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Native Eyez | Intikana, Social Justice Activist, By Mike Fiorito

This article is written by Mike Fiorito and originally published on the Star Revue webpage. Check out more of Mike’s writings via his webpage.


I met the rapper Intikana through a series of mutual connections; some from a New York based Taíno community and some from musicians we both know. Born and raised in the Bronx, Intikana went to P.S. 76, M.S. 135, then to Dewitt Clinton High School.

As a professional recording artist, Intikana has collaborated with legends such as Dead Prez, Keith Murray, Murda Mook, Chris Rivers, Abiodun Oyewole (The Last Poets), Vaughn Benjamin aka Akae Beka (Midnite), Dinco D (Leaders of The New School), and Vordul Mega (Cannibal Ox). His EP “Native Eyez” was nominated for three Native American Music Awards (“Best Music Video”, “Best Rap Recording” & “Best Historical / Linguistic Recording”).

I had the fortune to speak to Intikana on a Saturday in mid-June.

“You have a long family history in the Bronx?”

“My grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to The Bronx in the 1950s. My Mom was born and raised in The Bronx. My dad was born in Queens but raised in The Bronx,” said Intikana. His voice was gentle. A born lyricist, you could hear the wisdom in his words.

“I know you are of Puerto Rican descent. Have you ever been to PR?”

“When I was a kid, I spent summers in Puerto Rico. Borikén is actually the original Taíno name of Puerto Rico. When translated, Puerto Rico means ‘rich port’ which is how the colonizers viewed our island. A port that was rich in gold, natural herbs, and spices.”

The Taíno were the first Indigenous people to encounter Columbus. The Europeans have had a long history of committing atrocities on the island. Intikana often writes about the island’s history of social injustice. He also acknowledges the experience of social injustice on other Caribbean islands and extends this awareness to social injustice found around the globe.

“What town or city did you stay in on the island?”

“I spent my early childhood summers in Cabo Rojo which is a small town on the west side of Borikén. When I was there, I stayed with my grandparents. Their home was right next to the hills or what we called los montes. My early experiences there taught me a lot about the importance of the natural world.”

“What was it like growing up in the Bronx?”

“It made me who I am. I will always love my city. Someone once told me where you’re from feeds you. Growing up in the Bronx fed me. It taught me survival. Taught me about life.”

“What was the neighborhood like?”

“We lived in the northeast section of the Bronx. Between the 5 train on Gun Hill Road and the 2 train on Burke Avenue. My mom and I resided in the basement of my grandmother’s house. It was a very family-oriented neighborhood. There were many Caribbean people, Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, many of whom owned homes. Our neighborhood bordered the Eastchester projects.”

“When you say, the neighborhood taught you how to survive, what do you mean?”

“It taught me how to be strong in challenging situations. I experienced a lot in The Bronx. When I was a kid, my father was in prison. I was thirteen when he came home. On the weekends, I used to stay with him in the Mill Brook Projects in the South Bronx. One day, we went to the park with my family. While there, a little boy had hit my sister in the face and made her cry. My dad was upset and confronted the boy’s father. The guy said something threatening to take things to another level. In response, my father punched him. The guy dropped to the floor and we walked away. When leaving the park, the guy got up and pulled out a gun. Then he started running at us claiming to be a cop. He pointed the gun at my dad, my uncle, and then aimed it at my face. Suddenly, the officer emptied the entire gun, shooting multiple bullets. Luckily, I was only grazed on my arm. It wasn’t a direct shot. However, the man shot my dad. One bullet struck my father in the leg which thankfully went in and out. The guy with the gun turned out to be an off-duty corrections officer. He was sentenced to a year in jail for reckless endangerment. Not a year for shooting my dad but rather a year for endangering the lives of everyone else in the park.”

“I can only imagine how traumatizing that was.”

“That’s why I say The Bronx taught me about survival. I’ve known friends who were murdered and have witnessed a great deal of senseless violence. Every year in my middle school, we used to paint new murals dedicated to students who got killed. There was one friend of mine who I went to class with. One day, he was late to school and, unfortunately, never made it. He and his entire family were murdered early in the morning. I remember showing up to the wake. There were about eight closed caskets.”

