Folk Musicians To The Front: Native Musicians on Standing Rock

by Sean Jewell ::

coverThe world watches North Dakota. No Dakota Access Pipeline protestors, or #NoDAPL protect against the construction of Energy Transfer Partner‘s crude oil pipeline through sacred lands, and under their aquifier the Missouri River. After a visit to Sacred Stone Camp at the vertex of the protests, pipeline construction, and the Standing Rock Reservation our friend Lee, of Sacramento band Lee Bob & The Truth, got in touch with an album comprised of roots music from indigenous people he’s met in his career. The result is Solidarity With Standing Rock, a free ten track album branching native chants, folk, rock, and spoken word designed to draw attention to the issue. We reached out to Lee and he put us in touch Keely Dorran (Tiskamogi), sister of of the late Brianna Lea Pruett (Tiskamogi), and artists Marca Cassity (Osage), and Goodshield Aguilar (Oglala Lakota & Pasqua Yoeme).

Despite the fact that nearly everyone you can meet claims their grandmother is part native there is a staggering lack of media coverage with Indigenous perspective. As if on queue local governments have reacted  with predictable tactics in defense of the top predators on the economic chain against common sense. Poorly trained, militarized police forces from several states are fending off protesters with dogs, water cannons, riot tactics, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades. Energy Transfer Partners continues to build towards a sacred watershed bridging hundreds of years of oversight, and mis-treatment of the Oceti Sakowin people. As recently as the 1960s The Army Corps of Engineers (permit issuers for the pipeline on federal land) flooded reservation land with the Oahe Dam andLake, displacing citizens (Katrina, anyone?), and the brutality extends all the way back to the 1800s with Wounded Knee, and Little Big Horn.

We talked with artists from Stand With Standing Rock to gain some of their precious, wholly American, perspective. Their responses reminded me that the act of simply being for these people is political. That there has been no time in their current or past history without conflict. That the continued erasure of their culture inextricably links white supremacy and colonization with the democratic values we espouse as Americans.  That the losses here heavily outweigh the gains. That this isn’t about a pipeline under a river today, but about the constant unearthing, displacement, and broken contracts of our government with indigenous people for the entire history of our country.

Please take the time to read, download and listen to the free album, and share with people everywhere:

AST: Goodshield, Gathering Song seems particularly poignant here since the action of simply gathering causes colonial forces to take violent action against indigenous peoples (Little Big Horn, for example). Your music has always had environmental themes as well. Do you feel it’s true that the issues at Standing Rock are as much about stopping the erasure of native people as protecting the environment?

Goodshield: Even though the burial sites that were disturbed during the construction of the pipeline and our tribal land rights are being violated (which is nothing new to us), I feel that this pipeline issue is more than just a ‘native’ peoples struggle, as we have always seen everything, every creature and human as being related with no separation from species or race. So this is more than just a ‘human rights’ issue, it is an ecological issue to the extreme. What is done to the water is done to us. We are 75% water and the water that would be affected isn’t just on tribal land, but for millions of people indiscriminately. We are ALL stewards of the earth.

AST: All of your work is environmental, including building hay-bale houses. How do you respond to people who insist that a pipeline like the DAPL is necessary for petroleum products?

Goodshield: I am a firm believer that we are all enslaved by corporate entities that are forcing us to use obsolete technology that extracts dangerous chemicals like coal, petroleum, and uranium to benefit their agenda and business. we all know that there have been much better, eco-friendly alternatives since Nikola Tesla created free energy, but if we all lived self-sufficiently, some billionaires would not be billionaires anymore.AST: A lot of your music is a fusion of native and funk/rock/soul and it’s so natural. Do you feel music can play a role in people better appreciating native culture?

