the bathtub to sell to tourists. My grandmother’s earliest memories are being seated at a side show stage in regalia, eating spaghetti and having tourists take pictures of them. So that is what started the performance culture in my family.
“I think modern Indigenous art started from a place of necessity,” he continues. “Because we weren’t allowed to perform or practice our traditions unless it was for a performance, unless it was for the side shows and the freak shows, or for the Wild West shows. Because of the way that cultural genocide worked, how we had everything taken away from us, those things that we held onto from our culture and our spirituality we held onto very tightly... it froze culture and part of what we’re doing now as Indigenous artists is thawing those ideas, allowing them to grow again, taking them out of that frozen, stunted place.”
Bear brings up the work of Jeremy Dutcher, a young, classically trained vocalist and Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, who lives in what is now called New Brunswick in Canada. On his remarkable 2018 record Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher composes and sings in Wolastoq (a language now spoken only by a few dozen people) around samples taken from 110 year old wax cylinder recordings of his ancestors’ songs. “He’s not just playing them, he’s not just transposing them, he’s not just writing to them,” observes Bear. “He’s having a conversation that goes through time. Every time I hear him perform those songs, I can’t tell where one part ends and one part begins, whereas with us we almost hamhandedly chucked up something from our culture and laid it onto something else culturally. What we do is very basic compared to what he’s doing and what I feel people of this next generation are going to represent. As we get further from the residential schools, as we build up more cultural references that are ours to build on, now when artists like Jeremy, not only does he have Buffy Sainte-Marie and Redbone in the past but there’s also very recent groups like ours, so that begins to make a solid basis for exploring culture in a new way.”
A Tribe Called Red are much more than the latest poster boys for liberal multiculturalism, food to satisfy the endless hunger for novelty that fuels the music festival circuit. I ask Bear how experimentation might look from an Indigenous point of view. “Something both of my parents explored in their work was the idea of Indigenous frameworks. The way that we’re taught, we’re taught a very Eurocentric way of framing the world, or art practice or anything. How do we interpret things? The difference in Indigenous music and arts is that it’s coming from that traditional knowledge base.”
As 2oolman and other Tribe associates pointed out repeatedly, in the colonial world we still inhabit, everything an Indigenous person does is political. Including making music. Although reconciliation is currently a buzzword of the Justin Trudeau government, nonetheless pipelines continue to be built on Indigenous land. Brother D with Collective Effort rapped in the 1980s: “America was built/ Understand/By stolen labour/On stolen land”. That the entire edifice of modern North America is just a continuation of those acts could reduce a person to stunned silence. Or tears. Or to form a crew.
“Here in Canada, here in the Americas,” says Bear, “it’s so difficult to start the conversation that needs to be had between Indigenous people and settlers – even to mention the conversation starts a fight. And when you talk about Indigenous rights, which are really human rights at this point – you know, we all need to drink water, we all need to breathe air, we all need to live on this Earth – that attacks the basis of colonial structures, of colonial lies. But when we start talking about reconciliation, we’re three steps ahead of where we are. Like, that conversation is on the table, but we haven’t even built the solid ground to have that conversation on. And then we can’t build it because we just get into fights every time we try to talk about it.
“When I look out at one of our shows,” he continues, “I see the incredible mix of backgrounds, of ages, of everything that come to our parties having a common experience... I see the same reactions with faces regardless of age, regardless of background. That’s a common experience. That is the beginning of having a level piece of ground to build that table on so we can get to those conversations.”
Bear also stresses Tribe are there to start the party and give people a good time. Sometimes that seems like an unfathomably generous position to take, given what settler colonialism has taken from Indigenous people. “If you look at the precolonial Americas,” he laughs, “one aspect of it is that who you are culturally is more important than who you are genetically. We’ve always adopted people, even through war. You might capture someone on the battlefield, even make them a slave, but eventually that person becomes part of the community. If you’re willing to take part in the community, we’ll take you in – that’s at the heart of Indigenous community in the Americas. So talking about basing something in an Indigenous framework: that’s key. Especially for our people, coming from a confederacy of nations, that’s part of it! The White Roots of Peace grow out in the four directions and anyone who’s willing to follow can become part of the confederacy... that’s just a part of how we see the world.” A Tribe Called Red’s We Are The Halluci Nation is released by Radicalized/Pirates Blend
A Tribe Called Red | The Wire | 31