“Did these experiences inspire your interest in rap?”

“Definitely. But let me take a step back. I was close to my grandfather. He was a deep-thinking man. He taught me how to play chess and reflect on my approach to everything. He got extremely sick from diabetes when I was twelve. When I went to see him in the hospital, he didn’t recognize me at first. Slowly, he began to remember who I was, but the nurses forced me to leave the room. This was an immensely powerful experience for me. My reaction to the emotion was to start writing about it. Also, when I was going to high school, rapping was a way for me to verbally defend myself. At first rapping was a way for me to find my voice, but then it grew into something that helped me to discover myself. Music also kept me focused. Eventually, I started to get more into poetry. I also learned more about theater and film. I wrote a play called Penumbra, which included music, poetry, and monologues. Penumbra also had dancers and live musicians. I toured the play around the country in places such as Alaska, California, Chicago, New York, Utah, Colorado, and as far as Ecuador. My friend Bamboo MC helped me find the title Penumbra. Penumbra means a shadow of a shadow.”

“Who were your inspirations? What kind of music do you listen to?”

“When I was younger, I was engrossed in Hip Hop: Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and many others. I did my homework. I studied all the artists. Then I checked out older albums. At seventeen, I interned at BMG, the record label. There I helped with promotions for “The Neptunes present… Clones” album by Pharrell and Chad Hugo. I spent a whole day with both managing the line for autographs at their in-store event. For a young kid, these moments were life-changing. This would all prove to have a positive impact on my networking and collaborations.

I also spent time at the Apollo Theater. That’s where I got to meet Sway. I broadened my interests, studying jazz, blues, soul, roots reggae, and bomba, which is a form of Afro- Borikén music. I was so hungry and kept growing and learning. There was an artist named Vaughn Benjamin who founded a group called Midnite and later changed his name to Akae Beka. He was a significant inspiration for me. His intelligence, style, and overall mission was powerful to me. We collaborated on a song called “Meditation” which features Stic of the legendary Hip-Hop group Dead Prez as well as Aza Lineage from Kingston, Jamaica. Only months after releasing the song, he sadly transitioned (died) in 2019.

Through music, I’ve been able to travel and see the world. Which is such a huge blessing. In South America, for example, I participated in important Indigenous ceremonies. It was during this time that I received my spiritual name, Intikana.”

“Can you tell me about your songs that involve your Taíno origins?”

“I wrote a song called ‘Native Eyez’ which is also the title track for a project I did in 2013. It was created to raise awareness of native culture and its connection to the street. How the arriving conquerors replaced the nature world, the jungle, and the forest, with the concrete jungle. I then did music videos for this project. The mission was to showcase and highlight our global interconnectedness as Indigenous peoples. Not just for Taínos but for Indigenous people everywhere. I also did a music video with an artist from Australia named Provocalz. The song is called ‘Survivors’ and is part of a native music project called ‘Only Built for Koori Linx.’ The song speaks about how much Indigenous people had to endure simply to survive. My interests in social justice have inspired me to keep learning, to remain a student.”

“What other Indigenous songs have you written?”

“I also wrote a song called ‘Crouching Gallo Hidden Coqui’ which was produced by Xen Medina. It has a very direct, strong tone.”

Gallo means rooster in Spanish, symbolizing masculinity in many Caribbean/Latin American cultures. The coqui symbol is particularly important to Taíno people. It is a singing tree frog native to Borikén. Both roosters and frogs appear in Taino stories throughout the Caribbean and are recognized as major symbols in Borikén culture.

“In addition, I recorded a song called ‘El Pueblo Esta Muerto’ which is on my album ‘Sovereignty.’ I originally wrote and recorded the song for News Beat Podcast which is produced by Manny Faces. In this song, I talk about the history of Borikén and about the island post-earthquake. I wrote another song called ‘Culture Shock’ featuring M1 of Dead Prez. It was filmed in Africa, Cuba, Guatemala, Borikén & The Bronx. These songs are very revolutionary in nature. They’re concerned with oppression and with the suppression of the original cultures of our people.”

