A Tribe Called Red Suggests You Remove the Headdress

Ottawa's pow wow-step trio will take you to school.

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Aug 8 2013, 9:05pm

It's hard to describe A Tribe Called Red to people who have never heard of them. Before I encountered the Tribe, all I knew was that they had a cool spin on world music via powwow sounds, and I knew they were from Ottawa, Canada. I also knew that a ton of people whose musical opinions I love and respect are absolutely obsessed with them and tend to go on and on about how great they are. So I obviously had to go see it for myself.

I listened to their self-titled album before seeing them live, and like The Washington Post said, "There isn't anything like it on earth." It is just one giant hybrid of everything an electronic music lover wants. There is dubstep, house music, moombahton, dancehall influences, catchy basslines and all of these things are mixed with songs from their own Native American tradition. I know this description is making you think you would have to keep an open mind, but really, everyone can relate to this album.

When I walked through the door at Glasslands for their Brooklyn show in June, I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. It was sold out and at full capacity and air was wet from the heat. Minutes into the show I was already covered in sweat and all I could think about was their insane combination of turtablism, live performance and straight mixing-and-blending. Turns out DJ Shub has won the Canadian DMC twice, so there's that. The other two members of ATCR are DJ NDN and Bear Witness (awesome name), and they make the perfect trio when you add up their DJing skills with the way they cut traditional powwow songs into their sets. Meanwhile, Bear Witness' video art plays on a screen behind them—psychedelic clips twisting footage of Native Americans in TV and movies.

Right now A Tribe Called Red are on tour withGogol Bordello, which is a weird combo, right? I caught up with DJ NDN last week during one of his days off because I have been following them since SXSW, 2011, and I know he has a lot of cool and intersting things to say. We could also learn a thing or two about Native culture—in Canada and across the Americas—because, let's face it, they held giant dance festivals on this land way before we did.

THUMP: I noticed you've been in NYC three times in the past two months. You have obviously been really busy.
DJ NDN: We've been touring since April pretty much non-stop. We've done Germany, the UK, and all over the North America. It's been pretty amazing.

How has this current tour been different?
We're supporting Gogol Bordello which is a new experience for us. It's been an amazing tour so far and the guys—and girl—in Gogol are awesome. It's weird though, because the crowds aren't really there to listen to any sort of electronic music. Gogol's a punk band and their crowd definitely reflects that.

You guys put out great records but seeing you play live won me, and a lot of people, over for life. How have you grown after every tour?
Our live set is changing with every new experience. We have different sets for clubs and festivals. Our festival set is a solid one and a half hours and doesn't really change from one show to the next. Our club set on the other hand is way more open to throw in whatever we want. We were DJs before we were all in ATCR so it's fun just to rock a crowd.

How did you guys meet?
Bear and I worked in the same club in Ottawa. Being two Native DJs working in the same club, we got to know each other pretty quick. Dan, DJ Shub, was the Canadian DMC champ and we invited him to play our Electric Pow Wow party because of his accolades. We all hit it off pretty quick and asked Dan if he wanted to join our crew. He dropped his cushy job in rural Niagara Falls and moved here to Ottawa.

Fans have been showing up to your shows in headdresses and "Indian" get-up and you guys often seem to be giving mini PSAs on Twitter. What can you tell your fans about that right now?

It's doesn't always happen, but it happens more often then, say, A Tribe Called Quest fans showing up to their shows in blackface to show support for the African American heritage. What I can tell you though, is that there are a few big festivals that have adopted a strict "no headdress" policy after we started discussing this publicly which is a huge step in the right direction.

Could you give us a quick history lesson?

This is a documented picture of the largest group hanging in US history. It was ordered by Abraham Lincoln and it was 38 Santee Lakota men. The Santee were forced off their land and were on the brink of starvation. The Santee men retaliated by attacking the settlers. The settlers called for the hanging of all 303 Santee men. Lincoln compromised and hung 38. Again, the largest mass hanging in US history.

Pine Ridge Reserve, December 1890: Lakota chief Sitting Bull was murdered because he was "suspected of practicing a traditional Ghost Dance" on December 15th. Roughly two weeks later, The US Army's 7th Cavalry surrounded a group of 150-300 Lakota people (it's suspected that half were women and children), who they murdered in cold blood after a scuffle in which a single shot was fired. This is an actual picture of the mass grave used to bury the Lakota people.


This is a photo of Canadian residential schools. Every form of abuse was experienced by the children attending these schools. Some described horrific experienced like electric chairs as corporal punishment and pins through the tongue if the traditional languages were spoken. It was recently uncovered that experiments were conducted on these children—they were purposefully denied essential vitamins and nourishment to see what would happen. The Canadian government is currently denying requests to access thousands of documents related to the treatment of the residential school students by an appointed committee called the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. These children were forcefully taken from their families and the schools were meant to "kill the Indian in the child." The first residential school was opened in 1870 and the last was closed in 1997. The generational trauma is still experienced today, obviously.    

This letter kind of explains itself. Indigenous people have come a long way from the time of this federal government's anti-pow wow "suggestion" to where we are now with A Tribe Called Red's monthly party, Electric Pow Wow.


Again, this one is pretty self-explanatory. Although the comparison is completely accurate, blackface has been tabooed by society, while the other is celebrated 162 times a year—not including the post season. Why?

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