Breaking Barriers Through Music: My Experience as a Native Musician in the American Midwest

My first guitar was a Roy Orbison classical.  All banged to hell, with rusted steel strings instead of the nylon ones it was supposed to have.  It went out of tune on the 8th fret of the high E string.  My mom picked it up at a garage sale for $10.

I learned guitar late, about age sixteen.  My heroes were death and black metal musicians.  I spent hours listening to bands like Morbid Angel, Death, Dark Tranquility, Emperor, Beherit, Insomnium, Arsis, Ulver.  I spent most of the meager salary delivering newspapers afforded me on albums. I was most alive, felt the most vitality, in blastbeats and Drop B buzzsaw guitar riffs.

I lived in a small Nebraska town called Chadron then.  I absolutely hated the place.  School was hell.  I had only two friends.  It felt like we were the only sane ones in a prison of ignorance, authoritarians, and absurdity.

Every day, walking through those doors, I was at war with the world from 8 am until 3 pm.  The principal would try to get me expelled at every turn, for no reason I could discern, other than he had a problem with Natives.  I’d be a minute late, and he would tell me to go home, I wasn’t allowed to go to class that day.  Then he would mark it down as if I was skipping school, trying to get me kicked out.  The counselors tried to not let me take Advanced Placement classes, even though I scored as well as anyone in the school on our placement tests.  I was told those were for the “cream of the crop” (i.e. non-native) students.

The students were not any better.  I remember getting spit on, called things like prairie nigger.  Race was a big issue among the cowboy wannabes who made up a substantial portion of the student body.  I was a target because I’ve never been one to cower.  I stuck out, in a place that values monotone and conformity.

Every day was filled with some kind of aggression directed toward me.  I was a capable fighter.  Yet fighting would lead to another dilemma.  If I punched out every cowboy wannabe who mouthed off, I would end up expelled.

Sometimes it was impossible to not fight back.  Like when one cowboy cut my arm with a boxcutter in Woods class, saying “why don’t you go back to the reservation?”  I picked up a steel stool and crashed it into him.  I never regretted that suspension.

Music was my solace.  When I was released from the prison of school at 3 pm, I’d often go straight to my guitar.  I’d throw something in the cd player.  Music was a catharsis, someplace to express and let go of the negativity.

No one encouraged me, or helped me much, as I learned to be a musician.  An older lady taught me some basic guitar chords.  From there, I figured everything out by myself.  I played until I understood many scales and keys by intuition.  I sang.  I wrote lyrics.  I studied some music theory.  I acquired equipment, learned how to record.  I learned how to work with music software, mix, and master.

No one believed in what I was doing at all.  I only heard mockery, or discouragement, from anyone who heard I was trying to learn.  It seemed the implicit assumption was “how dare this kid, part of this group of people we’ve deemed untouchable, think he can become a musician.”

Racism is not as overt as signs above drinking fountains that say “white only” anymore, but its systems of exclusion are still prevalent in places like the American midwest.  In this particular school, I’d say I felt held back from a lot of things by racism contributing to a hostile environment.  For example, I couldn’t learn how to sing in a choir class, because I had to concern myself the whole period with this cowboy messing with my things, kicking me, putting signs with slurs on my back.  Even though I have some intelligence, I could never learn much in my classes, with the principal finding any excuse to kick me out for the day.

Though ignorance can hold someone down for awhile, in the end it can’t prevail.  I kept on learning music, not paying attention to any of the naysayers.  A decade later, I have released about three dozen songs of solo music, ranging from acoustic, to electronic, to ambient.  I’m about to graduate college.  I’ve had writing published in a lot of different places.  I’m getting involved with some good work in my community.  I’ve met numerous amazing people who’ve enriched my life, through music, through writing.  I’m mostly happy.  I’m mostly heading in a good direction.

I also met up with some other Native metal musicians.  We formed a band.  There is a stigma in the midwest that anything involving Natives is doomed to be inferior.  Yet we put thought and work into what we write, and I would place it alongside anything in our genre.  Not to say I think we’re the best band in the world.  But we recombine our influences in a way that is unique.  We express our experiences, our histories, in a way that is compelling.  We put the time in to be as technically and artistically proficient as we can.

