Of Tribes and Telecasters: Indigenous Peoples Rock!

The popular music of North America is seasoned with the blood and sweat of every race and nationality: Anglos, Africans, Hispanics, Jews…rockers of all ethnic mixes. But what about the native peoples of North America? Many rock fans know that Cher, Rita Coolidge, and Robbie Robertson have native roots. But when was the last time you heard anything about a rock band comprised predominantly of indigenous peoples from the U.S. or Canada?

Well, they're out there! Some have been making music for decades; others are new to the scene. And while many aren't headliners (yet), they're recording, touring, winning awards, and selling lots of music online. Thanks to YouTube and iTunes I've recently become familiar with a number of talented bands that are really catching fire. Here's a look at some of them, starting with a group you'll likely recall if you grew up in the 1970s.

Redbone was the first commercially successful band formed predominantly of Native Americans -- four members from various tribes. They're remembered for their 1974 hit, "Come and Get Your Love," which peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Supposedly, it was Jimi Hendrix, himself one-quarter Cherokee, who convinced group co-founder Pat Vegas (née Vasquez) to form a Native American rock band. The lineup has changed through the years, but they're still gigging. Here's the original band performing their biggest hit, complete with a colorful dance introduction:

WinterHawk is a San Francisco-based Native American foursome that's been around since 1983. They've released a number of LPs and CDs, and have opened for such heavies as Tina Turner, Santana, Steve Miller, Van Halen, and Mötley Crüe. Leader Nik Winterhawk Alexander, a Cree Indian, says, "I believe in setting an example for young people…We carry high the values our forefathers did: keeping our environment clean, taking care of the creatures, including ourselves…If there's any music that is close to traditional Native American music, a war dance beat, it's straight rock and roll." Check out this beautiful power ballad:

Indigenous is a fabulous blues-rock band comprised of brothers Mato and Pte Nanji, plus their sister Wanbdi and a cousin called Horse. These members of the Nakota Nation grew up on South Dakota's Yankton Reservation. They've shared the stage with such artists as B.B. King, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Joan Baez, and also tour as headliners.

The Plateros offer a mashup of blues, rock, and funk, led by 16-year-old Levi Platero of the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. His band includes family members from the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation near Albuquerque. They're busy recording and touring the U.S. and parts of Canada. I love this song and the setting. Why aren't these guys more famous?

Blackfire is a Navajo (Diné) group of two brothers and a sister - Jeneda, Klee, and Clayson Benally – who mix punk rock with what they call "alter-Native," delivering music with sociopolitical messages about human rights, government oppression, and genocide. Joey Ramone once called Blackfire’s music “fireball punk-rock." And Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, asked Blackfire to set music to some of her father's unreleased and unpublished lyrics. The band's EP "Woody Guthrie Singles" won the Best Pop/Rock Album award at the 2002 Native American Music Awards (NAMA). Jeneda is my new idol. She rocks!

Black Owl Society was formed in Austin, Texas, in early 2010 by a musician called Buffalo Man. They sing about issues affecting indigenous peoples, set to stirring electric blues music. Good late-night licks here.

Corporate Avengers is a Southern California band headed by members of mixed Native American ancestry. They blast hard-edge, often controversial songs with names like "Christians Murdered Indians," "Jesus Christ Homosexual," and "Drug Dealing God." In fact, they believe that organized religion is one of the roots of all the world's ills. (Imagine the amount of hate mail they receive.) Their style morphs from electronica/industrial to rap to hard rock. Here's a video featuring an in-your-face history lesson! Keep raging, boys. Being banned is good for your careers.

Testament is a Native American thrash metal band, led by Chuck Billy of the Pomo tribe. I don't particularly care for this type of music, but I admire their energy and social activism.  Mr. Billy was featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, which was on display through January 2011. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Testament's "Native Blood" video.

A Tribe Called Red is an Ottawa-based band comprised of members of The First Nations -- the Aboriginal peoples of Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis. They play a mixture of electronic music, instrumental hip hop, house, reggae, and dubstep dance, often accompanied by traditional chanting. They describe their unique sound as "pow-wow-step." Here's a must-see video of one of their songs, "Sopranos Azteca," which features clips of HBO's Sopranos mafiosi making derogatory remarks about "Indians." Well, I may be an Italian-American, but I side with Furio: "I never liked Columbus."

Breach of Trust is a Canadian rock group formed in Saskatchewan, comprised of members of First Nation heritage. The band won three awards at the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, including Best Group and Best Rock Album.

The Johnnys, from Toronto, is perhaps the most unusual and entertaining of all Native American bands, with its six-foot tall, leather-vixen lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Veronica Johnny. She and her drummer husband Dave Johnny churn out frenetic, garage-type tunes that derive from 70s hard rock and pure 50s rock and roll. Their first two releases were nominated for numerous awards at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. Here they are performing "I Like It A Lot," which is exactly how I feel about this song and their sound. Punk rock lives!

For the record, here's a list of other popular musical artists, past and present, of mixed Native North American blood:
Jesse Ed Davis: Muscogee Creek, Seminole, and Kiowa
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Canadian Cree
Jimi Hendrix: one quarter Cherokee
Robbie Robertson: part Canadian Mohawk
Cher: part Cherokee
Tori Amos: part Cherokee
Tom Petty: one-quarter Cherokee
Link Wray: part Shawnee
Rita Coolidge:part Cherokee
Elvis Presley: small part Cherokee
Ben Harper: part Cherokee
Carrie Underwood: part Muscogee Creek
Keely Smith: part Cherokee
Chaka Kahn: part Blackfeet

The great guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (1944-1988)
Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 11.35.15 PM

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© Dana Spiardi, June 5, 2013

Views: 1339

Tags: american, indigenous, native

Comment by Sandra Schulman on June 7, 2013 at 5:24am

There is a show currently at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in NYC called "Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture" that features many of these artists plus blues and jazz pioneers of Native descent. It runs through August. There is also a feature film being made called Rumble on Native rockers. http://www.rezolutionpictures.com/productions/documentaries/rumble/

Comment by Dana Spiardi on June 7, 2013 at 7:18am

Thanks, Sandra, for this information.  I love that museum and will try to see the exhibit. 

Comment by L. Monty on June 7, 2013 at 10:13am

I'd like to note the wonderful Martha Redbone.  Her new Garden of Love CD has one foot firmly in Americana.

Comment by Bill Mankin on June 8, 2013 at 1:29pm

Very well done, Dana.  Obviously, there is no other music that deserves the term “roots” more than the music of indigenous and aboriginal peoples.  I really appreciate the way you give respect to each of these disparate varieties, and tell us why we might find them interesting, while admitting that you don’t necessarily love them all yourself – the mark of a truly classy reviewer.  Now let’s have some Native American writers help us all understand how various current forms of indigenous musical expression tap directly into, reflect only hints of, or diverge completely from those deepest of roots.

Comment by Derek on June 8, 2013 at 8:19pm

I've liked Testament's metal power ballad  "Trail of Tears" for some time.  Lead me to study the history of the event when I was in high school. Thanks for the post, it reminded me of the tune. 

Comment by Dana Spiardi on June 14, 2013 at 7:35pm

Thanks, everyone for reading my article and sharing your comments.  I started out to write a very brief article about some of our better known artists like Jesse Ed Davis, Rita Coolidge, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and after doing a lot of research I stumbled upon all of these bands that I'd never heard before. I was so turned on by these sights and sounds that I knew I just had to share my discoveries.  I'm grateful that No Depression provides such a forum. Peace.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.