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Indigenous Survivance and Urban Musical Practice

Liz Przybylski


Rapper Frank Waln and the DJs of A Tribe Called Red are gaining international attention for the way they mix Indigenous musical gestures with contemporary genres. While this creative practice is just gaining mainstream recognition, I argue that this music is actually a contemporary iteration of a longstanding tradition of urban Indigenous survivance through musical practice. This article employs close readings and interviews to analyze contemporary forms of bicultural musical expression by these two musical groups. Contextualizing these performances within a history of Indigenous expressive culture in the North American musical mainstream, connections emerge between contemporary popular music practices and earlier musical performances of the boarding school era. Reading these as iterations of Indigenous survivance, the article investigates not only how the cultural forms shape other kinds of American music, but also how the artists have acted as agents to shape cultural expressions and challenge stereotypes of Native music and musicians. The music Waln and A Tribe Called Red bring to audiences from stage extends from the voices of musicians from generations past who tell their own stories and, at the same time, co-construct an American story from venues small and large.

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It is a warm evening on Chicago’s far north side, and inside the club, bright lights continue well after dusk. The dark two-story room opens onto a raised stage that is alive with sound. Audience members congregate around small tables and cluster on the dance floor to get a better view of the musician in the front of the room. He looks out over the mic as he speaks directly to the crowd. He is dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt; a long dark braid pulls his hair tight, framing his youthful face. As the evening progresses, two brilliantly costumed dancers will take the stage. A hoop dancer wearing regalia will captivate the crowd with his skilled movements, and a flute player will bring an unexpected musical timbre to the audience’s ears. The dance floor will fill, video art will be projected on a giant screen above the stage, and the volume will get louder. But for now, the musician’s clear, unpretentious words fill the space, their meaning reflected on his face, and he appears above all straightforward and sincere.

1 Frank Waln, a hip hop artist whose work takes inspiration from music of many genres, is opening for the soon to be internationally famous DJ trio A Tribe Called Red (ATCR). As a college student, he moved from his home on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to the large and diverse city of Chicago. The three DJs of ATCR are on tour from Ottawa, where their monthly dance parties at Babylon Nightclub have spawned a new name for the electronic music they make together, powwow step. Artists seeking inspiration and trying out new combinations in front of audiences, these musicians are in many ways performing the most expected phenomenon that could occur at a small club like this one. Yet even so, they articulate their artistic particularities. In many ways, Waln is an outsider: a Native musician among hip hop musicians, an artist from a reservation performing for an urban crowd, and frequently, a solo performer sharing bills with larger acts. ATCR foregrounds their urban performance, starting as they did throwing parties for largely Native crowds in a big city. They innovatively offer three different types of DJ set-ups simultaneously, creating sometimes-unexpected sounds as they project images taken from popular culture on screen. Playing with these images, ATCR contests their meaning, inviting audiences to be critical of cultural phenomena that reach beyond themselves.

2Even as Waln tells his own story on stage, he is part of a larger story than just this stage, just this song, and just this city. Waln speaks often about his pride, his responsibility, and his excitement to be part of a larger set of Native professionals, part of a larger Native community. While he does sometimes say that he is at moments invisible in his adopted town as a Native man, he also takes center screen as a voice for concerns of young Native Americans in mainstream venues like MTV. This dance between feeling invisible and taking on a prominent media role links Waln and ATCR to a long history of urban Indigenous musicians in North America. Through a contextualized analysis, I will argue that this music is a contemporary iteration of a longstanding tradition of Indigenous survivance through musical practice. The music Waln and A Tribe Called Red bring to audiences from stage extends from the voices of musicians from generations past who tell their own stories and, at the same time, co-construct an American story from venues small and large.

Urbanization: A Cultural Context

3Urbanization is nothing new for Native nations. As Morgan Baillargeon reports, the establishment of semi-permanent to permanent dwelling was common for the Huronian, Iroquoian, Hopewellian, Mississippian, Mandan and Hidatsa, and Northwest Coast peoples “for thousands of years” (2013). Cities across North America have sprung up from places of exchange between Indigenous groups, a trend that began before the colonial project commenced. In this sense, the present expressions of Indigenous culture in cities are not a new project but a re-articulation of a long history of practices. At the same time, urbanization as a policy fits into an extensive history of government efforts to alter Indigenous cultures; it therefore has long been a justifiable subject of scrutiny.