“What has your Taíno culture taught you about your perspective of the world?”

“My culture motivates me when there’s no motivation. I remember why I’m doing the work. It’s not for some artificial purpose. I have a bigger mission. My work inspires me to learn about history. For instance, when I read Columbus’s journal, it made me want to cry. Columbus wrote in his letters that the Indigenous people were gullible and naive. In his letters to Spain, he wrote that the Taíno were easily able to memorize prayers and could easily be conquered. And, because of the Taínos’ generous nature, the Spaniards were able to colonize the island fast. It hurt me to read this. The impact of colonization still affects Borikén today. Since the time of the Spaniards, foreign anthropologists have selectively filtered what we know about our own history. We are conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of people who hate us.”

“What are your future plans?”

“I am working on a book. The working title is Native Eyez: Lyrics & Curriculum. This will be the first in a series of books. This book will serve as a resource for educational institutions, professors, teachers, students, and families. My intention is to raise awareness and understanding of native history within the Afro-Indigenous diaspora. The idea is to have it exist as a teaching guide that can be used in the classroom. I hope it will inspire people to think deeply and explore issues concerning injustice, struggle, and movements of resistance. I pray it can assist in liberating minds and help those interested in reclaiming their own identity. This book is a culmination of many years of hard work, research, study and learning. I am hoping to sign with a major publisher who values and respects the vision. I have a few in mind. If not, I’m willing to self-publish. Either way, I intend on leaving my mark in this world. I believe that this book will exist long after I am gone.”

“Are you working on a music project?”

“Not at the moment. I have a lot of music that I’ve recorded and would like to release a new project soon. However, I’m in the process of reinventing my own soundscape. So, I’m remaining patient with this next release. No name as of yet. Nonetheless, I will more than likely release a few new singles as well as music videos to keep feeding my audience.”

“It’s exciting to imagine what kinds of projects you’ll be working on twenty years from now.”

“My goal is to keep moving forward, to speak up for oppressed people everywhere. Every day, my vision gets bigger. And I’m grateful for that.”

Contact info:
Intikana: http://www.intikana.net
Mike Fiorito: http://www.fallingfromtrees.info

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Fostering Communities of Anti-Abuse: A Conversation with Kris Harper

For many of us, music—listening to, discovering, writing, playing—is inextricable from the meshwork of other things that form our core values and identity. Inextricable from every other outlet we find that moves us, in some unique way, toward a deeper engagement with this world. It often matters little the style of music, the stance or tone of lyrics or performance, or the aesthetics of the sound and dynamic movement—you simply know by feel when you have been struck by an artist whose music evokes a deep and vast web of consciousness, experience, and interrelatedness; a web of community, ancestry, pride, trauma, suffering, language, the earth and its scales of time. And you can’t help but be ensnared. Perhaps this seems lofty. Sure, but it is only because, as an artist curating the work of other artists, I am drawn toward some other plane of consciousness when I find, am struck by, and give in to music whose gift of immersion offers me a new world to experience with the senses, and also a newly informed sense of how to navigate this world. How to be in these diverse communities, in this body, with this blood and brain, with the gifts that are its ethical considerations, anxieties, privileges, burdens, opportunities for growth.

Recently, I have had the extreme privilege of connecting with such a musician whose work spans genres and styles with as much sincerity as musical dexterity, with as much humility as urgency. Kris Harper, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, and vocalist, from amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory, which in English is called Edmonton, Alberta, joined me for a virtual discussion about his past and current musical projects.