Goodshield: The word “Universe” literally means “one song’, and it refers to the sound of “white noise” that is present both in the outer reaches of the cosmos and deep within the atom. It is a mysterious presence that seems to have an inhale and exhale and heartbeat. This is the sound that we say was the first sound that created the first dream, that then created what we know to be life. Music is everywhere and i personally don’t feel like I write songs, rather, I catch them. they are out there, and if I have a guitar, pen and paper just at that right moment, I can translate what i can sense, and adding cultural flavor only adds to the template that we have to work with, but still, I feel music transcends culture, language, and any other boundaries that separate us. Creating music is literally creating something from nothing, yet we can’t experience it like we can with a painting or sculpture, yet it does have an amazing ability to create images in our minds and emotions that maybe we never knew we had. It is the sound of our universal soul….I hope I answered that question

AST:”Tree” is one of the more thoughtful and amazing folk songs I’ve ever heard. With few words it considers human desires and environment and the disparate time tables of the two with some deeply philosophical implications about patience and equanimity. Can you tell me how that song came about? How long did it take you to write?

Marca: Thank you Sean, I’m glad you enjoyed “Tree”. The song was channeled to me from a redwood tree in literally no time. More like, out of time.  As a writer it is extremely rare that this happens so I was surprised and delighted. I was at a retreat in 2005 in California studying, and learning to teach Nonviolent Communication.  I was unraveling a lot of my identity, and my relationship to the world, and I was pretty cracked open. I was camping by myself by the tree, in a huge forest of Redwoods. I was sitting one evening strumming guitar having a bit of a hard time. I was just loving the tree, and a communion seemed to happen, and the song was delivered. The energy of that very old Redwood comes through when I sing and play the song as well.  I was happy we were able to capture that in the studio while recording the album Songs from the Well under the skillful guidance of producer Julie Wolf, and my duet guitar playing with the fantastic Adam Levy. I guess you could say I’m an extreme tree-hugger.

AST: Many tribes are significantly more progressive than the states or federal government, and engage with activists. The Suquamish tribe in Western Washington for example recognized same sex marriage rights before the state or country. As a two-spirit woman are there any lessons in activism you can share?

 Marca: Well, for me it’s not so much activism as it is just showing up empowered in my existence as a Two Spirt, which seems to make a difference in the world. Two Spirits are known throughout tribal communities here, as well as around the world, as being gate keepers between the spirit world and the earthly world. I’ve had great traditional teachers in my life, and they have encouraged me that Two Spirits are often the shamans, counselors, and healers of the tribe. It is in our nature. Now that’s a lot to take on as queer person who had a very traumatic coming out in the bible belt in the 80’s. I was just a 20 year old tomboy, butch lesbian from the rez, who was getting messages from society, which led me to nearly self destruct. I was also a mixed race Native living in Indian Country amongst systemic assimilation genocide. The Native part of me was supposed to die off as well. In the midst of trying to kill these parts, by killing myself on drugs, I was struck by lightning. I was laying on my back on the ground after the lightning hit, looking up at a huge thunderstorm in the Oklahoma night sky and heard a voice say very loudly in me : “YOU ARE HERE FOR A REASON”.

That was the end of my self destruction and the beginning of my ascension to becoming a healthy, empowered Two Spirit. It has taken me many years of work in self reflection, and with amazing teachers and healers, but in that time I have become a writer,  a trauma therapist, and I suppose an activist by way of being a truth speaker. I just had a conversation this year at an event in Washington DC, with one of our Osage Congress people who voted against Marriage Equality in our tribe, ( an ongoing issue that will be put to the people of the Osage Nation in a special election in 2017). I told that person that Osage Two Spirit youth are listening to her as an Osage leader, and that her personal religion forced on the Osages by colonizers, preaches homophobia as well as native genocide, and should have no place in making the laws or influencing our Osage people. I also said I would do everything in my power to stand for the civil rights, existence, and empowerment  of the Two Spirit people of our nation. I felt proud of myself for having the courage to confront that Congress person, while also thanking that person for their public service to the Osage Nation, instead of just being angry at them. Pure anger solves nothing. Harnessing the energy of the anger with empowerment, and courage to stand in the truth is what makes a difference. A good sense of humor helps too, and Natives are funnier than any people I know. I mean it’s pretty damn funny a lightning bolt had to hit me to keep me alive don’t you think?

photo by Joe Brusky

 ASTThe Osage have always had a contentious, if “profitable”, relationship with the government over mineral rights. Do you see any hope for the Oceti Sakowin and DAPL? Is there a possible positive outcome?

