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Analysis: What is sonic sovereignty? And why should Native Nations care?

Language and songs go hand in hand

Walters, Oklahoma on July 18, 2017. (Photo courtesy Renata Yazzie)

This article was written by Renata Yazzie and originally published by Source NM on May 31st, 2022.

Songs are historical documents, narrating the histories of our origins, geographies, relationships and more. Songs and language are so intimately tied and their survivance depends on each other.

“Kiowa people sing Kiowa more than they speak Kiowa,” said Maxwell Yamane, a Japanese-American Ph.D candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland.

The sentiment is also echoed by Native musicians across genres, including by Mato Wayuhi, Lakota producer and composer most well-known for scoring the hit TV series, “Reservation Dogs.”

“Being Lakota, [song] is so integral to the culture,” Wayuhi said in an interview. “Even if you don’t sing or play anything, the musicality of the culture is so formative on kids growing up.”

The Native American Languages Act (NALA) was passed by Congress back in 1990, allowing Native American languages to be used for instruction in schools and affirmed the right of Native American children “to express themselves, be educated, and assessed in their own Native language.”

Just last year it was amended by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to request federally mandated evaluations that ensured NALA was being carried out appropriately. The evaluations track the status of Native American languages every five years, and the results guide federal financial resources for language revitalization projects where they are most needed.

Yamane is researching how songs are used as a tool in response to calls for language reclamation and revitalization, and how federal policy such as the NALA is shaping the future of Indigenous sonic sovereignty.

Yamane describes all the ways songs could be used as a tool for language learning. Language teachers have options to teach songs from their community passed down from generations ago that are both composed in the language and musical style of their community. Other teachers opt to teach English songs that have been translated into a Native language. Sometimes there is an associated dance or instrumental accompaniment taught, but the core of the lesson is in participatory singing.

The elders in the Kiowa community that he joins in prefer to use hymns for teaching words not commonly found in everyday conversation, Yamane said. Kiowa hymns are entirely lyrical and usually do not contain vocable syllables (think: “fa la la la la” in “Deck the Halls”) like songs from other genres might. The hymns were composed primarily by Kiowa contributors and often contain lyrics that promote better understanding of Kiowa worldviews and philosophies — despite originally being written for Christian contexts.

“Songs and music are woven into the fabric of an Indigenous communities’ cultural ways. Songs are often viewed as being their own entities capable of interacting in sonic relationships with listeners of all backgrounds.”

And songs govern. They provide structure and protocol for a variety of events and situations. Songs heal and bless, functioning as both medicine and prayers. Together, they form the center of socialization and the cornerstone of our lifeways. Because songs are so important to the continuance and affirmation of cultural ways, one would think that it is within the best interest of tribal governments to claim sovereignty over the sonic realm of their communities.

Trevor Reed is a Hopi citizen and associate professor of law in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Reed completed a Juris Doctorate and a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology simultaneously from Columbia University in 2018. His research focuses on Indigenous sovereignty and creative production.

He broke down exactly what the Native American Languages Act meant for Indigenous sovereignty. “It doesn’t really produce any enforceable rights for individuals, but it does reaffirm the inherent sovereignty of tribes to pass laws or make law in the area of language. So that means individual tribes can exercise their right to govern language.”

The right of a tribe to govern their language has been most recently exercised in Standing Rock Sioux tribal courts with the banning of non-Lakota linguists and their organizations — Jan Ulrich, Wilhem Meya, the Lakota Language Consortium and The Language Conservancy — for a long list of offenses including, “breaking of traditional protocol,” ”breaking Tribal laws in the collection of our language,” and “commodifying and copyrighting our sacred language.”

In an article Reed wrote for the “Journal for the Copyright Society USA,” he states that “Congress has remained silent as to whether or not it intended copyright to apply on Tribal lands, and whether it intended to pre-empt Tribal laws occupying the same field as copyright.” The few cases addressing copyright issues on Tribal lands were split, he said, and did not offer a consensus.

Reed reminds us that, “music and sounds, it’s much different for us [Native Nations]…it could mean something totally different from what we think of when we’re thinking about something that’s copyrightable, like an album or a piece of sheet music.”

While enforcing copyright law would protect the sonic cultures of Native Nations from outsiders who have intentions to exploit, it could also suck the life out of them through overcomplicating bureaucratic measures. A copyright law encompassing all 574 federally-recognized Native Nations would be reductive, as each Nation has their own distinct laws, lifeways, languages, and sonic cultures.

Reed is a staunch advocate for tribes to claim sovereignty over their sonic expressions in a way that best fits their respective communities. As language and songs go hand in hand, “just like how the Native [American] Languages Act says that tribes have inherent sovereignty over language, I think tribes also have inherent sovereignty to govern music and it would be wonderful if more and more tribes exercise their rights in that area.”

