‘Welcome to Indian Country’ concert celebrates Indigenous art

Image courtesy of Christine Howlett.

On Saturday, Feb. 3, I was fortunate enough to see “Welcome to Indian Country,” a musical, poetry and storytelling experience at Skinner Hall, as the closing act of the 2023 ModFest season. “Welcome to Indian Country” featured a band composed of incredible Indigenous activists and musicians who have already had successful solo careers: Diné trumpetist Delbert Anderson; fiddler Nokosee Fields of the Osage, Creek and Cherokee Nations; Peruvian and Spanish percussionist Nicholas Lucero; vocalist and drummer Charly Lowry of the Lumbee/Tuscarora People; and bassist Mali Obomsawin from the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak. In addition, the group was joined by Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, who served as the night’s storyteller, providing program notes and reciting her own works in between songs. The show was put on by Indigenous Performance Productions, a group run by agent and Indigenous activist Andre Bouchard. The stated aim of the production was to increase visibility for Indigenous artists and to recontextualize what indigeneity means today for those who may not know about or understand it.

A highlight of the concert was just how many styles of music were displayed. Each artist had the chance to showcase their work and connect it to their personal Indigenous identity. There was a celebration of the Indigenous influence on jazz with a cover of saxophonist Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai-To,” featuring the outstanding vocals of singer (and “American Idol” semifinalist!) Lowry. Fields performed a solo fiddle piece which was absolutely beautiful. Lowry showcased two original songs, “Backbone” and “Brown Skin,” exploring her relationship with her identity and those who came before her and accompanying herself on the hand-drum. Obomsawin also demonstrated their songwriting and vocal prowess with their song “White People,” which provided a hard-rock contrast to the instrumental and jazz segments. The band also employed many musical techniques throughout the concert. For example, in one piece the group layered instrumental lines over a spoken word recording in a stunning and beautiful improvisation. 

What really brought the show together was Priest as the storyteller. She opened the concert with her poem “Welcome to Indian Country,” after which the production was named. In between one set, Priest read an excerpt from her upcoming novel, which deals with adolescence, family, identity and the environment. In between other songs, she provided the background or historical information that influenced the creation of the songs or informed why the artists chose to perform them; in some cases, she provided only a brief introduction, giving the artists room to tell their own stories. It was in hearing these artists explain their own connections to these pieces and elaborate on how their Indigeneity relates to their art that the full scope of this show began to take place. Some of the program notes involved historical context, detailing important names and events which are an essential part of American history and which are rarely taught, if at all.

The following afternoon, Anderson, Lowry and Obomsawin returned to campus to engage in an informal discussion of the concert and their work as both artists and activists. This conversation delved more into the events and talking points brought up in the performance, such as treaty rights, food and resource sovereignty and the Land Back movement. The three artists described their approaches to their art and how they relate to activism. They discussed the different ways to showcase one’s identity through art, especially since Bouchard’s aim for this project was for it to center around the artists’ relationship to Indigeneity. The artists fielded questions about politics and artmaking, expanding on some of the stories told and pieces performed at the concert. It was wonderful to experience these amazing works in a performance setting and later be able to discuss them and understand the context and process behind them. 

The artists were also given the opportunity to plug their outside work at this talk, including jazz group The Delbert Anderson Trio, Charly Lowry’s band Dark Water Rising and Obomsawin’s recently-released solo album, “Sweet Tooth.” Given the lack of knowledge and experience many Americans have with Indigenous cultures, this concert felt like a great way to connect identity with artmaking and activism. The performers were absolutely stellar, and joy seemed to radiate from them as they played, improvised, sang and spoke onstage. The performance was an unbelievable showcase of talent and culture, and I cannot thank Breton and the band enough for displaying their incredible art at Vassar.

Image courtesy of Christine Howlett.

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