We are not the only ones, either.  South Dakota’s reservations and Native communities have proven to be a wellspring of creative talent.  Several other metal bands and punk bands have formed with members of a Native background.  Nuclear Decadence is a thrash/punk band in the vein of Municipal Waste.  Razor Chain is a thrash band reminiscent of the 80’s classics.  Maza plays covers ranging from Korn to Pantera.  Chronic Carnage plays everything from Blink 182 to Children of Bodom.  Lost In Irrelevance are somewhat in the vein of melodic death metal, like old school In Flames.  Our band, Season Of Sepulcher, plays something between death, thrash, black and doom metal.

Perhaps the times are changing.  Even playing in places like Rapid City, traditionally hostile to anything Natives do, we have been well received.  Another generation is rising and they don’t necessarily hold to the old prejudices.  Their minds are perhaps less narrow than the preceding generation of midwest people, whose stereotypes, and hatred, many Natives have dealt with all their lives.  One promoter in particular, Kipple City productions, has been active booking Native bands lately.  Most of the metal bands from several reservations and Native communities have played on their shows at some point in recent months.

Kipple City Productions had this to say:

In the 90’s Gov. George Mickleson enacted the Native and White Reconciliation Act which required schools to teach Native culture awareness. It resulted with a whole generation of kids who were more aware and receptive of Native culture. After Gov. Mickleson was murdered, the nazi Bill Janklow abandoned the Act.

In the past year KCP has made connections with a few bands from the reservations of SD. This has resulted with very positive interactions and good times. MUSIC has been the common connection which has provided the chance for BOTH cultures to break down the walls which keep us divided. We are more than elated with these opportunities to help heal the differences between cultures. WE ARE WAY MORE ALIKE THAN WE ARE DIFFERENT! Thank you to all of the bands and fans who have been playing and attending our shows. Let’s make this world a better place for everyone!

From my point of view, this has been a positive thing. Its been nice to play in Rapid City, and be welcomed, and appreciated. Its been nice to hear some good music, play our songs, and connect with a good group of people.

There is a huge civil rights struggle in South Dakota, and the midwest, that mostly goes ignored. The treatment of Natives here is systematically deplorable. Rapid City is a big part of the problem. There is a huge portion of people in this region of the country with small, stagnant worldviews who hate and fear anything a little different from themselves.

For many years, this mentality is what drove the daily racism Natives put up here. Most innovative, intelligent, hard working, best qualified applicant for a job? A lot of us have known what it feels like when that doesn’t matter, and being Native ensures auto rejection. Or two cops are killed by a man who happens to be Native? That seems to ensure every Native is harassed and blacklisted by law enforcement until the end of time.

Though we are a metal band, and not up there with a hand drum and a flute, the soul of our music is informed by where we come from, what we’ve experienced.  We put our lives into our songs.  The music is a way of expressing our stories and our history.

It is good to see other Native bands be appreciated too. Contrary to the myths that seem to get circulated in redneck newspapers, the courtrooms, the schools, and other status quo institutions about Natives being worthless, we have some insanely talented Native people.  In music and everything else, its nice to see that talent being celebrated, rather than held back.

Personally, I’ve seen the music open so many conversations among different races and classes of persons. We have a show. We get on the floor together. We help each other set up equipment, and BS with each other in the down time. We throw in for a pizza together. We have a few drinks together. We get to talking about our lives and interests beyond music, and end up chilling with each other, and developing friendships.

The result of of all this is a sense of kinship between a lot of people of many different backgrounds and stations in life. That kinship is remarkable, in light of how divided our communities have been, and how full of animosity for anything different the midwest has been in the past.

The music has been a gateway to breaking down all kinds of barriers that have existed for a long time.  Maybe the old way can go ahead and die with the generation who held those views, and this new generation can forge a bit more positive culture in South Dakota, and the rest of the midwest.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Barriers Through Music: My Experience as a Native Musician in the American Midwest

  1. Damn dude… I never realized it was that bad for you growing up. I wonder if that racist fuck of a principal still lives here. It’d be all I could do not to harass him constantly as an adult, if I had had the childhood you did.

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