From 2017-2020, Kris played guitar, sang, and wrote lyrics for nêhiyawak, a genre-bending three-piece act whose debut record was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s biggest music awards. With him were Marek Tyler on drums and Matthew Cardinal on synth and bass. Kris has since been collaborating with Jason Borys, together composing, among other stunning recordings, the soundtrack for the documentary miniseries “Voices on the Rise.” Also with Jason Borys and Courteney Morin, Kris contributes to a rich tapestry of ambient music under the banner Ag47. In their most recent project, Ag47 supplies the swirling, meditative backdrop to a man named Mr. William Quinn, a nêhiyaw elder and artist, as he gives a sweetgrass smudge and orates about his life, experience in residential schools, and, among other things, the urgency of passing on ancestral knowledge to younger generations. Kris also collaborates with bUDi, a.k.a. Nick Dourado, who has made music with Aquakulture, Fiver, Beverly Glenn Copeland, Kathleen Yearwood, and many others. bUDi’s new record, /WORLD/GO/DUH/, on which Kris contributed to the mix, was released a little over a month ago. I am humbled and delighted to share our conversation with the Shouts! community.

Nathaniel Youmans: nêhiyawak’s first and only album, nipiy—the nêhiyaw word for “water”—was shortlisted for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize. At times the lush shoegaze sound (or, rather, “moccasingaze,” to salute a growing genre tag used by contemporary Indigenous musicians who are forging distinct, compelling, reverb-drenched musical paths rooted in Indigenous identity and worldviews) sweeps listeners away to the vaulted halls of post-rock. Yet, there is such a driving, grounding urgency in the chime and propulsion of rhythms, such evocative emotion in Kris’s vocal aerobics, such a sense of larger community in the band’s sound, that there is never a dull moment on this amazing album, except at the moment it ends and there is no more. nipiy is difficult to place with shorthand descriptors of genre and style—one of the many ways in which Kris’s work reminds me that English is an insufficient linguistic and cognitive framework. This is a concept our conversation often returned to. On Indigenous language and cultural preservation, on his approach to music, on fighting erasure and decolonizing our minds, Kris spoke at length.

Kris Harper: I myself grew up in a home where my mother spoke nêhiyawēwin, but I was never spoken to. It was like when my mom would switch to nêhiyawēwin talking to relatives on the phone and such, she would kind of turn away. It was always a strange thing, because within my mom’s family, among her siblings, she was the only fluent speaker. Funny enough, I grew up in an environment where my mother was working for the government and my father was a carpenter, so I went to this other family’s house in the mornings from the time I was about eight months to five years old. They were Iranian, so I ended up learning Farsi as a child and learning all about that language. More recently, I took some university classes in 2013 and have done all kinds of reading and learning about linguicide. I’ve also taken some nêhiyawēwin courses and am still learning how to write syllabics.

A lot of nêhiyaw people will still refer to themselves as “Cree,” which comes from a French word. The name for the band nêhiyawak was very intentional: we went to our parents, who would all be considered elders. We said we have these songs, and they’re all trying to share experiences that were for the most part personal but of course rooted in indigenous issues. We asked them if there was a name that they thought would fit. It was Matthew’s father who said we should call it “nêhiyawak.” That is the word for all nêhiyaw people, and it’s also a word that a lot of people have a hard time saying. We wanted to put that word in people’s mouths so they will be forced to deal with it linguistically. A lot of that inspiration too, personally, was from The Ethiopians. That band in Jamaica pretty much went to their Rastafari elders when they were looking for a name for their band. These are old words with much deeper meanings than anything in English.

NY: Kris and Jason Borys collaborate on gentle, soothing electronic soundscapes for the documentary series “Voices on the Rise,” which follows Eli Hirtle, a nêhiyaw man based in Victoria, B.C., on his journey home to reconnect with his culture and language. It is a beautiful and highly-relevant miniseries that puts in very clear terms the deep crisis that can result from the separation from one’s heritage, language, ancestral words and knowledge of and upon the earth itself. Kris elaborated on this story of revival and reciprocity, and his role in this kind of work.

