Most of the professional difficulties that Ian Campeau (AKA Deejay NDN) of First Nations DJ crew A Tribe Called Red faces aren’t that of the usual show-booking or money-making variety. The act is insanely popular, selling out gigs all over the world, getting support from EDM impressario Diplo, and indexed on the Polaris Prize long list for the second straight year.
No, what has been the group’s tallest mountain to scale has been the reconciliation of attitudes towards a group of young, aboriginal men bluntly incorporating both sound and imagery of their race into their music and performances. Lately, it’s escalated, with the band pleading online with their non-aboriginal fans to discontinue wearing headdresses to the shows; taking on the city of Nepean, Ont.’s football team’s racist name; and facing the intense backlash that has hit them square in the face.
Now that you guys are touring the world, playing heavily attended shows in places like Detroit, and across Europe, you've started to recognize attendees dressing in first nations headdresses, yes?
Yeah. It was a trend that started before we were touring or making albums. But now that we're touring more and playing more festivals, we're starting to see them more, unfortunately.
Are they the kind of headdresses one might find for a child's costume; made of plastic feathers, or are they more elaborate, or authentic?
Yeah. The majority of them are costume variety but some are more elaborate, very non-specific to any Nation though.
So what's the part about them that you and your counterparts are finding the most offensive? Is it the lack of specific nation represented, or is it that it's by non-First Nations wearing them, or something else?
Both and more. It's creating a false idea of what it means to be Indigenous today. It's "Pan-Indianism". It's robbing the First Nations of their nationhoods and nationality. It's making us all "Indian" instead of recognizing me as an Anishnabe or Ojibway. I'm NOT an "Indian". I'm of the Anishnabe Nation. Also, it gives the impression that Natives are something from the past. Not here today. If you were to think of an "Indian" you certainly aren't going to think of me, tattooed in a hoodie with a Sens cap on. We, as First Nation people, have never had control of our image in colonial media since its birth.
But you use the name "Deejay Ndn", and your act is called "A Tribe Called Red". Do you use those names as a type of sarcasm?
"A Tribe Called Red" we came up specifically to appeal to both Natives on the Rez and to the Urban Aboriginals. "A Tribe Called.." has been used for years by different drum groups and Nations on letterman jackets and such. [i.e. A Tribe Called Mi'kmaq] So we knew the term would be recognized by Natives in rural and isolated communities as well as the obvious "A Tribe Called Quest" reference to the First Nations in urban settings.
Right, but you say that you're "not an Indian" but your moniker is Deejay Ndn.
"NDN" is a spelling for "Indian" that I have only seen used by Indigenous youth. It was also something that would be recognizable to rural FN youth and urban FN youth. Like Keith Secola's anthem "NDN Car."
So it's reclamation of the word? Like "queer" or "nigga"?
NDN also stands for "Never Die Native" which is in retaliation for "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." It can be seen as a reclamation. I prefer to use the term "decolonization."
What about the fact that your merch has headdresses on them? Your "Electric Pow Wow" shirt has a man in a headdress on it. Is it specific to a certain nation?
It's not cultural appropriation if it's your own culture, right?
So you're saying, if first nations individuals or leaders were to show up in headdresses, even if they are plastic feathered ones, it would be couth, but being that it's young, white, EDM fans, that doesn't wash.
Yes. Exactly. But it has yet to happen. I have yet to speak to someone who is First Nation who wears fake headdresses and war paint to EDM concerts. It's "redface." Just like "blackface".
Do you ever address these fans at shows, either during or after you're finished performing?
Absolutely. We played at the Electric Forest Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan last week and there were plenty of "hipster" headdresses in attendance. We had a traditional male dancer come out and dance for two songs. I made a point to "Hey guys in your fake headdresses, this is what it really looks like. You're headdresses are fake and this is real." Not sure they got the point but it was addressed on stage in front of a festival audience.
If you and your partners could address all those who attend in headdresses in one statement, what would you say?
"Please stop. It's disrespectful and we really don't appreciate it." That's about all we can say at the moment. We're in the middle of our civil rights movement right now, today. So hopefully, in a couple decades, "redface" and terms like "Redskin" and "Indian" will go way of "blackface", and terms like "nigger" and become tabooed in North American society.
Not that the two are necessarily connected, but late last year you took on the local football team, the Nepean Redskins and had a very public challenge to them on changing their name. Now there's some serious momentum with the NFL team of the same name, with congressmen and high profile writers like Dave Zirin pleading with the owner, Dan Snyder to finally change the name. Do you believe there's a butterfly effect here, or is it just coincidence?
I believe that it's just a sign of the times. Native people all over the Americas are standing up and taking their place in today's society. I don't think it's a coincidence that challenging the "redskin" name, A Tribe Called Red, or Idle No More are all happening to the first generation that weren't forced into residential schools. It was illegal for any First Nation to speak to a lawyer let alone challenge an NFL team in court. It's a sign that the times for First Nations in the Western Hemisphere are finally getting their civil rights movement.
Do you think the firm stance by Snyder has anything to do with the history of the team; that they were the last team to integrate, and that there were even Klu Klux Klan rallies around the time of forced integration that had deliciously ironic slogans like "Keep the Redskins White!" or do you think this is a systematic issue that stretches across the entire NFL or even all major sports?
I think his firm stance in addressing the name is the nickname's swan song. It wasn't ever addressed until now and the whole "You can write that in caps," make me think he's scared. But it's not just the team. It is systematic socially acceptable racial oppression.
Are all sports teams with first nations' nicknames racially oppressing your community, or just the Redskins?
The only one I can think of that's not racist is the FSU Seminoles. I can't say anything because I'm not of that Nation. But all the others, yeah, they are.
How are the Kansas City Chiefs using oppressive nomenclature? What do you say to people who claim that a "chief" is a leader of a specific community in the same way your favourite team, the Ottawa Senators use the name of a community's leader?
"Chiefs" were named after the Mayor of Kansas City. It's the logo that's cultural appropriation. If the logo was a Fireman's hat, no appropriation.
But what about the fact that Roman senators basically killed Christ and also threw Christians to lions, and The Ottawa Senators mascot is a lion? Do you not think that certain Christians might be equally or even more offended by that?
There were also Christian Roman Senators... But if someone were to take up a campaign against the name, I'd listen to what they had to say.
How is an arrowhead cultural appropriation? Do first nations have a trademark on using an arrowhead? Doesn't Gina Davis use an arrowhead in her archery competitions?
It's the "Chiefs" AND the Arrowhead logo. Both together that makes it cultural appropriation. Like if the Redskins change their logo to a potato, it wouldn't be cultural appropriation. If the team were the "Archers" with the arrowhead, fine. If it were the Chiefs with a fireman's helmet logo, fine. But the Chiefs with an arrowhead logo, appropriation.
What if the Chiefs were publicly owned like the Green Bay Packers are, but owned in majority by the local nations of Missouri (I believe that's Cheyenne) and kept their imagery?
That would be fine. Like I mentioned before, it wouldn't be cultural appropriation if you were of that culture. The hockey team on my reserve is the "Warriors." Not cultural appropriation because we are of that culture.
Is A Tribe Called Red going to play FedEx field on opening day of the Washington *insert new nickname here*?
I totally would if they changed their name to the anything that didn't marginalize by race, culture or ethnicity. GO CHARGERS!
Catch A Tribe Called Red on tour all summer. Check dates at atribecalledred.com and follow on Twitter @atribecalledred