Behind the music with A Tribe Called Red: ‘Time to start examining our culture’
RENO, Nev. — A Tribe Called Red has made an impact on the electronic music scene around the world with a sound unlike any other.
The Canadian DJ trio that formed in 2008 has toured globally, bringing attention to indigenous issues wherever they go.
“It’s time to start examining our culture,” ATCR member Ian Campeau said in an interview with First Nation’s Focus on Aug. 3, three days after the group performed for a crowd of hundreds in Reno. “Indigenous people have always been resourceful, using whatever they had to to survive. I see what we’re doing with A Tribe Called Red, as a whole, is a form of tribal and cultural continence, and using electronic music is our way of doing that.”
ATCR members Campeau (Anishinaabe Nipissing), who goes by the stage name “DJ NDN,” and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas (Cayuga from Six Nations) both grew up in the urban cities of Canada, while Tim “2oolman” Hill (Mohawk Nation from Six Nations) grew up on a reservation.
Even though the three come from different backgrounds, music had major impact on who they would become.
“My whole family, especially my mom and dad, are huge music lovers,” said Campeau. “I would wake up on weekends to blaring music while my parents were cleaning; my dad would stop the music mid song just to show me he had goosebumps.”
Campeau grew up in the city but always had close ties to his indigenous roots, and he said having an urban background has really helped shape what ATCR has become.
The stigma with indigenous people only living on reservations could not be any further from the truth, Campeau said.
In Canada the half white and half indigenous population didn’t have a place to go, so they created their own space in the urban areas, and just recently, were recognized as a nation.
Indigenous people have always been in urban settings, but have been largely invisible because people expect to see them wearing feathers or other traditional and ceremonial regalia as daily attire.
“Bear and I were working at the the same club in Canada,” said Campeau. “We started throwing all indigenous parties and just mixing powwow music with club music — that’s how we got electric powwow.”
The two wanted to have a place indigenous people could come together, but as it turns out, Campeau saud, just having indigenous people gather in an urban setting becomes a political statement.
The group has put out three albums since 2012. Its most recent, “We Are The Halluci Nation,” (2016) features collaborations with indigenous artists from across the globe.
The album was inspired by late Native American rights activist, musician and poet John Trudell, who helped lay out a nation of like-minded people that break free from society to return to natural ways of life.
The album’s eponymous first track includes the following lyrics: “We have been called the Indians/ We have been called Native American/ We have been called hostile/ We have been called Pagan/ We have been called militant/ We have been called many names/ We are the Halluci Nation.”
“This is a way of ending oppression and really bringing equality back to the people,” said Campeau. “This is really like a flag bringing all of us together.”
Traveling across the globe has opened Campeau’s eyes to the trauma all indigenous people have gone through.
“Being in these different countries with all these indigenous people, the colonization is far worse that what we all initially thought,” said Campeau. “In Australia, schools were in place to allow indigenous children to be raised by a colonial state, and it leads to historical trauma, much like what happened in North and South America.”
All of indigenous peoples’ struggles are the same. As devastating as it is, it’s kind of an automatic recognition of mutual survival of what all these incredible people from all over the world had to go through just to get where they are today.
And A Tribe Called Red is using their music to bring attention to it.
“I think I’m trying to be the reference something in pop culture that I didn’t have growing up,” said Campeau. “That’s why I do what I do.”
A Tribe Called Red was the closing act to Reno’s Artown on July 31 in Wingfield Park.
The free show brought people from all walks of life together in one spot to enjoy an evening filled with music and dance.
“Reno was amazing, it was my first time there, and it was incredible to see all the indigenous people there,” Campeau said. “It’s always different playing for brown people; it’s like a celebration of our survival.
“Canada is celebrating the 150 years just like Reno. We are celebrating the 150 years of surviving the colonization.”
Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih) is a journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who worked this summer for the Sierra Nevada Media Group as an intern, writing and taking photos for First Nation’s Focus.