The history of Western music is built upon the work of Indigenous musicians whose voices must be heard, says tanner menard
It is perhaps uncommon to write a critical essay in the first person. In addressing the issue of the Indigenous presence in experimental music, I would be remiss if I did not. No one person can create a monolith around Indigeneity or Indigenous representation in music. We are many and we vary by continent, tribe, language, culture, connection to land base, peoplehood and cosmology. Unlike me, there are Indigenous artists around the globe who come from unbroken lineages, and they often face discrimination and violence that I evade as a whitecoded Native. I am a mixed race person of French, Ishak, Mi’kmaq and African descent with roots in the US South. Culturally my family is Creole, aspires for privilege within American society, and mostly avoids association with its Indigenous roots. It made those decisions to avoid being labelled as sauvage, a term which was known to get a family killed in the late 19th century. In defiance of that history, I proudly served on the tribal council of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas. Though I feel comfortable representing myself as an Indigenous person, I must still consider my motivations for doing so: how do I benefit from writing this essay and how can I help Indigenous communities to benefit through my words? In that light, I must say that I speak from my own perspective and not for all communities or artists.
The history of Western music out of which experimental music arises is rife with colonialism and often maintained using the physical, cultural and intellectual resources of colonised peoples. Consider the rise of experimentalism in the US following the Second World War – a war which was won in large part because of the use of Indigenous languages (Diné aka Navajo) to create impenetrable codes. These languages, by the way, were simultaneously being systematically eradicated in boarding schools in the former British colonies. Early figures in the experimental music movement often derived structural and sonic innovations from the work of colonised societies: Zen concepts of nothingness in John Cage, African polyrhythms with Steve Reich, The Beatles’ use of East Indian classical music, Javanese Gamelan in Lou Harrison. Fast forward to the birth of ambient music and we find non-Indigenous artists appropriating Indigenous instruments: what are called native flutes, tribal drums, the didgeridoo.
These simple examples exemplify the idea that much music tradition involves taking and modifying the sounds and musics of ‘others’ without consent, without participation in lineage, and without permission to change ancient systems of knowledge. It is imperative that we open a dialogue about cultural appropriation and who has the right to ancient cultural data, and develop a system of ethics around this issue that is community driven, global and led by most marginalised voices.
Why have Indigenous voices been suppressed in colonial societies for the last 500 years, and how can communities of artists deconstruct institutions that promote erasure and perpetuate the theft of cultural resources? Who benefits when an artist is included in a magazine – the publication, the artist’s tribe, the artist? Who benefits when a culturally sensitive sonic object is excavated and modified by an entity not connected to that culture – and what if that object was considered sacred or a lineal initiation is required in order to learn a song or rhythm? As a global and diverse community of artists, we must seek to answer these questions with Indigenous voices at the lead.
I believe that the sound art community is poised to begin to answer these questions. After all, we have transformed an art form that developed in Europe and the Americas into a global phenomenon through the power of sharing and the internet. I watched this take place after the explosion of MySpace in the early 2000s. This spirit of sharing has changed the nature of sound art to the extent that Indigenous artists have found a seat at the table. However, I believe that music lags behind in how it addresses representation of marginalised groups. I have gravitated from sound art to poetry because literature has more quickly adapted to the needs of communities and been more progressive in its criticism of past appropriations. Not only are we ready to answer these questions, but audiences are primed for politically sensitive and culturally appropriate Indigenous work. Two works of critical Indigenous literature dominated The New York Times best seller list in 2018: Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot and There There by Tommy Orange. It gives me high hopes for widespread acceptance of Indigenous culture. The Wire is one of the few publications willing to begin to examine the political and social struggles of musicians from marginalised communities.
We can look to the explosion of diversity in poetry and other literary arts as a model for how we navigate the delicate terrain of representation and appropriation. In literature it was once common for writers to tell the story of ‘the other’, often in noble savage narratives such as The Last Of The Mohicans, where we find a white saviour adopted by an imaginary Indigenous community. This paradigm has been challenged in recent years, and Indigenous people demand that we alone have the right to our own stories. In poetry I turn to people such as Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Smokii Sumac, Orlando White, Jake Skeets and so many others as amazing examples of Indigenous people who both assert their right to speak on behalf of their own communities while challenging the notion that others have a right to do so for them.
I am a 40 year old non-binary Creole NDN who grew up in a time when my own voice was extremely marginalised. Today, my voice is amplified by the work of so many others who are paving a path for the future. I gain my inspiration from Indigenous artists, especially the young, who are radically reshaping the landscape of experimental art, poetry, film, fashion and music. My old friend Demian DinéYazhi’ is in my opinion one of the most important living cross genre artists. In experimental music I am blown away by Raven Chacon, Laura Ortman, Olivia Shortt and Cheryl L'Hirondelle. In the Southwestern US, there is Autumn Chacon, Ryan Dennison, The Nizhóní Girls, Sky Duncan and Rapheal Begay. Indigenous writers are redefining colonial languages and decolonising Indigenous narratives. I strive for the ideal that sometimes being inclusive means saying no to opportunities or redirecting opportunities to others who are more culturally appropriate to the task. Sometimes inclusion means taking a stand. I am still learning how to navigate this terrain, but I reach out to my community to seek guidance when necessary.
As a global community of artists, we can learn to be more sensitive to the needs of Indigenous artists and communities, but it means adopting a willingness to move beyond escapism towards an aware and politically active culture. As sound artists we have learned to listen to the most minute detail of sound. Can we learn to listen to one another?