Upending Expectations for Indigenous Music, Noisily
Raven Chacon wasn’t sure he should accept the commission that would soon earn him the Pulitzer Prize for music. A Milwaukee ensemble had asked Chacon — a Diné composer, improviser and visual artist born on the edge of the Navajo Nation — to write a piece for its annual Thanksgiving concert in 2021, slated for a 175-year-old cathedral downtown. The offer smacked of cliché, another act of holiday tokenism.
“My impulse is to turn down any Thanksgiving invitation, not because I’m anti-Thanksgiving but because that’s the only time we get asked to do stuff,” Chacon, 44, said in a recent phone interview.
But he slowly reconsidered, recognizing that performing on Thanksgiving in a cathedral (with an enormous pipe organ, no less) offered a rare opportunity to address the Catholic Church’s violent role in the conquest of Native Americans. He penned “Voiceless Mass” and, at the premiere, positioned violinists, flutists and percussionists around the seated audience, their parts cresting through a hangdog drone.
“If you hear there’s a Native composer, a lot of assumptions happen,” Chacon said, recounting the times that even fans have said they hear the desert in his music. “But I am interested in what’s important to the community I represent — land, justice, injustice. It’s meaningful for me to make work that is challenging, not easy to digest.”
When “Voiceless Mass” won the Pulitzer in May, Chacon became the first Native American to be awarded the prize. That honor is part of a recent rush of representation and recognition for Indigenous American artists in literature, food and streaming TV, increasingly prevalent since the galvanizing protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline began at Standing Rock in 2016. “The best of our artists are really good, and people are catching up,” Paul Chaat Smith, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, said in an interview. “That means we’re not always starting from square one.”
But Chacon is also the first harsh noise musician to win the Pulitzer, an unlikely ascent for someone who started making music on the Navajo Nation by turning snare drums into amplified feedback chambers before becoming a fixture of experimental spaces in Los Angeles. Indeed, he is just one of a loose confederation of Indigenous artists finding a wider audience by working at the fringes of modern music. The immersive sound art of Suzanne Kite, the self-made scrapyard instrumentation of Warren Realrider, the scabrous violin solos of Laura Ortman — these musicians and many of their peers are rapidly upending ideas about what it means to sound Native.
Nathan Young, another prolific musician, was just a child in Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation, when he realized the story of Native American music was deeper than powwow incantations. His father, a member of the Delaware Tribe, traded rare tapes of all-night peyote ceremonies from the Native American Church, cherishing the hypnotic melodies of singers like Joe Rush.
“I thought about the sounds our ancestors made that we could never imagine, how we might not be considering what could be ‘Native music,’” Young, 46, said from his home in Tulsa, wondering what had been lost through centuries of genocide.
During college, a VHS tape of the Japanese electronics icon Merzbow widened Young’s sense of what music could be, as did a subsequent home recording that Maori artists in New Zealand played while giving him a traditional Ta moko tattoo. “It was them rubbing rocks against rocks, making this ‘primitive ambient music,’” Young said. “Hearing other Indigenous people express those sounds made me realize I wasn’t the only one who thought this way, interested in this noise.”
Back in Oklahoma, Young joined Postcommodity, an influential Indigenous collective that included Chacon. Soon he was running the label Peyote Tapes and recording dozens of albums with the aggressive, distortion-driven duo Ajilvsga.
Where Young pushed against the preconception that all Native American music included the chants and drums of powwows, Joe Rainey leaned into the typecasting. Raised near Little Earth, a Minneapolis housing complex that has for decades been home to members of dozens of tribes, Rainey began taping powwows when he was 8. Using a hand-held GE cassette recorder, he amassed an estimated 500 hours of performances.
For more than 20 years, Rainey, an HVAC installer and a father of five, has also been a competitive powwow singer, sometimes vying for prizes of $10,000. Misconceptions of modern powwows as sacred spaces bemuse the Ojibwe singer. “To you, we might be conjuring energies,” Rainey, 35, joked in an interview from his home in Oneida, Wis. “But we’re showing up to just have fun, singing and dancing.”
By the summer of 2020, Rainey had been partnering with the veteran Minneapolis producer Andrew Broder for a year, trying but failing to find a fitting modern context for his songs and samples. When Broder attended a powwow between the buildings of Little Earth, he understood he’d been mishandling the material.
“The sound wasn’t unlike the way a car driving around with a booming system fits into a city’s landscape,” Broder said by phone. “These voices and the drum bouncing off the walls of the projects had a similar quality. That was where I wanted to go, where the sound was smeared out.”
Broder and Rainey began operating around an axiom of “organized chaos,” using Public Enemy’s abrasive Bomb Squad productions and Nas’s narrative candor as twin lodestars. The resulting “Niineta” — which was released in May and whose title is Ojibwe for “just me” — pins layers of powwow songs to industrial-strength drums and blizzards of static, suggesting a radical musical representation of what Rainey often called the “urban Indian.” Samples of Rainey’s incarcerated cousin and dead friends supply a gravitas as he sorts loudly through grief.
“This album helped me make sure I was mentally OK,” Rainey said. “Continuing on is what this album made me do.”
A similar evolution also animates “Medicine Singers,” the self-titled July debut from a wild rock offshoot of the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Algonquin drum group based in northern Rhode Island. The album is a collaboration with Yonatan Gat, an Israeli-born guitarist who first earned attention in the feral rock band Monotonix and has since started a label to collaborate with traditional musicians around the world. Gat encountered the Eastern Medicine Singers at South by Southwest in 2017, then formed ad hoc bands with the likes of the new-age pioneer Laraaji and the powerful drummer Thor Harris to improvise with them.
The Medicine Singers’ founder, Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson, worried they might bend those historic sounds until they broke. A 62-year-old Air Force veteran who learned the Massachusett language only as an adult, Jamieson asked his mentor, Donald Three Bears Fisher, to approve the lyrics for “Daybreak,” the album’s first single and an ecstatic aubade with pounding drums. “He said, ‘I want it played everywhere,’” Jamieson remembered in an interview. Fisher died in 2020. “So that’s what I’m doing.”
Young has seen similar responses from elders in Oklahoma. “I come from an additive culture. Things fascinate us,” he said. “We are not trying to live in the past. We’re in this long conversation about how we can make these sounds work for what wewant to express.”
Still, reckoning with a past of forced removal and assimilation remains a vital component of this music. Ortman and Kite both began playing violin after they were adopted by white families. The instrument gave Ortman permission to be someone else and a hope she would find her family, as she did among the White Mountain Apache Tribe in 2001.
“Meeting my mother and older sister was like seeing eye-to-eye while the world is spinning around you,” Ortman, 49, said by phone. Many of her subsequent records have contemplated the life lost with her family; she often plays an Apache fiddle, made from an agave stalk, that she received during that reunion trip.
“People You Must Look at Me,” an early performance piece by Kite, helped her process the loss of her mother, who died by suicide, and embrace her identity as an Indigenous artist whose ancestors escaped Wounded Knee by foot. Her work now incorporates a half-dozen other disciplines, including artificial intelligence — all ways of learning from Indigenous Americans’ past in order to reimagine their future.
“I am not very interested in Western art music,” Kite admitted with a laugh. “There is too much to learn from community members who don’t have degrees. I see that as the pathway for generating new things.”