Rock n' Roll and Removal on the Audible Native Frontier

Curator's Note

Being heard is an issue for most Native musicians. In their efforts to be recognized for a broad range of expressive practices and their impacts on popular culture, many still confront expectations and expressive typologies imposed by institutionally affirmed folkloric ideologies that made their way into mass circulation. The consequence is a limiting expectation of what Native people sound like, as listeners have a hard time marking sounds as “Indian” beyond the stereotypic formulas. This video showcases contemporary Indigenous sounds, a lesser known history, and a broader range of Native identity that defies expectations.

The Plateros are a guitar based power trio out of To’ Hajiilee, NM. In the video, they are performing at the 34th American Indian Film Festival. Their performance is in honor of Veterans, thereby aligning it with a “traditional” practice of acknowledging this role in a community.  Using rock as a means of honoring Veterans contradicts most “traditional,” scholarly, and mainstream notions associated with this practice. Yet, the group members do not define their identities by adhering to “tradition” or catering to expectations. For them, playing rock music is Native.

The lesser known history has to do with the song’s composer, Jimi Hendrix, who was also Native. Despite his efforts to make his identity audible and visible, many could not hear it, including other Native performers. The Plateros were not aware of Hendrix’s Native identity or military service when they selected this song. They had not heard the story behind the track, “I Don’t Live Today.” They did not know that Hendrix’s second album was supposed to be his “Indian” album or that the artists misinterpreted what he meant by “Indian” when they designed the album’s jacket. They had not heard about Hendrix’s role in putting Redbone together. Yet, this performance is contextualized by these aspects for those who are aware and makes the song choice appropriate and intentional despite the lyrics.

The Plateros are striving to make it to the larger stages as they defy expectations of what Natives sound like. Meanwhile, other performers and their legacies still need acknowledgement, as they were silenced by similar expectations. A broader listening and framing of Native expression is needed. Otherwise, expression is limited to types and dialogues that don’t voice the full range of Native sounds.


Please tell me you're working on a book about this topic! I find your "audible frontier" idea really compelling. In a way, it seems like it *should* be an obvious point, right?: that Native people have made all kinds of music, in all kinds of genres and styles. As you say, it's unfortunately not obvious, for many listeners, given the legacy of stereotypes authorized at least in part by professional ethnography. For me, though, your framework of an "audible frontier" goes one step further than insisting that these musics need to be fully HEARD; it also suggests how we might start historicizing and locating these forms. What would it mean, for instance, to write a Native music history of the American west? Alongside the Plateros, it could include Apache fiddles, and the Navajo heavy metal band Ethnic De Generation, who (on the soundtrack for the film _Milepost 398_) have sung powerfully about reservation realities like uranium mining. These artists basically make it impossible to sustain ideologies of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and vanishing races. They show how different, quintessentially "American" (or even "black") forms can be indigenized, and used for Native self-expression and continuance.

It’s an interesting post, Jonathan, and one I also think about. In April 2011, the GRAMMYs, through a restructuring, eliminated the Native Music category, folding it in with the more general “Regional Roots” group. However, it is interesting to note that a similar award show has been slowly gaining momentum. The Native American Music Awards (NAMMYs) was founded in 1998. It is the music industry’s largest and only membership-based organization and award show for the advancement of Native American, Canadian Aboriginal, and Latin American Indigenous music initiatives and expressions worldwide. There are a variety of contemporary categories, including Rock, Country, Folk, Jazz, etc. The winners of each category for the year 2011 were chosen by over a million Internet voters. The mechanisms of exposing these songs/lyrics to a broader audience of Pan-Indigenous peoples by way of the NAMMYs website is another avenue Indigenous cultures are connecting a worldwide conversation. I wonder: Is the Internet the new campfire?

Linda, This is great and right on time! The organization is bringing more attention to artists and the range of expressions, absolutely! They are also doing a kind of reclamation of artists who are of Native descent, or went undetected in the industry in the past, which has brought some new considerations to the framing of music histories and sounds. I have talked with the organization's head, Ellen Bello (who had her home and NAMA's headquarters destroyed by Hurricane Sandy) about the integration of artists and sounds who not perceived as Native into their Hall of Fame. She went on to explain that they research personal histories and have extensive archives on these artists documenting their experiences as Native people, and the impacts on their music. This is done in the interest of legitimizing an artist's status and broadening the history about the production of music. For me, it would be great if these narratives and archives became a part of the dominant narrative and how it might impact market driven and racialized expectations about the production of popular music. Will Rock n' Roll finally see the Native component in its formation and production? Will the experiences of Native descent people in the "Jim Crow" South and their participation in tent revivals be included in narratives about rock in roll? Would we be able to mark sounds with a different framing of "origins," collaborations, and exchange? Will other Native musicians who are a part of the organization choose to recognize experiences and histories of other people that do not mirror their own, as in the case of the Plateros and Hendrix? I hope so and hope that the NAMMY's will be a part of this process!

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