4In the United States, urbanization was proposed as one in a long series of strategies to assimilate Native Americans. Bringing individuals of diverse tribal backgrounds into cities and away from strong family bonds, it was assumed, would slow and eventually stop the elements of cultural learning and teaching that were keeping the cultures of North American Native Nations alive and distinct from those of non-Indigenous Americans. Andrew Armitage has described the colonization process as proceeding in five distinct phases: first institutional contact, then domination, paternalism, integration, and pluralism. Just as it did in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the process began in the United States with first institutional contact. As paternalism turned to integration, the reservation system was established, forcing the centralization of Indigenous communities and “freeing [Indigenous people’s] lands up for settlement” while acting as “disciplinary institutions, which gave power to the federal government to control Indigenous people’s time, space, personality, and values” (Armitage 1995 Pp. 73). In both the United States and Canada, this system of control then paved the way for boarding schools. These non-voluntary schools “combined industrial and agricultural training for Indigenous children together with religious indoctrination” (Armitage 1995 Pp. 75).

5The first boarding school opened in the United States in 1860 on the Yakima reservation; the opening of the off-reservation Carlisle Indian School in 1879 marked a new phase in federal assimilationist policy (Lomawaima, Child, and Archuleta 2002). Native American children were removed from their families and re-educated in residential schools. Children were forbidden from speaking their native languages, making the music of their parents, or continuing the religious practices of their upbringing (Child 1998). When the boarding school era deteriorated, efforts to minimize cultural differences between Native Americans and settler colonial society continued in new forms. Starting in the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to encourage the migration of Native American citizens to eight U.S. cities: Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Oakland, Tulsa, San Jose, and Oklahoma City. From the beginning, some critics “felt the encouragement of Indian relocation by BIA officials was so strong that the program was, in effect, forced relocation” (Gundlach and Roberts 1978, Pp.118). The program’s emergence during the reservation “termination” phase in U.S. policy also made its goals suspect (Ibid., Pp.119). While each phase of the colonization process as described by Armitage undeniably had deleterious effects on social cohesion and the maintenance of healthy and distinct Native societies, the full assimilation that was attempted has not been realized. Through multiple relocations, Indigenous culture and community persists (Mucha 1983; DeLoria 1981). At every stage, individuals have found creative ways to resist the juridical structure imposed by government policies. Musical practices have been at the center of these innovative and ultimately resilient actions.

Creativity and Indigenous Survivance

  • 1 Standing Bear’s reflections and descriptions characterize “Lakota tribal life—my life, and that of (...)

6Shifts in Indigenous culture have been foretold by insiders since contact began. When boarding schools were established, Indigenous leaders warned about the changes that were to come. Luther Standing Bear was himself educated in European-derived music in a boarding school after having learned his own Lakota music and culture as a child (Standing Bear 2006, Pp. 226).1 He reflected on the loss that was part of the process. Standing Bear remarked upon the importance of ceremony, as “through ceremony, obedience and allegiance to the supreme being were acknowledged and the traditions of the race kept alive; also, teachings, codes by which the manners and morals of the people were guided, custom, commandments, experiences and events of tribal importance were handed down from generation to generation in this form” (Standing Bear 2006, Pp. 213). Ceremonies, he explains, are an important way to embody “love for song, music, dance, rhythm, grace of motion, prayer, chant, ritualism, color, body decoration, and symbolic design” (Ibid.). He expresses frustration that at the time of the writing, which was originally published in November of 1931, “these ceremonies remain to the average person ‘heathen.’ Why more heathen to give thanks under the blue sky than under the roof of a man-made place of worship?” (Ibid.).

  • 2 Standing Bear refers to Wakan Tanka as “God of the Lakotas” (Ibid., Pp.258).

7Explaining his understanding of Lakota songs in particular, he describes, “since song was the usual method of keeping the Lakota in touch with his Wakan Tanka2, it formed a large part of all ritual” (Standing Bear 2010 Pp. 214). Standing Bear, himself Lakota, describes how many Lakota songs are “dreamer songs received while in communion with spirits of beings personified as humans. Some of the dreamers who brought songs to the people were the Elk, Duck, Thunder, Hawk, Wolf, Spider, Fox, Crow, and Stone. The wisdom of these beings was given to the dreamer in song and he in turn sang them to help his people” (2006 Pp. 214). The loss of song, then, was a loss of a source of help for the community.

8In addition to dreamer songs, brave songs and lodge songs were part of Standing Bear’s life before he left for school. He remembers, “sometimes during the night or stillness of day, a voice would be heard singing the brave song. This means that sorrow was present—either a brave was going on the warpath and expected to die, or else a family member was looking for the death of some member of it. The brave song was to fortify one to meet any ordeal bravely and to keep up faltering spirits” (Standing Bear 2010 Pp. 217). Even as children were removed from their homes, Standing Bear recalls songs traveling with them. “I remember, when we children were on the way to the Carlisle school thinking that we were on our way to meet death at the hands of white people, the older boys sang brave songs so that we would all meet death according to the code of the Lakota—fearlessly” (Standing Bear 2010 Pp. 217).

