indigenous protest [started in 1972]. It's right in front of their parliament. It's as if someone built a tribal community right in front of the White House.
As for Standing Rock, it's tiring because there have been oil pipelines going through and this has been going on for a while. But what's so cool about what's happening right now is it's not just the people at Standing Rock that are there. Most, if not all, of the indigenous communities in North America are represented. [A similar kind of unity came about] when we started out doing this whole thing making music and having a party for indigenous people. That's our backbone to what we do.
Bear [Witness] and Ian [DJ NDN] worked at a club. They became friends and said, "Hey, man, we should throw this night for indigenous people." The club would have West Indian night, why not a native night. A lot of native students come from different reserves outside of Ottawa for university. Even being in an urban setting for an indigenous person, sometimes you're in a city but you can feel completely alone. It was an act of creating a safe space for indigenous people to enjoy themselves. As time went on it wasn't just all the indigenous people showing up, it started to be non-indigenous people showing up and it became an inclusive space.
They didn't even play pow wow music there at first, it was just club music, a regular club night but inviting all the indigenous people in the community to come. After the night was over, the people demanded it. "Listen, you've got to do this more often. You have to keep this going." Eventually they started mashing up pow wow and dubstep or club music that was popular at the time.
There was an MIA and Santigold song that had a pow wow sample in it and when they played that the reaction from the people was like, "Whoa!" Right then and there the thoughts started to manifest that, hey, we should do our own remixes and we should do our own original songs. That's where that whole idea with the electric pow wow came.
Indigenous rights are gathering momentum.
It was something that really has never been done before aside from a pow wow. Back in the day, pow wow was basically a universal music that we all identified with. I wouldn't even say it's a ceremonial or spiritual kind of thing. It was a social thing. I went to pow wows all the time on my reserve.
I started out making beats on the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario. I wanted to try something a little bit bigger, so I started pushing my music in Toronto. I had a little bit of a successful run doing that. About seven years ago, I linked up with Dan [DJ Shub, who left ATCR in 2014]. We found out we're from the same res, we know each other's family, and it was great to see a guy like him—he's a DMC champion. I was doing beat battles in the Red Bull Big Tune as well, so we're in this hip-hop world and we're from the same place so we naturally supported each other right from the beginning, and this was before Tribe. When Tribe was formed, he introduced me to the guys and we started having this friendship. They're really cool guys and I never fully got it until I actually went and saw their first show. It just clicked with me and I understood what this was.
I love seeing the age group when indigenous people come out. You'll see an elder at our shows, or you'll see kids at our shows. You'll see every age being represented and it's really awesome and it's something that I can't even put into words. You just know that, like I said, it's like we're bringing people together like how the pow wow first started. It's still continuing.