KH: It’s been a cool process to get these conversations building with other creative people, like in “Voices on the Rise.” Eli’s been in Victoria for quite some time, where we met. I didn’t know there would be this story about Alberta and language revitalization, but he came to me right away and asked if I’d be interested in doing the music. Jason Borys and I were already working on a recording, and I was like “for sure!” It’s really amazing that when you watch “Voices On the Rise,” you’re seeing this nêhiyaw artist and creative, Eli, going back to this community in Alberta, but then on top of it, there’s us from here as well, making the music. It becomes very holistic.

I’ve heard from Reuben Quinn, an elder from here who is featured in the documentary, that our language loses about four words per year, and almost everything else is becoming short-form. You see it happen every year. Our language actually links to the stars, and there are concepts and notions less understood by any other framework that can’t afford to be lost. Reuben offers nêhiyawēwin classes through this place called Center for Race and Culture. There have been people from Australia and from all over the world taking these classes. This is another great way that technology lets a global community kind of peep in on deep, heavy–duty conversations.

NY: I am grateful for the way in which you talk about where you are from: amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory—in contrast to the almost comical “Edmonton, Alberta,” a city named after a London borough and a province after a British princess with no ancestral ties to the land. A prime example of how naming is essentially synonymous with claiming in a colonizer mindset. But such a reductive name falls so incredibly short of articulating anything about the complexity of lived experiences in such places. I guess what I am really interested in is something like “psychogeography,” especially how language shapes our positionality within a wider world of relations, ecosystems, and power structures. We could dissect this forever, I suspect. What are your thoughts?

KH: English absolutely has come to be echoing in this region, so there is always a conscious effort for me to talk about names, like “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” which is the North Saskatchewan River. This is an old, old word, and it would have likely echoed in these valleys for thousands of years. Then after a while those words are never being used anymore. All this work couldn’t help but be about language revitalization, even within our own lives. This is important because there are so many words that don’t have an easy meaning in English, which speaks to how Indigenous languages can be broken apart and were broken apart by colonialism and residential schools, for example.

I want to mention, too, that on the track “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” we timed that track to the river itself. Not every part of the river flows the same. Here, it’s about 90 bpm.

I have often felt scared or hurt or put off in Alberta and the prairies in Canada when I hear them being called “empty prairies.” You often hear the way people talk about them as just that—like they’re sitting there, empty, with nothing there. But you go out there and you feel that wind and you hear the birds and you know that at one time, if you would have stood there, 60 million buffalo would have just churned you into hamburger and you wouldn’t even know what happened. And, of course, there have been people there for such a long time. This is totally about erasure, whether people know it or not. Taking part in these linguistic tropes is actually doing violence. Working against this has always been my intention with the “moccasingaze” stuff, and it has only gotten deeper, not in a little way, but in a way that says, “Let’s not accept this anymore. Let’s put all this aside.”

There needs to be a deeper want within our community as a whole. This would include all people in our community. I feel like this is where we’re at: on one hand, indigenous rights have been taken away and indigenous people have experienced so much erasure and genocide and linguicide, and on the other hand, our very understanding of who Indigenous people are, we have to admit, is colonized. We’re still talking about the same key figures in a story that seemingly lines up, if you accept the European colonial history. But if you question it at all it becomes really strange. For instance, on a status card in Canada, it says “Certified Indian.” You are a “Certified Indian.” There are members of my family who have much more melanin than I do, who have been off reserve for generations. These people are not even allowed to call themselves Indigenous. Obviously, no one questions the fact that they are, but when it comes down to paying for a dental bill? Nothing. This idea of “certified,” this stuff isn’t really there. Neither is the “Nation.”

What we’re being shone a light on is the fact that this is one story: all of these nations and borders. We didn’t create that. Somebody else did. We are not the enemy. This should be about uplifting and always trying to challenge these status quos.

