“We’ve definitely come in at a moment,” DJ Bear Witness of the Ottawa-based A Tribe Called Red (ACTR) tells me on the phone in the midst of the group’s summer North American tour.

As the fastest growing demographic in Canada, it was only a matter of time Aboriginal influence would infuse urban culture. Last year represented a “groundswell” in the movement and struggle for Indigenous rights. There’s greater vocalization across Canada and beyond challenging how Indigenous cultures have been framed, appropriated and overlooked for generations.

ATCR are a big part of championing that moment. “There’s a real community growing there — and with Idle No More and other things within the Aboriginal community where people are really gathering around our music,” explains Bear Witness. “So it was a responsibility, something we had to do because the people that were supporting us, wanted and needed it.”

The Ottawa-based electronic DJ trio, comprised of Bear Witness, DJ NDN and DJ Shub, started throwing parties in 2010 for the Aboriginal community, mixing traditional powwow vocals and drumming with contemporary electronic beats. The resulting “powwow step” throw-downs celebrate First Nations culture and music in an open format — cheeky visuals coincide with thumping bass. Their sound is a blend of traditional powwow cuts (they have a relationship with Canadian-based powwow label Tribal Spirit) and hip-hop, dub step, digidub, jungle and Soca samples — emblematic of a complex, multifaceted, urban Aboriginal identity.

That Canadians are still unaware of powwow music and of general Aboriginal influence in the national landscape is tangible. “Being Canadian — just shows how things are with Aboriginal culture. [Even within Canada] we’re kind of unseen, in the background, people don’t really know that much about us,” Bear Witness reflects. “Our music is exposing people to a lot of things they’ve never seen or heard.”

As one of two artists of colour nominated for a Polaris Music Prize for their full-length album Nation II Nation (their second nomination in a row), there’s a sense that diversity in Canadian arts and culture is not representative of the communities in the country. There’s a good chance they’ll take home the prize on September 23, but judging from the other artists nominated, ATCR’s music may still be perceived as a novel experimentation in a disparate genre.

Albeit for ATCR, mashup music is making the transition more accessible. Moving from their gritty Ottawa parties to a sold-out festival circuit has exposed ATCR to a new fan base, at times revealing troubling tropes and assumptions that non-Aboriginals can associate with Indian culture. It’s not uncommon to see a smattering of ‘Indian cool’ trends and ‘Hipster headdresses’ at their performances. “We can’t deny how that’s affecting our popularity as well, but to those people — it’s like a foot in the door,” says Bear Witness. “It’s like ‘you’re really into all that fake shit, we’re going to show you something real.'”

The New York Times notes, “[that the] global bass music diaspora would eventually visit the music of American Indians is no surprise.” So, is this a form of cultural colonialism? “The World music label is a really difficult thing,” Bear Witness tells me. “It’s a very Eurocentric point of view to say: that’s World music and the rest is just every other genre.”

At the same time, he doesn’t deny that the designation can have a positive element too. “It’s brought a lot of people together and done a lot for all those cultures, but it’s one of those double edged things,” he says. “What do we do when we don’t have it? How do we displace, dismantle that system? It’s a really difficult topic.”  ATCR’s version is making strides in dismantling assumptions and retaining ownership over a very urban Aboriginal form of expression.

This calling out of how Aboriginal culture is perceived is reflective of the incisiveness with which the group views their presence in music and politics. “It’s a real opportunity for us, to represent the reality of who we are as Aboriginal people to those who have really skewed pan-Indian ideas,” says Bear Witness.  

At their live shows, Bear Witness repurposes visual imagery from old Hollywood films, creating a tongue in cheek take-back of colonial imaginings in popular culture. His knowledge of old “Cowboy and Indian” Westerns allows him to bring them into the shows to challenge one-dimensional racist misrepresentation of Aboriginal people.

“I’ve been able to mine into these images — and find something empowered in that — to dissect them and turn them around and tell my own story,” he explains. He calls this “indigenizing,” through taking the negativity out of the images, but also getting a non-Aboriginal audience to see and react to what they’re seeing. “It’s not about having an argument about this stuff, it’s about having a good time and having a party.”

But is it about having — at the most basic level — a party? How much can one group change? “When you’re doing this for the Aboriginal community, or as a part of the Aboriginal community that becomes very political very quickly,” muses Bear Witness. “It’s a holistic culture – everything is part of everything. You don’t differentiate between the everyday life, the political life, the spiritual — they are all part of the whole, so you’re always dealing with all of them.”

No doubt it’s an exhausting duality. “It’s one of those things that as an Aboriginal person you don’t always want to have to be educating non-Aboriginal people about yourself.”

It’s a battle the group knows personally. Last week, Ian Campeau, aka DJ NDN from ATCR, launched a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal against the Nepean Redskins football club in his area — a name that’s been around since 1981. The case has brought a lot of attention to the complacent disrespect of Indigenous cultures. “If it was the Blackskins or Yellowskins this wouldn’t even be a conversation,” Campeau told the Ottawa Citizen in an interview. “But for the Redskins I have to file a human rights complaint. It’s ludicrous.”

For the club president, the name ‘Redskin’ evades any historical context — signifying how disconnected many in this country are to the offensive use of language in asserting power. On an individual level, Mr. Campeau, who is Anishinaabe, asked, “What’s going to stop them from calling my daughter a redskin in the schoolyard? That’s as offensive as using the n-word.”

This coincides with Bear Witness’s assessment of ATCR’s approach, “We’ve sort of taken that position, where we are out there — outside of the community — showing our version, our interpretation of our culture. There is a responsibility to have a discussion around these things, to properly represent ourselves. We’re just part of that process.”

Jessica Ernst and Magic, near Rosebud, Alberta

Sana Malik

Sana Malik is a writer with extensive experience in international and community development. Born in the UK to Pakistani immigrants, she grew up between London, UK and the East Coast of Canada. She...