Rediscovering Tribal Wizdom

Wounded Knee, 1973I was born into the spirit of resistance. My late father was in A.I.M. (the American Indian Movement), and was one of the last people to leave Alcatraz after the occupation of the island by Native people in 1969. I have uncles that were at Wounded Knee in 1973, when hundreds of Native Americans stood up to the United States' federal government on the same land where, in 1890, Chief Big Foot and some 300 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) people were massacred by the U.S. Army.

The awakening to social awareness for me was in 1990: the Oka Crisis. I remember I was in Fort McMurray, and a lot of my cousins and I were watching TV and saw all these cops and the national guard lobbing tear gas canisters and beating on our native brothers and sisters, the Mohawks, with batons. This was the government's response to the Mohawks' attempts to protect their traditional lands, which included a sacred burial ground, from being turned into a golf course.

representin'It was through this courageous example that I first realized that we had to empower our people to stand up for ourselves. I remember I felt all the mixed emotions back then: part of me felt like crying, another part felt like going out on the street and kicking ass. Instead of scrapping, though, we felt we should raise awareness through means other than violence. So we got out the spray paint and literally painted the town red, with all types of slogans, everywhere!

Transmuting my anger into graffiti was, perhaps, indicative of the path I would walk later in life, a path which led me to create the hip-hop collective known as Tribal Wizdom.

Of course, I had already discovered hip-hop: Public Enemy, Ice T ... I still consider Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full" to be a masterpiece. My parents had also exposed me to folk artists like Bob Dylan, as well as pow-wow music. I saw from an early age that music was a universal language, capable of touching many people and conveying powerful messages.

Traditionally, indigenous people utilized oratory teachings, visual and performance arts and music to educate our young about our way of life. In the past, however, traditional ceremonies were banned by the governments of both Canada and the United States. Today, though those bans have been lifted, we are still deprived of many of our ancestral teachings. As a result, many of our young people have turned to drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and violence. This is all due to their lack of traditional knowledge, and is really a reaction against the damaging effects of colonialism.

FaithTo combat these negative effects that have been introduced to our people, I feel it is imperative that we begin to revitalize our traditional educational practices. For the benefit of Indigenous and non-Native youth alike, we need to acquire a truthful account of the history that has lead to our current existence within this colonial society. In order to overcome the atrocities that Native people have endured, we must now face with honesty the misconceptions and harmful tactics that have been imposed upon us and together seek positive and beneficial solutions. I have found, in my experiences, that hip-hop is a very powerful medium for affecting this kind of change.

When I first moved away from my parents' home, I got a job with Dream Speakers, an aboriginal film festival that took place once a year in Edmonton. That was also where I first saw Native hip-hop performed live. It was this MC named 'Plex." Since the experience with Dream Speakers, I have always been involved in Native organizations in one way or another, usually as a voice from the Native youth perspective.

In 1994 I moved to Vancouver, where I became part of a group called the Native Youth Coalition (NYC). We would have meetings once a week and
there would be only three or four of us there talking about being Native youth and feeling the effects of residential school, the loss of our identity as a people, police brutality, racism, and all the other issues that affect us.

In 1995, the NYC got an invitation to a conference called the Sacred Assembly in Ottawa. At the conference we saw a lot of different Nations and religious groups from all over the world. But also, we noticed that there was nothing there specifically for youth. So we asked the conference coordinators if there was a way we could get a room to discuss what we as Native youth are going through. They told us: "Sorry, we can't provide you with a room. It's not in our budget." So we got together all of the youth that felt the way we did, sat down in a circle on the floor at the bottom of the escalators, and started sharing with each other. The circle grew and grew, until there were close to a hundred youth there. Eventually, elders came to join us. Then the conference coordinators joined us, too. The media even showed up. And the very next day, they gave us a room.

Native Youth MovementThat was where the NYC met up with the Native Youth Movement (NYM), a group from Winnipeg that was founded in 1991. NYM is a non-profit youth organization consisting of youth volunteers age 13-30. The organization is based on spiritual and cultural knowledge that promotes healthy lifestyles. The members of NYM had all the beliefs we had of taking the initiative to do things on our own and not relying on anyone or anything but ourselves to create change for ourselves. So we took over the conference and united all the youth under the Native Youth Movement name. Our group merged into NYM, becoming the Vancouver chapter.

