Nahko Bear (Apache): ‘Just doing my thing and shining that light’
When he’s not pumping out music, Nahko and Medicine for the People frontman is pumping up social activism
First Nation's Focus
RENO, Nev. — “Give, always give what you can, even if your allies always draw lines in the sand,” Nahko Bear, leader of world music outfit Nahko and Medicine for the People, sings into the camera.
It’s December 2016, and Nahko, bundled in a winter coat, hat and gloves, is being filmed in a snow-blanketed prairie for a music video of the band’s song “Love Letters to God,” off of their album HOKA.
Behind Nahko stretches a seemingly endless camp of trucks, trailers and teepees — a community of Indigenous Nations, growing by the thousands, banding together on a remote North Dakota plain, near the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers.
Nahko, who was born a mix of Apache, Puerto Rican and Filipino cultures, is standing on more than just a patch of land and he’s singing more than just a song — he’s on a battleground, wielding a battle cry.
Nahko is standing with his people at Standing Rock.
SEEING, FEELING IT ALL
The remarkable mobilization of activists began eight months prior, in April 2016, as a reaction to the approved construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and protesters said the oil pipeline, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, would pose a grave threat to drinking water on the reservation and beyond.
During the near-year spiritual resistance to the pipeline, Native Americans were tear-gassed, Tased, bit by attack dogs, shot with rubber bullets, sprayed with water cannons (in below-freezing temperatures), and arrested by authorities.
Nahko, who lived at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in September and December, saw — and felt — it all.
“It was something powerful to witness no matter where you came from or who you are,” Nahko said in a mid-June phone interview with First Nation’s Focus. “It was an unprecedented time in history, unlike anything we have seen before. It was the first time in history that over 300 different Indigenous Nations came together. Tribes were together that had never met before and used to be enemies.
“It was powerful, but the opposition was equally as powerful.”
Nahko said there were a lot white folks who came to Standing Rock to support the grassroots movement. However, he found that many of them didn’t appreciate the discipline required for such an important and historic protest.
“A lot of white folks wanted to help, but not practice our teachings or how to be present for an unprecedented amount of time like that,” Nahko said. “A lot of them definitely didn’t understand the weight of it and got caught up in their own intentions of feeling included. They needed to have more compassion for the uniqueness and the sensitivity of the gathering itself.”
“You had folks that wanted to stop by for a few minutes,” he continued. “What did they expect? Literally, it was the first real look at seeing — up front, in their faces — the oppression and the tyranny of our first nation’s people.”
In February 2017, two months after Nahko lived with his people at Standing Rock, the National Guard and law enforcement evicted those who remained at the camp. The pipeline was completed by April and its first oil was delivered in May 2017.
ADDING TO ACTIVISM
Some musicians are simply entertainers — driven to conquer the charts with poppy hooks and catchy lyrics; fueled to fill arenas and headline festivals.
Others operate on a subtler, yet equally as resonant, wavelength. Spilling insightful and inspirational songs, they strive to create something much bigger than music — social change.
Nahko and Medicine for the People is a collection of such artists.
“I feel super blessed to only add to it,” Nahko said of social activism. “I don’t think we’ve started anything, we’ve just been adding to the preexisting movement of power in music and social commentary.”
Indeed, Nahko and his counterparts use music and their platform to campaign for a variety of causes, such as Honor the Earth, Be The Change, Amazon Watch, Indigenous Regeneration, InterTribal Youth, and Run 4 Salmon.
For example, in September 2017, Nahko Bear hosted a benefit concert in Sacramento for Run 4 Salmon, which aims to restore the salmon runs, and protect the waters and indigenous ways of life of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe in Northern California. Led by Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk, Run 4 Salmon is highlighted each year with a 300-mile run/walk event that follows the historical journey of the salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem.
“Every initiative or every movement, everything meets at climate change,” Nahko said. “We give a lot of attention and more compassion to movements engrained around water. We’re really proud of catapulting those things into the light.”
A TURNING POINT
Nahko, who was adopted as a young child, said that he truly began integrating his roots into Native American culture after meeting his birth mother for the first time at age 21. It put him on a path of self-discovery that drives him to be a voice — in more ways than one — for supporting and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights and lifestyle. In the process, he developed a love for farming.
“That was really where my passion was at,” he said. “Just being on the land, learning about farming culture and building sustainable practices and loving to do that — and integrating my belief system into how I was living my life.”
Notably, in the fall of 2017, Nahko released his debut solo album, “My Name is Bear,” which was influenced by the years leading up to meeting his birth mother.
“It was incredibly moving,” Nahko said of revisiting those transformative years. “It was pretty interesting to go back in time like that and really sit with those old stories and remember those times.”
To that end, Nahko said it’s “imperative” that Native Americans are able to tell their own story and have a voice for their people.
“For us to tell our own story is us reclaiming our heritage and our history,” he added.
A RETURN TO LAKE TAHOE
Nahko will bring his raw stories of experience and love to North Lake Tahoe on Aug. 22 when his six-piece outfit performs inside the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room. North Tahoe is a spot Nahko and his band have been frequenting since he first set eyes on Lake Tahoe back in 2007.
“I remember just driving through there when I was visiting a friend, and I was like, ‘what the hell? This place is so perfect,’” Nahko said of the Tahoe area. “Just the smell of it in the summertime, that never-ending clear lake, everybody likes to do stuff outdoors … it’s basically a playground for people like me.”
When not embedded in the outdoors, Nahko and Medicine for the People routinely bring their acoustic-driven world music — fused with everything from hip-hop to folk-rock — to the North Shore’s CBC Crown Room.
“I love that little spot, it’s always been good,” said of the CBC. “I remember being there from big snow days to a debaucherous casino night.”
When asked what attendees can expect from the concert, Nahko said “lots of booty shaking” and a “full-energy rollercoaster of storytelling,” adding: “there’s something in there for everybody.”
Nahko and Medicine for the People — which also includes Chase Makai (lead guitar), Justin Chittams (drums), Patricio Zuniga Labarca (bass guitar), Max Ribner (trumpet), Tim Snider (electric violin) — have been expanding their sound and fanbase for more than a decade, span in which the group has released three studio albums: “On the Verge” (2010), “Dark as Night” (2013), and “HOKA” (2016), which reached No. 6 on the Billboard Top Alternative Albums chart.
For Nahko Bear, though, climbing the charts is a trivial feat. He measures his impact by how people respond and react to his music.
“I’m just carrying the torch for music that activates people,” he said. “It feels great to be in this generation, sharing that to people and being a part of that experience. And just doing my thing and shining that light.”