9While a separation from the musical culture of their families was a great loss, Standing Bear was one of many students who used the new music to tell stories in their own ways. While at boarding schools, many Indigenous children learned to play European instruments (DeLoria 2004). Young people not only learned technical proficiency on new instruments, but also played styles of music such as jazz which leant themselves to improvisation (Troutman 2009). In this way, boarding school students participated in the development of a distinctly North American style. Notable Tohono O’odham musician Russell “Big Chief” Moore learned trombone in boarding school; he went on to become a proficient and creative player. He collaborated with mainstream greats Louis Armstrong, performing big band music for a wide audience. Popular artist Jim Pepper, a musician of Creek and Kaw heritage, learned saxophone at school, and then went on to write his own popular music as an adult. Indigenous musicians like these have had a deep influence on mainstream American musical culture.

10Throughout the contentious process of boarding school music learning, young students took control of the music they made. In example, many children were educated in European music at a boarding school on the Nez Perce Reservation starting in 1872 (Johnson 2010, Pp. 204). Johnson has documented the subsequent rise of dance bands among young musicians from this reservation in the twentieth century, including the Nez Perce Harmony Chiefs, The Lollipop Six, and the Nez Percians. Her interviews with members’ children recall the creativity of their parents. Nez Percian Tony Whitman’s son Silas recalls how boarding schools offered the only opportunities for sanctioned music making for people of his father’s generation. As Johnson reports, “according to Silas, you had to make the music your own in order to express your deep feelings through it” (2010 Pp. 210). Bands performed for mainstream audiences at Wild West events, such as the Chief Joseph Days rodeo. These shows embodied an encounter between a mainstream idea of “Indianness,” which Nez Percian band members had learned how to perform, and the real lived experiences of Indigenous individuals whose musical lives had been profoundly altered by the America for whom they were performing. In this encounter, Nez Percians worked to control their own image and tell their story even as the musicians encountered mainstream stereotypes about what Native Americans would or should look, sound, and act like. While band members often chose to wear headdresses or buckskin dresses on stage while performing for non-Native audiences, their children recall this as a strategic move. As Johnson cataloged, “in addition to being highly proficient on their instruments and in playing together, they also dressed well and took pride in representing the Nez Perce people in a dignified way in a region in which anti-Indian sentiment off-reservation had never been very subtle” (Johnson 2010, Pp. 210). Performing the depictions of “Indianness” on stage, the artists themselves made choices about how to dress and play music. While there were some limits to their abilities to completely re-cast these figures, they were able to counter some persistent stereotypes simply by playing contemporary music in a highly competent fashion.

11 This ownership and recasting of narratives extended to other genres of music as well. Classically trained musicians who also had some capabilities in heritage cultural practices were able to draw on both sets of knowledge in a way that was beneficial for stage careers. Yankton Dakota writer and musician Zitkala-Ša, for one, leveraged a background on violin from boarding school into her later work on opera composition. Also using musical education for professional success, Ojibwe tenor Carlisle Kawbawgam was one of many musicians who made a performing career in European music. Creek opera singer Tsianina Redfeather demonstrates a particularly notable case of leveraging a bicultural education to her advantage. She mastered the art of strategic movement between music that was coded as Native American and that which was coded as European American. The mezzo-soprano left the Oklahoma Territory for a vocal studio in Denver. She learned piano and then voice. Her career in front of mainstream audiences blossomed as she performed as a touring musician singing Charles Wakefield Cadman’s Indianist compositions. While Tsianina Redfeather gained a reputation for her vocal talent, she also developed a following based on her depiction of Indianist characters, culminating in her portrayal of the title role in the opera Shanewis.

12Some Indigenous musicians who excelled in Western Art Music traditions chose to perform these styles while wearing costumes associated with Indianist characters. These strategic depictions confronted audiences with a juxtaposition that invited them to question the stereotypes they held. Redfeather learned to perform in a bel canto vocal style while dressing in beaded buckskin and braids, confronting audiences with the “Indian princess” figure for which she became known. As Deloria reports, “her authenticity was the show’s most valuable commodity, for now Cadman’s idealized melodies seemed to becoming directly from the Indian’s mouth. Tsianina’s performance struck many critics and utterly and completely Native.” (2004 Pp. 210). Yet, the juxtaposition she enacted forced many audience members to confront their own stereotypes about Native performers. After a Denver performance, an audience member remarked, “how strange for an Indian to sing so well” (Deloria 2004 Pp. 212).