We’re in a cool spot where we can talk about these issues in art and music, even though the reality is that a lot of our world is still something that we could refer to as “garrisons,” or “war camps” in some cases. These names could more accurately sum up the legal jurisdiction these places continue to have over Indigenous people. They can assist in us understanding the deeper consequences of how it is that the oppression of Indigenous people plays into all our lives and how we can break out of it. It’s not easy, but, again, I think we are actually at a beautiful point where we can not only learn these things, but embed them into our work as artists. It’s important to see how we can break out of a colonial mindset especially by supporting other creatives.

nêhiyawak from left to right: Marek Tyler, Matthew Cardinal and Kris Harper (photo retrieved from the band’s Bandcamp page)

NY: All of these projects exude tremendous consideration, generosity, compassion, and respect. The many collaborations Kris is a part of seem inherently meant to be out in the world because they are so rooted in both personal and communal experience that they have such a multifaceted ability to reach the listener/viewer on multiple interpretive and emotional planes at once. There is absolutely a conscious effort toward a frequency-shift discernible in Kris’s work. He elaborates:

KH: A lot of us are just using music for healing. For a lot of people, a lot of my friends—the concepts of addiction and trauma have been really soothed by the ability to have an outlet, one that you can be very addicted to but in a way that is only giving, only about healing and building.

With Nick, I met him in 2018 or 2019 at the Folk on the Rocks music festival in Yellowknife. Ever since, there has been this ongoing conversation about music and focusing our work and energy on supporting communities of anti-abuse. Essentially, looking toward communities who are open and receptive not only to re-determining their colonial history, but also getting down to the basic question of “how can we live with less violence in our lives. Period.”

I also think that all of this stuff is about vibrations, truly, and the intentions of human beings and lifeforms. The fact that we’re putting our intention into any of our language and movements in this world allows us to continue to do this honest work without forcing ourselves into what is actually a colonial concept of understanding language. We do have to get there, but there are no shortcuts, so we have to be pretty patient with ourselves and this world, and how it’s opening and changing and how people are looking at it. Language aside for a moment, the vibrations within bUDi’s record—that stuff is as meaningful as any words, to me. There is so much being said in that work. Really, every recording, with Nick and Jason and nêhiyawak, I’ve just felt so cool with because they have all felt so honest each time.

I’ve always dreamed that, with a band like nêhiyawak, or any kind of group, it would be amazing to have a situation where the band is nêhiyaw and all the management is nêhiyaw—or, let’s just say Indigenous, because there’s something about having all the moving parts working as a team, and I feel that that whole team should not just be people from inside the industry, but the actual community. Let’s just say your managers are a group of six or seven elders, and they really decided which shows were good for you to play. And they get, say, 15% off all the shows? That would be great!

Part of this, too, is breaking out of the individual. The idea of the “individual” has to be crushed to a certain degree because the fact is, the tastes and interests of so many individuals have been so horribly repugnant in the historical record of humanity that to me it doesn’t seem worth it. But more than me, this is about everyone. We all share this thing called consciousness that supposedly some of us are “up on” and some of us are “less on”—whatever, we all share it. Everything we’re doing is what we’re doing together. And I’m glad there are folks like you who call me up and take the time to ask sincere questions. It’s cool as hell!

Cover photo by Levi Manchak

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Song Of The Day: La Cigarra By Afro Yaqui Music Collective

From our friends in the Afro Yaquí Music Collective comes a brand new single in support of political prisoners from around the world. The song is part of their new album titled Maroon Futures and in this song, the band highlights the struggles of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fidencio Aldama Pérez, and Abdullah Öcalan.

See also: A Protest Music Interview: Afro Yaqui Music Collective

‘La Cigarra’ communicates the message of freedom of speech and the freedom of action through a fantastic jazzy union of saxophones and the voice of Gizelxanath Rodríguez.

Check out below a recent interview with Ben and Gizelxanath from Afro Yaquí Music Collective where they discuss (in Spanish) their latest album, the struggles of indigenous people, and much more.

Furthermore, the band recommends people to become involved in the following campaigns to help free the above-mentioned activists:

http://www.congresonacionalindigena.o…https://www.freeocalan.org/mainhttps://russellmaroonshoats.wordpress…https://www.freemumia.com/https://www.thejerichomovement.com/http://afroyaquimusiccollective.com/f…

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