NYM's focus, to this day, is to empower and educate youth regarding the true history of indigenous peoples, our family roots, past and present social issues, human/aboriginal rights and cultural activities. NYM has chapters and representatives all over Canada and the U.S. Since the Sacred Assembly conference we have continued youth organizing and other chapters have started in other Canadian cities, as well as in California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NYM has even developed an urban youth magazine called Redwire.

We have always taken direction from ourselves, but with the guidance of our elders. In the days immediately following the Sacred Assembly, we either crashed or were invited as honorary guests to a lot of other conferences. We staged eight different occupations in government offices as well as a lot of different roadblocks and occupations of our traditional territories.

"I only hired rappers whose lyrics were about social and political issues. I still stay away from rappers that talk about nothing but violence and ho's."

I think that what we were doing was cool and educational in a lot of different ways, but I felt that we needed to broaden our way of creating awareness so that it would appeal more to the generation that is being affected most. I started throwing dances at the Friendship Center in east Vancouver, and some of the youth got up to the mic and started bustin' out rhymes. It hit me there: I could create a place where a lot of young people can gather, have a good time and also listen to some conscious lyrics about what we as indigenous people have been going through all over the world.

That was when Soul Survival was born. I had help from one of my Black brothers who was currently hosting shows at different clubs every week. He was involved in the hip hop scene in Vancouver. With his assistance, Soul Survival presented a total of five hip-hop shows. We tried to reach out to a diverse community of youth and to address youth issues through the creative expression of hip-hop music, spoken word, traditional singing/drumming and performance art.

I only hired rappers whose lyrics were about social and political issues. I still stay away from rappers that talk about nothing but violence and ho's, which is just bullshit. There is too much of that stuff out there and we don't need any more. We have to teach our children more positive ways to protect each other and our mother earth.

After my work with Soul Survival, I felt that there was still a need for indigenous people to show off their talent. (We are extremely talented people!) I also knew that we had to expand from just doing shows to other forms of outreach, so I started to go to schools and youth conferences doing workshops on youth empowerment and colonization and de-colonization. I would do these workshops for free or whatever they could offer as a gift.

LitefootBefore I officially started promoting shows under the Tribal Wizdom name, I helped bring Native rapper Litefoot to Vancouver a couple of times. This was valuable experience for me. Also, while hanging around the Vancouver scene, I met a young Native rapper who went by the name Os-12. I met another MC, who went by Manik, at the offices of Redwire, where I was working as a project coordinator. They became two of the first members of the collective.

I created Tribal Wizdom by expanding the Soul Survival concept to include one-day workshops on topics like indigenous sovereignty, anti-racism, and environmental and social issues. This proved to be an excellent way to discuss important issues for aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth alike. It allowed them to work on problem solving strategies while enjoying the music and dancing.

I have been lucky to find very talented performers who bring new depth to the Tribal Wizdom roster. Hip Hop Ikwe is a rapper and environmentalist; she also hosts food security workshops for Native people. Kinnie Star is a White MC who is very supportive of the causes of Native people; she has invited us to shows and provided us many opportunities. Lil' Dave is a rapper and traditional Native singer, which I think is a potent combination. Many others have performed at Tribal Wizdom shows, too many to name, but they have all helped create a realm where, for a few hours at least, all youth can feel informed and empowered.

Os-12 representinConscious, empowered Native youth are a fast-rising demographic group in Canada and the U.S. A lot of funding is distributed to projects for indigenous youth in Canada, but the attendance and interest is low as most of these projects are government-funded and coordinated by a different generation than our own, often with no clear follow-up or results.

Tribal Wizdom is a collective of young, urban indigenous people. As we are of the same generation as the people we are looking to educate, we are also entrenched in the same issues that face young indigenous people in society today. Through hip hop, spoken word, poetry and decolonization workshops I have found a means to reach a wide variety of youth from all races and promote an alternative to colonized living.

Shawn Desjarlais lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where he continues to promote shows under the Tribal Wizdom name. This article was written with assistance from Michael Gaworecki.


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