Raven Chacon wasn’t sure if he would accept the job 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 fringes of the Navajo Nation — to write a piece for his 2021 annual Thanksgiving concert, slated for a 175-year-old cathedral in the centre. The offer smacked of cliché, another act of holiday tokenism.
“My impulse is to turn down every Thanksgiving invitation not because I’m anti-Thanksgiving, but because that’s the only time we’re asked to do things,” said Chacon, 44, in a recent phone interview.
But slowly he changed his mind and realized that Thanksgiving performance in a cathedral (with no less a huge pipe organ) offered a rare opportunity to address the violent role of the Catholic Church in the conquest of Native Americans. He wrote “Voiceless Mass” and at the premiere, placed violinists, flutists, and percussionists around the seated audience, cresting their parts by a hangdog drone.
“When you hear there’s a native composer, there’s a lot of assumptions made,” Chacon said, recounting the times even fans said they heard the desert in his music. “But I’m interested in what’s important to the community I represent: land, justice, injustice. It makes sense for me to create work that is challenging, not easy to digest.”
When “Voiceless Mass” won the Pulitzer in May, Chacon became the first Native American to receive the award. That honor is part of a recent stampede of representation and recognition for Native American artists in literature, food and streaming TV, which has become more frequent since the stimulative protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock began in 2016. “The best of our artists are For real good, and people are catching up,” Paul Chaat Smith, curator of the National Museum of the American Indian, said in an interview. “That means we don’t always start from scratch.”
But Chacon is also the first rough noise musician to win the Pulitzer, an unlikely climb for someone who started making music on the Navajo Nation by turning snare drums into amplified feedback rooms before becoming a fixture in experimental spaces in Los Angeles. Indeed, he is just one of a loose confederation of indigenous artists who are finding a wider audience by working on the fringes of modern music. Suzanne Kite’s immersive sound art, Warren Realrider’s homemade scrapyard instrumentation, Laura Ortman’s mangy violin solos—these musicians and many of their peers are quickly changing their ideas about what it means to sound Native.
Nathan Young, another prolific musician, was just a kid in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, when he realized the story of Native American music ran deeper than powwow incantations. His father, a member of the Delaware Tribe, traded rare tapes of Native American Church nighttime peyote ceremonies, and cherished the hypnotic melodies of singers like Joe Rush.
“I thought about the sounds our ancestors made that we could never imagine, how maybe we wouldn’t think about what ‘native music’ might be,” said Young, 46, from his home in Tulsa, wondering what was lost. had gone through centuries of genocide.
During college, a VHS tape of Japanese electronics icon Merzbow broadened Young’s sense of what music could be, as did a subsequent home recording that Maori performers in New Zealand played while giving him a traditional Ta-moko tattoo. gifts. “It was them rubbing rocks against rocks, creating this ‘primitive ambient music,'” Young said. “When I heard other indigenous people uttering those sounds, I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought that way, interested in this sound.”
Back in Oklahoma, Young joined Postcommodity, an influential Indigenous collective that also included Chacon. Soon he was running the Peyote Tapes label and recording dozens of albums with the aggressive, distortion-driven duo Ajilvsga.
Where Young resisted the prejudice that all Native American music included the chants and drums of powwows, Joe Rainey leaned into typecasting. Raised near Little Earth, a Minneapolis residential complex that has been home to members of dozens of tribes for decades, Rainey started recording powwows when he was 8. Using a portable GE cassette recorder, he amassed an estimated 500 hours of performances.
For over 20 years, an HVAC installer and father of five, Rainey has also been a competitive powwow singer, sometimes competing for $10,000 prizes. Misconceptions about modern powwows as sacred spaces baffle the Ojibwe singer. “For you, we may be evoking energy,” Rainey, 35, joked in an interview from his home in Oneida, Wisconsin. “But we show up to just have fun, sing and dance.”
By the summer of 2020, Rainey had been working with veteran Minneapolis producer Andrew Broder for a year, but failed to find an appropriate modern context for his songs and samples. When Broder attended a powwow between Little Earth’s buildings, he understood that he had mishandled the material.
“The sound was no different from the way a car driving around with a thumping system fits into the landscape of a city,” Broder said on the 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.”
Broder and Rainey began working around an axiom of “organized chaos,” taking advantage of Public Enemy’s abrasive Bomb Squad productions and Nas’ narrative candor as twin stars. The resulting “Niineta” — released in May and titled Ojibwe for “just me” — pins layers of powwow numbers to industrial drums and snowstorms of static electricity, suggesting a radical musical representation of what Rainey often calls the “urban Indonesian.” Monsters of Rainey’s imprisoned cousin and dead friends yield a gravitas as he sorts through grief loudly.
“This album helped make sure I was mentally okay,” Rainey said. “Continuing on is what this album made me do.”
A similar evolution also animates “Medicine Singers,” the self-titled July debut of a wild rock offshoot of the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Algonquin drum group in northern Rhode Island. The album is a collaboration with Yonatan Gat, an Israeli-born guitarist who first gained attention in the wild rock band Monotonix and has since started a label to collaborate with traditional musicians around the world. Gat met the Eastern Medicine Singers at South by Southwest in 2017, then formed ad hoc bands that included new-age pioneer Laraaji and powerful drummer Thor Harris to improvise with them.
Medicine Singers founder Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson feared they would bend those historic sounds until they broke. Jamieson, a 62-year-old Air Force veteran who learned the Massachusetts language as an adult, asked his mentor, Donald Three Bears Fisher, to approve the lyrics for “Daybreak,” the album’s lead single, and an ecstatic aubade. with pounding drums. “He said, ‘I want it played everywhere,'” Jamieson recalled in an interview. Fisher passed away in 2020. “So that’s what I’m doing.”
Young has seen similar reactions from older people in Oklahoma. “I come from an additive culture. Things fascinate us,” he said. “We try not to live in the past. We are in this long conversation about how to make these sounds work for what we want to express.”
Yet reckoning with a past of forced removal and assimilation remains an essential part of this music. Ortman and Kite both started playing the violin after being adopted by white families. The instrument gave Ortman permission to be someone else and the hope that she would find her family, as she did with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in 2001.
“Meeting my mother and older sister was like being face to face as the world revolves around you,” Ortman, 49, said on the phone. Many of her later accounts have reflected on the lost life with her family; she often plays an Apache violin, made from an agave stem, which she got on that reunion trip.
“People You Must Look at Me,” an early piece by Kite, helped her come to terms with the loss of her mother, who died by suicide, and embrace her identity as a Native artist whose ancestors escaped Wounded Knee on foot. Her work now spans a dozen other disciplines, including artificial intelligence — all ways to learn from Native Americans’ pasts to reimagine their future.
“I’m not very interested in western art music,” Kite admitted with a laugh. “There is too much to learn from members of the community who do not have a degree. I see that as the path to generating new things.”