From Waila to PowWowStep

Current developments in Native American music

September 6, 2022

Reading time: 6 Minute(s)

The vast majority of music critics have made themselves comfortable in the colonialist narrative that American music can only be explained by the encounter of European immigrants with African slaves. This narrative regularly omits the musical tradition of the numerous indigenous peoples of the North American continent, most of whom today call themselves Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada.
Text: Martin Wimmer

As early as 1988, committed people got together to set up a small awards ceremony for music from the reservations. Since then, the Native American Music Awards (Nammys) have gone from strength to strength. From Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix, popular musicians with relevant (and often controversial) roots have been inducted into a Hall of Fame. More widely received cultural figures such as Bill Miller, Floyd Westerman and John Trudell, who are also well known in Europe, received special awards.

Logo Native American Music Awards

Outstanding significance was given to the ceremony ten years ago. Until then, an award for the "Best Native American Music Album" was presented at the Grammys. As of 2012, this award was abolished and relevant artists were represented in the "Regional Roots Music Album" category - which they were unable to win even once. Since then, the Nammys have been the identity-forming highlight of the year for the scene. In 2022, the now prestigious show will be held for the nineteenth time, supported by over twenty thousand voting members. Prizes will be awarded in more than thirty categories, mostly expectable ones like "Rock," "Blues," and "Instrumental," but including thirteen for videos. In the "Folk/Americana" category, the motif "performer in front of impressive natural scenery" is particularly popular, but the spectrum on Youtube extends to ambitious art films worth seeing (Matthew Hawk, "Mercy Falls").


"Prejudice hopefully ends up where it belongs: in the teepee of oblivion."

In general, the diversity is great. Among the nominees for "Single of the Year" are classic country, hip-hop, reggae, singer/songwriter, pop ballads and traditional throat singing. The entries are closer together in the awards for "Best Powwow" and "Best Flute." Drumming rhythm and monophonic group singing on the one hand, meditative flute melodies on the other, most likely serve expectations of indigenous sounds. Superstar R. Carlos Nakai, who with Nocturne has presented his first solo album in twelve years, has a good chance of taking home the trophy for "Artist of the Year. The 76-year-old flautist remains true to his million-selling wellness sound and, with titles like "Mindfulness" and "Creativity Chant," is also attractive to New Age and yoga fans.

A real surprise, on the other hand, is the genre of Waila, also known as Chicken Scratch music, a highly danceable style of Mexican Norteño played exclusively in southern Arizona by members of the Tohono O'Odham. The polkas of the Famous Ones on Versatile Music 3 Peat will bring tears of joy to the eyes of all accordion enthusiasts. The Native American Church Music, with which the members of the largest religious community of the North American Indians accompany their drug rituals, also forms a completely independent genre. That is why it is also called peyote music. The recordings can be recognized by the typical combination of calabash rattle and water drum. Navajo Anthony Benally, in particular, has earned himself a sizable following on Spotify.


 Nominated for a "Native Heart Award" are artists who do not have indigenous roots themselves, but who render outstanding services to the traditional musical forms of expression of the North American indigenous population. This year, two Austrians are also participating: longtime Viennese world musician Bernhard Weilguni, known as Wolfsheart, and his imitator Bernhard Mikuskovics, who tours as Bearheart Kokopelli. Wolfsheart is admittedly relaxed about the competition: "In principle, I find it very welcome when musicians want to spread the Native American message - as long as it's meant seriously and doesn't represent showmanship." But it sounds a bit like a hatchet job when he continues: "The wolf is a great inspiration and an extremely social creature that combines mysticism and freedom. Now, relatively unexpectedly and many years later, an Austrian bear appears with a similar name. That does seem a bit irritating." Bearheart explains his success this way, "With the Indians there is the term mitakuye oyasin, which means something like, 'We are all related.' For me as a musician, it's rooted in the phenomenon of resonance. Resonare literally means 'to echo' or 'to resonate,' and as a human being, I can put out feelers, resonate with other cultures, and feel an echo in my being." We pass the peace pipe on, because the way is not so far to the philosophy of Wolfsheart: "For me, the occupation with the culture of this people is not a cheap ethno-abcash pose, but lived inner conviction. I carry this fascination into our civilization, but with my very own modern interpretation." With his album All Life Springs From Water, the classic among the European "Native Americans" is now nominated for the seventh time, three times he has actually kidnapped a Nammy to Vienna. "This finds honest acceptance and recognition among Native Americans. The barriers in the head go up, the heart follows, and prejudices on both sides hopefully end up where they belong: in the teepee of oblivion."

"Rainbows, feathers, turquoise jewelry - a Native American album is often meant to be recognized as such at first glance."

In addition to the Native American Music Awards, there are now other initiatives. Sandra Sutter was not only nominated for four Nammys this year, her album Aurora 12 also earned her the title of "Best Folk Artist" at the Indigenous Super Stars Music Awards. These grew out of Canadian Rhonda Head's podcast series of the same name, which is well worth listening to. The mix of Christmas spirit and social critique on Sutter's terrific folk album combines amazingly harmoniously to create an emotionally charged look at the Calgary songwriter's Canadian homeland. As with many recordings by indigenous artists, an interpretive guide can't hurt to understand the ambiguous lyrics. For example, the song "Standing People" is not about an upstanding people; the term simply refers to trees in Cree-Métis parlance. This deep rootedness in mythological references is inherent in many song lyrics of the excellent performers of all musical genres - and is not infrequently expressed in the iconography of the covers with rainbow, feather, fringed boots, tent, long black hair, pipe or turquoise jewelry.

The Canadian Grammys, the Juno Awards, have also been the subject of controversy over categorization for decades. In 2022, for the first time, an award was given for the traditional (Fawn Wood) and the contemporary (DJ Shub) indigenous artist of the year. Perfect to start with is the number "Redfoot" on DJ Shub's winning album War Club, as it mixes the electronic beats of the "Godfather of PowWowStep" with the hypnotic vocals of the successful Cree icon. Another prestigious award, the Willie Dunn Award (as part of the Canadian music video award Prism Prize), was awarded in 2021, alongside Beatrice Deer, to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for her outstanding album Theory Of Ice. The intellectual activist and feminist publicist convinces on it with poetic lyrics, self-confident spoken word vocals and polished production. Her impressive update of Dunn's legendary protest song "I Pity The Country" from 1971 stands as a long reverberating monument to the fact that even fifty years later the often catastrophic socio-economic starting conditions for the original population of the American continent have changed little.

DJ Shub, Riddu Riđđu Festival. Photo: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

After almost three hundred years of colonialism since Columbus, then about two hundred and fifty years of oppression in the U.S. since 1776, the fourteen thousand year old identities of the indigenous peoples of the Americas are currently experiencing clear reaffirmation through their music, even if they continue to struggle as an absolute minority - in only eight U.S. states is their share of the population over two percent. Today, we are basically dealing with two variants in the self-image of indigenous North American music. Musicians from reservations or with indigenous roots who express themselves in a highly diverse way in all common musical genres. And specifically indigenous musical expressions performed by international artists of diverse origins. No matter from which side you approach: it's worth listening in!


Album tips:
  • DJ Shub, War Club (self-published, 2020)
  • Famous Ones, Versatile Music 3 Peat (self-published, 2021)
  • R. Carlos Nakai, Nocturne (Canyon Records, 2020)
  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory Of Ice (You've Changed, 2021)
  • Sandra Sutter, Aurora 12 (self-published, 2020)
  • Wolfheart, All Life Springs From Water (G. I. Records, 2020)
  • Fawn Wood, Kakike (Buffalo Jump Records, 2021)
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