Of Tribes and Telecasters: Indigenous People Rock!

Oct 12, 2015 | 7232 Views | 5 Comments

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 12.17.31 AMThe popular music of North America is seasoned with the blood and sweat of every race and nationality: Anglos, Africans, Hispanics, Jews…rockers of all ethnic mixes. But what about the native peoples of North America? Many rock fans know that Cher, Rita Coolidge, and Robbie Robertson have native roots. But when was the last time you heard anything about a rock band comprised predominantly of indigenous peoples from the U.S. or Canada?

Well, they’re out there! Some have been making music for decades; others are new to the scene. And while many aren’t headliners (yet), they’re recording, touring, winning awards, and selling lots of music online. Thanks to YouTube and iTunes I’ve recently become familiar with a number of talented bands that are really catching fire. Here’s a look at some of them, starting with a group you’ll likely recall if you grew up in the 1970s.

Redbone was the first commercially successful band formed predominantly of Native Americans — four members from various tribes. They’re remembered for their 1974 hit, “Come and Get Your Love,” which peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Supposedly, it was Jimi Hendrix, himself one-quarter Cherokee, who convinced group co-founder Pat Vegas (née Vasquez) to form a Native American rock band. The lineup has changed through the years, but they’re still gigging. Here’s the original band performing their biggest hit, complete with a colorful dance introduction:

WinterHawk is a San Francisco-based Native American foursome that’s been around since 1983. They’ve released a number of LPs and CDs, and have opened for such heavies as Tina Turner, Santana, Steve Miller, Van Halen, and Mötley Crüe. Leader Nik Winterhawk Alexander, a Cree Indian, says, “I believe in setting an example for young people…We carry high the values our forefathers did: keeping our environment clean, taking care of the creatures, including ourselves…If there’s any music that is close to traditional Native American music, a war dance beat, it’s straight rock and roll.” Check out this beautiful power ballad:

Indigenous is a fabulous blues-rock band comprised of brothers Mato and Pte Nanji, plus their sister Wanbdi and a cousin called Horse. These members of the Nakota Nation grew up on South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation. They’ve shared the stage with such artists as B.B. King, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Joan Baez, and also tour as headliners.

The Plateros offer a mashup of blues, rock, and funk, lead by 16-year-old Levi Platero of the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. His band includes family members from the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation near Albuquerque. They’re busy recording and touring the U.S. and parts of Canada. I love this song and the setting. Why aren’t these guys more famous?

Blackfire is a Navajo (Diné) group of two brothers and a sister – Jeneda, Klee, and Clayson Benally – who mix punk rock with what they call “alter-Native,” delivering music with sociopolitical messages about human rights, government oppression, and genocide. Joey Ramone once called Blackfire’s music “fireball punk-rock.” In fact, the last recording he made before his death was singing backup vocals on the band’s “One Nation Under” CD. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, asked Blackfire to set music to some of her father’s unreleased and unpublished lyrics. The band’s EP “Woody Guthrie Singles” won the Best Pop/Rock Album award at the 2002 Native American Music Awards (NAMA). Jeneda is my new idol. She rocks!

Black Owl Society was formed in Austin, Texas, in early 2010 by a musician called Buffalo Man. They sing about issues affecting indigenous peoples, set to stirring electric blues music. Good late-night licks here.

Corporate Avengers is a Southern California band headed by members of mixed Native American ancestry. They blast hard-edge, often controversial songs with names like “Christians Murdered Indians,” “Jesus Christ Homosexual,” and “Drug Dealing God.” In fact, they believe that organized religion is one of the roots of all the world’s ills. (Imagine the amount of hate mail they receive.) Their style morphs from electronica/industrial to rap to hard rock. Here’s a video featuring an in-your-face history lesson! Keep raging, boys. Being banned is good for your careers.

Testament is a Native American thrash metal band, lead by Chuck Billy of the Pomo tribe. I don’t particularly care for this type of music, but I admire their energy and social activism.  Mr. Billy was featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, which was on display through January 2011. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Testament’s “Native Blood” video.

A Tribe Called Red is an Ottawa-based band comprised of members of The First Nations — the Aboriginal peoples of Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis. They play a mixture of electronic music, instrumental hip hop, house, reggae, and dubstep dance, often accompanied by traditional chanting. They describe their unique sound as “pow-wow-step.” Here’s a must-see video of one of their songs, “Sopranos Azteca,” which features clips of HBO’s Sopranos mafiosi making derogatory remarks about “Indians.” Well, I may be an Italian-American, but I side with Furio: “I never liked Columbus.”

Breach of Trust is a Canadian rock group formed in Saskatchewan, comprised of members of First Nation heritage. The band won three awards at the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, including Best Group and Best Rock Album.

The Johnnys, from Toronto, is perhaps the most unusual and entertaining of all Native American bands, with its six-foot tall, leather-vixen lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Veronica Johnny. She and her drummer husband Dave Johnny churn out frenetic, garage-type tunes that derive from 70s hard rock and pure 50s rock and roll. Their first two releases were nominated for numerous awards at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. Here they are performing “I Like It A Lot,” which is exactly how I feel about this song and their sound. Punk rock lives!

For the record, here’s a list of other popular musical artists, past and present, of mixed Native North American blood:
Jesse Ed Davis: Muscogee Creek, Seminole, and Kiowa
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Canadian Cree
Jimi Hendrix: one quarter Cherokee
Robbie Robertson: part Canadian Mohawk
Cher: part Cherokee
Tori Amos: part Cherokee
Tom Petty: one-quarter Cherokee
Link Wray: part Shawnee
Rita Coolidge:part Cherokee
Elvis Presley: small part Cherokee
Ben Harper: part Cherokee
Carrie Underwood: part Muscogee Creek
Keely Smith: part Cherokee
Chaka Kahn: part Blackfeet

The great guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (1944-1988)
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© Dana Spiardi, May 30, 2013


  1. Dave says:

    May 30th, 2013 at 3:22 pm (#)

    Good to know Native Americans are represented in the most important art form. I have the most compassion for this group of people, won’t go into details, will sound too much like a political rant. I still like the word Indian. To me its a term of respect, not political incorrectness. Thanks for the Sopranos clips, definitely keepers.

  2. cheryl says:

    June 6th, 2013 at 8:31 pm (#)

    Fabulous and informative. I too love the Johnnies and Plateros. Pretty wonderful.
    Thanks, Dana.

  3. Candace Jacallen says:

    June 9th, 2013 at 6:35 am (#)

    Don’t forget about Pamyua from Alaska!

  4. Jane of the Desert says:

    October 19th, 2015 at 6:21 pm (#)

    I believe only one member of the currently popular Arizona band Calexico is of Latino origin, but all of the members grew up in the American Southwest and their band is named after a town that straddles the border between California and Mexico. Their excellent country- and jazz-tinged rock is heavily influenced by mariachi, tejano, cumbia, and other Latino musical traditions that the band members listened to growing up. Great original music. Give them a listen.
    Here is a link to a radio station (98.3 FM Imperial Valley-Mexicali-Yuma) that entertains me on drives between Tucson and San Diego. It’s especially fun never knowing whether the commercials will be in Spanish or English, or a mash-up of the two. Their offices are in the farming town of El Centro, CA, which Yer Blogger has reminded me many times is the town that spawned Cher.

  5. Dana Spiardi says:

    October 20th, 2015 at 1:13 am (#)

    Thank you, Ms. Jane, for turning me on to a Calexico! I really dig their sound. Thanks for the links.

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