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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A Protest Music Interview: Kubun

During a recent crawl through the internet I stumbled upon a musician rapping in Colombian. As US based rap and hip hop tend to dominate the global audience it always feels refreshing to me to hear a good flow in another language.

Kubun’s debut album is all about language, and story telling. As he explained to me in this interview he explores his roots while tackling social issues in his lyrics, and he tells those stories effortlessly.

Halldór: First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Kubun?

Kubun: Kubun stems from the word “Muyskkubun”, a language of Colombia. In its own languge, it literally stands for “language of the people” or “language of men”, with “Kubun being the section of the word that means “language” or “word”. That being said, Kubun is a concept, open to interpretation. Tracks and lyrical themes vary greatly, though I must admit, the base is hip hop. I am currently living in France, but I try to be as true as possible to my Colombian roots.

Halldór: How long have you been rapping or making music/beats?

Kubun: I haven’t been rapping for all that long, I’d say about 1-2 years, with the majority of that time having been just for fun at get-togethers, improvising and whatnot over drinks and a smoke. However, I used to sing in a rock band previously.

“I feel the language has a lot to do with it. My Spanish tracks are much more political than the ones in English, as thoughts in Spanish are reminiscent of Colombia and its situation.”

Halldór: Has your music always been political? How do you see the connection between music and activism?

Kubun: More than political, I’d say conscious. All my songs, at least in my head, have meaning. However, I feel the language has a lot to do with it. My Spanish tracks are much more political than the ones in English, as thoughts in Spanish are reminiscent of Colombia and its situation. I feel that music and activism go hand in hand, as music moves the masses more than any other form of art (at least in my opinion), also being a tool for the artist to express themselves all the while making a point – at least when the lyrics are intended to signify something.

Halldór: On your debut album, Muyskkubun, you rap both in Colombian Spanish and in English but you mention on your Bandcamp page the Muyskkubun language as well. What is your connection to that language and the Muisca culture?

Kubun: To be honest, I have no direct connection to the language or culture, except for a few “Muisquisms”, but this is natural to Colombian Spanish, as it has some loan words from the language. However, a slang way of saying I am Colombian is to say I am Chibcha. Someone who says they are Chibcha will always be Colombian. The Chibchas are the tribes who spoke muyskkubun, and me, being a very nationalistic and patriotic person, felt that maybe this was a subtle way of going back to the roots of my country.

Halldór: The rights and stories of indigenous people seem to have a place in your work. What other issues move you and inspire you to write down some rhymes?

Kubun: When a write, I don’t really think, I just do. Call it inspiration, I guess. The Spanish Gypsies call this sort of inspiration (at least in Flamenco) “el Duende” – it’s when you feel the music enough for lyrics to just spill out of your mouth – a trance like state.

Halldór: Your rapping style is very much story driven. Where does that storytelling come from for you and what rappers before you have inspired you and your work?

Kubun: Much of my lyrical content doesn’t come from my own experiences at all. In the grand majority of cases, they are usually everyday situations you hear from friends, acquaintances or on the news of what happens in Colombia. This is another reason why I chose Kubun as an alias, because in a way, I am the word of men. However, these stories run deep through my veins, as the impotency and disdain one feels seeing your country in a situation such as the one that is not seen outside Colombia is very much real. I’d have to say that my biggest inspirations are Calle 13, Canserbero, Luis7Lunes and Sr Pablo; all great storytellers.

Halldór: Colombian people have been striking for several days now, can you tell us about what is happening in your country at the moment?

Kubun: Like in many countries, Colombia is striking because it is fed up with the overall system. Ask many people and you’ll get different responses as to why each one is protesting. The legality of fishing sharks for their fins, for example, the inequality and polarisation of riches, the corruption of the government, the reparations that were promised to victims of different tragedies and were never delivered, the falsos positivos (soldiers killing innocent civilians, making them pass by as rebels to earn the bounty and commission). I don’t think anyone could properly answer this question.

Halldór: How is your music and rap scene around you in regards to activism, do you feel there are many artists using their voices for good and in protest?

Kubun: There are many artists using their voice in forms of activism and protest. In Colombia and Latin America for that matter, there is actually a sub-genre of rap called “Rap Protesta”. However, meaningful rap, with lyrics that are intrinsic and of valued is unfortunately overshadowed by commercial music which is of no value for social change; the reason as to why rap as a musical genre came to be.

Halldór: What do you do outside the music?

Kubun: I am an amateur musician as of now, I couldn’t really live off of my artistic work. However, I do have a Bachelor’s in Aviation & Airways Operations Management and a Master’s Degree in Business Development. I currently work within the aeronautical industry.

Halldór: What is on the horizon for you?

Kubun: Hopefully many new inspirations to come that’ll bring with them meaningful projects.

Halldór: Thank you for participating and for your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Kubun : Listen to the music, not the sound.