 Marca: Well Sean, there is no way I can give a short answer to this one. Native Americans of this land, including my people of the Osage who have a government of their own, are victims of colonization, literal genocide, and today ongoing attempts of assimilation genocide by the US government. No disrespect, but the word “profitable” does not fit the history at all. ( Thank you for putting that  word in quotation marks).. In 1906 it was agreed the mineral rights were Osages by law, in the rocky, unfarmable land we were forced onto.  We legally purchased that land  in the 1870’s with the meager funds we were given for the large amounts of  land we were forced to give up. Half of what was left of our people died from starvation and poor conditions in the 1870‘s because the US government would not come forth with their other legal agreements with us.  Basically we went on to survive any way we could. The extraction of oil in the 1920‘s was a way for us to do better. We are not, and have never “profited” as far as I’m concerned, as we are still in survival mode. Our existence as a Nation is still being challenged in the U.S. court system as we speak today.

As Winona LaDuke stated in an interview with Democracy Now, talking about tribes who are drilling oil on their reservation land :

“…you end up with a tribe that now has oil revenues that are coming in. And they look out there, frankly, and they say, ‘You know? Things haven’t been going too well for us, so we’re going to sign a few more of these leases, because, after all, you know, nothing has ever worked out well for us. And so, we’re going to get a little bit of money.’ And that’s how you get—you know, you force people into that, with a gun to their head, and then they end up destroying their land, you know, which is what is happening.  But, you know, you force poor people. You force people into that situation, and that’s a perfect storm.”

Osages have been forced in to this to survive. If we have any success, that is if we survive,  people call us “profitable”, as if we are trying to get something for free. Like by holding to legal agreements we are trying to dupe the United States and it’s citizens, while they wear Chief Wahoo around on their baseball caps, and resent  any real Indians who survive.

photo by Joe Brusky

I don’t agree with what is happening with oil and with fracking on our land. We are having large earthquakes on the Osage nation fro the first time in our known history, and it’s from injection wells of the fracking industry. I don’t agree with that, but I do think a lot of our survival has depended on the oil industry . People often comment to me that as an Osage citizen I get “free oil money”. The blood and decimation of my ancestors, and my own survival and existence as an Osage person are far from free.  My album Songs from the Well, was recorded with the support  of an artist grant from the Osage Nation.  The Osage government chose to support an Osage artist who is saying, I am here, I exist, my ancestors exist. I think that’s a pretty great use of our Osage government’s money. Because of that I wrote the song “Bells”, which is about the existence and perseverance of the Osage Nation through the historical “reign of terror” having to do with Osages with oil money being scammed and killed off  in a cover up in the 1920‘s by the BIA, Oklahoma law enforcement.  I sang that song at the inauguration of our Chief in 2014. I am proud of that.  ( A movie about the Osage reign of terror Killers of the Flower Moon is being made by Leo DiCaprio in 2017 by the way.).

As far as the Water Protectors of Standing Rock. First, it is a different issue than what we have as Osages, as they are fighting for the protection of their water from a pipeline coming through their treatied  land. A pipeline that does not benefit them in any way. It is nothing but a threat to the water. It is not about drilling for oil on their land, that would help them survive. That being said, I believe the power of the Standing Rock movement is because people are standing up for their lives and their existence, as well as the water. This  movement is built on prayer, the spirit of the ancestors, and the drive of existence for the Native people there, and it exponentially empowers them beyond your usual protest. Over 200 tribal nations have made proclamations of support, because every tribe is fighting for existence, and can relate. No matter what happens up there, this is now an empowered movement for the existence of Native people, who are standing for the water, and for the people of the Earth. I am very grateful and in awe for how the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, and their allies, and their ancestors have made that happen.

