On one hot August evening, A Tribe Called Red turned the atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian into a dance party. Handwoven and hand-carved canoes made way for a center stage and an energetic crowd welcoming the “powwow-step” trio from Ottawa, Canada.
Together, DJ NDN (Ian Campeau*), Bear Witness, and 2oolman (Tim Hill) represent the Nipissing First Nation, Cayuga First Nation, Six Nations of the Grand River, and an effort to infuse Native culture into contemporary life. The group was joined onstage by Vancouver, B.C.-based dancer James Jones, whose traditional hoop dance and fluid breakdance moves felt like a natural combination.
Their performance and preceding panel discussion with Folklife curator Sojin Kim were part of the Smithsonian’s Intangible Cultural Heritage project, examining policies and practices that engage living cultural traditions. Through video collage, sound samples, and bumping bass, their mission of defining identity on their own terms comes out loud and clear.
“Our music is not political, lyrically,” Bear Witness said during the panel. “But the act of creating it, connecting our heritage to it, that’s political.”
By remixing traditional music and dance for young generations of both indigenous communities and electronic music fans, A Tribe Called Red promotes greater understanding and cultural sustainability.
Elisa Hough is the editor for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
*Campeau, a founding member, has since left the group.