The first time we heard Canada-based DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s dubstep mixes of Native American drum circles, we knew something really cool was going on in Ottawa. Native American DJs NDN, Bear Witness, Frame, and Shub are making frighteningly fresh tracks, like their pulse-racing remix of the song “Red Skin Girl,” by Canadian drumming group Northern Cree.
In fact, unless someone else comes forward with the copyright, they are the originators of a new sound — call it pow wow step. More than that, a few lucky Ottawans get to dance to it once a month at the group’s wildly popular “Electric Pow Wow” event. (Pretty jealous over here.) Bear Witness doubles as a VJ, creating eloquent video remixes of film and pop culture references to indigenous peoples. The visuals are a major component of the “Electric Pow Wow” experience, but you can also check them out online.
The otherworldly sickness of their style lead us to immediately download or stream everything they have up, and watch all their videos. It was all exciting and sharp and witty without saying a word, and the crew proved to be just as clever on their blog. But, the more we took in, the more questions we had. Who were they really? Were they working on an album? Did they see Avatar?
Thankfully, DJs NDN, Frame, Bear Witness, and Shub were willing to answer every last one of our burning questions. Operating like a true collective, some questions got an answer from each member! The responses we got back were deep, and funny, and really really smart. Read on to find out what happens when you bring the spirit of a pow wow into a nightclub.
What are your biggest musical influences right now? Do you all have pretty different tastes in music?
Frame: My roots are in hip hop but I love everything. I love reggae, house, dubstep, electro. Really influenced by the former battle DJs who are now club rockers, like A-Trak, Craze, Klever, Jay Ceeoh, and Drastik.
Bear Witness: I love reggae and dancehall. I’m really into people who are using dancehall in their music, like Ghislain Poirier, Major Lazer, South Rakkas Crew.
NDN: I honestly love music in its entirety. I grew up listening to hip hop, punk, rockabilly, country, and ska. I was introduced to electronic music by the Jokers of the Scene who had a party here in Ottawa called Disorganized. They brought everyone to our little city. I’m really into Diplo, Buraka Som Sistema, Ghislain Poirier, and Radioclit right now.
Shub: I grew up around hip hop, so that’s where my hearts at, but since joining the crew, it’s really open my eyes to a lot of different styles. Diplo, Flying Lotus, Rusko, and The Glitch Mob are just some of the music that’s influencing me at the moment.
When and how did you meet and start working together?
NDN: Frame and I met and discussed showing the Native population of Ottawa what we do. We asked Bear, being another native DJ in the city, if he wanted to join us. We threw our first Electric Pow Wow at a club in Ottawa, but none of us expected the reaction of the Native community that came out. There were some familiar faces but A LOT of unfamiliar faces in the crowd which took us by surprise.
We were later informed that it was so well attended because it gave a comfortable space for the Native population in the city. We kept at it and started producing music that we felt would accommodate our crowd. We invited another DJ named Shub to join our crew a few years later.
What is your goal when you sample images or references to indigenous people from Hollywood movies or pop songs?
NDN: I sampled “I’m an Indian too” because I found it offensive and no one else really did. I wanted to shed some light on the reference and in a way, reclaim it.
Bear Witness: Reclaim, repurpose and reuse. I like to look past the automatic reaction to say these images are racist or stereotypes (which they are) and flip it around. We make these images our own. Taking away the power they have to harm us and reclaim it for ourselves. It’s like how we and many other young Native people like to wear things like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves logos. We have made these images our own.
Shub: I like to make people dance and at the same time say something like “this is actually good.”
Any haters who don’t get it?
NDN: Not yet.
Bear Witness: We were in Winnipeg and someone mentioned they didn’t agree with the fact we were using the words Pow Wow in a club. But she went on to say, “I don’t agree with it, but I like it.”
Shub: Everyone seems to get it, what we’re doing is pretty simple. We’re making music that people have been waiting to hear. Haven’t met any haters yet.
Bear Witness: Yes, it’s significant for me in a few different ways. First of all, Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite directors and I have used his films in my work a few times. Gary Farmer, the actor who played Nobody, is an old friend of my family. He was around when I was growing up in the Toronto Native theater community, our families are from the same reservation, and Gary and I have a similar look.
On top of that, I have always seen a parallel between the character, Nobody, and an Assiniboine man named Wi-jun-jon. A famous American painter, George Catlin, did a portrait of Wi-jun-jon in the early 1800s. The first time Catlin painted Wi-jun-jon, he was traveling from the West through the eastern United States and eventually to Washington. On Wi-jun-jon’s return Catlin painted him again — only this time rather than wearing his tradition cloths, he was wearing a suit and a top hat.
Once he returned to his community, Wi-jun-jon’s people didn’t believe his stories of his travels and he was known as a liar and was eventually murdered. In the Jarmusch film Nobody was named Exaybachay, which means “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing,” after returning to his community.
The other film I sample is called Buffalo Stampede from 1933. Throughout most of the film, it’s your standard Western, where the Native characters are played by white actors in wigs and red face, except for the scenes that I used which are of actual Native dancers. I connected the two films because they both deal with the slaughter of the buffalo. I combine the two films to talk about the effects of colonization on aboriginal life, and as an act of decolonization.
Who are your favorite and least favorite indigenous people in pop culture?
NDN: One of my favorites is a young native comedian named Ryan McMahon out of Winnipeg. The guy is hilarious and makes jokes that are Native specific with characters like Clarence Two Toes. Google him. Others are groups like Midnite Express and Northern Cree. Those guys are the crispiest. Least favorite is that Italian guy who cries when people litter.
Bear Witness: I’m really excited by native filmmakers like Neil Diamond, the director of Real Injun, a documentary about native actors in Hollywood films.
Shub: Favorite would go to comedian Charlie Hill. I remember seeing his act from the Richard Pryor Show — classic. Least favorite…too many to name.