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.
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.”
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.”