13It was by performing music associated with non-Native cultures in attire mainstream audiences read as “Indian” –and doing so with remarkable skill—that musicians like Redfeather and the Nez Percians confronted audiences with the falseness of their own stereotypes of Native musicians and music. Redfeather demonstrates a trend for bicultural musicians of her day that continues into the present: encountering mainstream ideas of what a Native musician would look, sound, and act like, she twisted the script and performed a competent figure who could and did shape shift between worlds. In so doing, Redfeather and musicians who followed demonstrated the falsity of mainstream stereotypes through their performance choices. Extending from a history of musical creativity in the face of attacks against culture and community, Waln and A Tribe Called Red continue in the legacy of musicians like Luther Standing Bear, the Nez Percians, and Tsianina Redfeather, who have co-created a culture of survivance.

14In her poem “What is the Sound of America?,” Tiffany Midge imagines Chief Joseph’s encounter with Dixie-land jazz, ragtime, and the Bible. She writes, “this is what happened when the missionaries tried to convert our heathen souls: The Lollipop Six, Nez Percians, Jack Teagarden, International Sweethearts of Rhythm.” Quoting the sounds of jazz and of a 49’er, she writes, “Survivance. This is the sound of Survivance” (Johnson 2010 Pp.198). Survivance in this sense is an active process of cultural survival. This oppositional activity often involves storytelling and musical creativity; it encompasses individuals and communities using a variety of tools, including humor, music, and the creative re-fashioning of lessons learned through European-American schooling.

Survivance and Storytelling in the Music of Frank Waln and ATCR

15Facing misperceptions that would have been familiar to Redfeather, Waln reports, “as Indigenous people, we’ve been dehumanized” (Luther 2014a). Clearly aware of the stereotypes around him, Waln addresses these head-on. His song “AbOriginal” juxtaposes his upbringing on the reservation with his life in the city as a young man. In verse two, he narrates his encounter with a lack of understanding in an urban setting: “No one understands me like my people, these white kids don’t know my struggle. I ain’t equal in their eyes and their intolerance brings me troubles.” Specifically referencing the kinds of stereotypes around him, he continues, “I’m not their noble savage. Doing damage to their perception of who I am.” In light of this, he must construct his own sense of self: “Self-destruct when I self-construct my own plan of my identity from their affinity. To raping culture, they rape the land, shame an Indian just to save the man, but this Indian never dies” (Waln 2013a). Increasing in volume, Waln repeats the word “dies,” and the verse ends with a loud intonation of the word “rise!”

16 While part of a project that actively combats stereotpyes through performance choices, Waln’s musical creativity has also formed a process of working through situations in his life. Like so many artists, Waln’s music springs from personal experiences and acts as creative response. Frank Waln began producing music on a laptop in his home on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Largely self-taught, he saved his money to buy the necessary equipment and developed skills as a producer working on a computer in his room. He then started making music with Kodi DeNoyer, Andre Easter, and Tom Schmidt, forming the group Nake Nula Waun. Soon after they began, the group won best rap/hip hop recording at the 2011 Native American Music Awards for their first album, Scars and Bars. The album was self-produced and independently released. The personal experiences of the oup womembers ar teno4His song n besaIndifm sescribsterevyword eativ to forneno4His so,ies tryd by inricalep feeling as he sfaceroachng tstuds steee- clavolume, andynntervidealizher elvedehe juridictly reum n junto ant on theiime, urcianteno4Hler sor own focuss upbringis id lyrck many documity.hojun the wriolume, he conn vorc ishrevy Whieoming dihem tolces to e part s and Cs he sfso forme re-fains, are aon wiriencesn stage, heny artist origcpyes through in hintolerand Crenclong eased. Tdepeto1n3">Surem, gra. Tde creatal edisto her laculture a-a folla voice an br /n" ly artists, Walng="en", he ns. Hple tious effo-tolces to issuut the caelete he nculture andexperiences his pride, Doing dmontact ask whaty aroutraditiod him, docKryd Cro pipyouring in voluliembe“rise!”

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1 Standing Bear’s reflections and descriptions characterize “Lakota tribal life—my life, and that of my ancestors, upon the plains of what are now the states our North and South Dakota” (Standing Bear 2006, Pp.226).

2 Standing Bear refers to Wakan Tanka as “God of the Lakotas” (Ibid., Pp.258).

3 DJ Shub has since left the group; the trio is now rounded put by 2oolman.

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Liz Przybylski, « Indigenous Survivance and Urban Musical Practice », Revue de recherche en civilisation américaine [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 03 février 2016, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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Liz Przybylski

University of California, Riverside

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