AST: Music plays a huge part in civil rights movements as a historical and inspirational document. I had never heard any of your music before Lee pointed you all out. Are there native people that inspired you to make folk music we should hear?

Marca: Pura Fe, and her past project Ulali, are my main influences as far as Native musicians go. The Ulali album Mahk Jchi is full on native woman empowerment, manifested in voice, rattle, and drum as far as I’m concerned. Buffy St Marie has also been standing strong in her voice and politics since the 1960’s and is so incredibly cool at the age of 75. Samantha Crain out of Oklahoma is a powerful young native artist who is evolving all the time, and has great strength in her stand against Governor Mary Fallin and her family who are perpetuating a lot of messed up insantiy in the government of Oklahoma. Brianna Lea Pruett was a major influence over the past 3 years, and when we toured together in 2014 it was a deepening into sisterhood.  Her blending of folk rock kind of songwriting with native nuances runs really deep for me, and I am still dealing with the loss of her here on the planet, although I feel her strong from the spirit world.

Goodshield: Well, i had the great honor to play music with the great Floyd Red Crow Westerman for many years until his passing in 2007. He got me started on this path of messages through music.

AST: Brianna’s song “Red Jacket” makes an important point about the need for people to come together to get the work done. What do you think she would’ve done or had to say about the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Marca: Brianna would have been excited, and no doubt been a part of the movement of the Water Protectors. She stood strong in environmental activism with her adopted family of Pennie Opal Plant and Michael Horse in California against the unscrupulous oil companies out there. She marched miles with them in direct actions, protesting at the gates of refineries. As prolific as she was, I envision her writing songs, painting pictures, making videos, taking photos, and writing poetry against the black snake, and in solidarity with Standing Rock. I’m sure she would have visited and sung to the people there. I was singing at a Baltimore fund raiser a couple of weeks ago for Standing Rock and felt her presence, and heard her voice strongly in my ear as I was singing the song “Bells”. Her spirit is definitely with us on this journey.

Goodshield: I played “Red Jacket” with Brianna before, as well as a few others while they were still new, and i know the story of the visionary named Red Jacket, who foresaw the darkness coming to temporarily take our culture from us, but Red Jacket also saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and that all would not be lost, so long as we all did our part to keep the whole intact. I know that she and i would have visited North Dakota together and taken our music there. I miss her very much, but feel her presence all the time.

AST: Lastly, do you all have suggestions for non-native people, musicians or otherwise, on how to respectfully support Standing Rock and the Oceti Sakowin?

Marca: My suggestion for supporting Standing Rock is to donate money for their legal fund, and medics. I think it also important to contact the White House and your Congress people about the military presence up there, and to stand for people’s First Amendment Rights. Also, read ,and respect the information that the tribe itself is putting out not just what you read on Facebook. It is important if you are involved as a non-native to respect the native leadership and be an ally. Ask how you can help.  And if you have a fund raiser, involve the native people and artists wherever you are, and honor them. If you come across a native person who accuses you of being dis-respectful, remember the historical trauma in our community. Just LISTEN, and maybe apologize, or ask what you can do to be a better ally to them. Also, stand up against racists mascots of sports teams, they symbolize so much of what is messed up, and are a perpetuation of assimilation genocide in this country.

Keely Dorran: I did feel Brianna would have been deeply involved with the #NoDAPL protest, and when Lee made the trip out there, I sent along a large bolt of canvas (among other things), from her estate. (It was on the supplies wish list for Standing Rock Camp, I believe.) Brianna also spent time at the Buffalo Field Campaign going out on patrols (with Goodshield and others, I believe) to guard the buffalo from poachers and corrupt forces in Montana. She donated about 50 original paintings to the BFC the summer before she passed, as well. Goodshield may have more to offer about what I’ve come to know as “buffa-love”.

Goodshield: I feel that just getting the word out through social media has been the greatest tool in supporting the water protectors. Keep sharing the words and media of those on the front lines and if people can go out there, please do. i may be going there in the middle of December. We are all related….

photo by Joe Brusky