In Overshadowing the Pulpit, artist and writer Martin Osowski interviews Joe Rainey about powwow music and how he arrived at the music he’s making today, what it was like for him to play in Europe for the first time during Rewire, and what he wants to see for the future of Native American music.
As part of the Rewire 2023 context programme Inter/relations, a central discussion played out around the ways in which sound and music practices are entangled in larger political processes. Part of this revolved around how these practices and their associated technologies are implicated in exploitative power structures, and another around how they may also be used towards subversive ends. For instance, how are the technologies of recording implicated in colonial projects, and might the tradition of recorded music-making be a continuation of this legacy? On the other hand, could these technologies be reappropriated to help voice those who have previously gone underrepresented?
There seemed to be also a countercurrent moving through this discourse, one rather sceptical of focusing political efforts into the domains of art. For by displacing politics from the realm of activism toward structural change into that of art, is one simply becoming satisfied by merely listening or looking, feeling as though they have done their part in subverting a power structure without ever having confronted the structure itself in a meaningful way? Does activism perhaps then become a mere bourgeois gesture of engagement, one that can be bought, sold, and consumed without ever really intending to change anything?
Neither perspective here should be taken here as absolute, rather, I think they should inform one another on the potential and limitations of how art, representation, and politics may interact. With these questions in mind I was curious to speak to Joe Rainey, who was performing at this year’s edition of Rewire at Nieuwe Kerk. For those unacquainted with his work, Rainey is a powwow singer hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota and a member of the Red Lake Nation of the Ojibwe people. Trained as a singer by Red Lake Elders at a young age, Rainey has been taking powwow into previously unheard directions by combining traditional powwow singing with the cinematic, experimental production of musician Andrew Broder. Rainey’s performance was a dizzying sonic mix, oscillating and overlapping between his vocals, deconstructed club style production, and a four-piece string ensemble. The dancers and costumes of a typical powwow were nowhere to be seen. Rainey has mentioned that he’s the only powwow singer making this form of hybrid music, taking a piece of Native culture and seeing where it may go when taken in new directions.
But Rainey is also quick to draw a line between powwow and the rest of Native American culture, telling me that powwows are a place where some of Native American culture can become opened up to the outside world, but that they are only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of the ceremonies, traditions, and gatherings in his community are carefully guarded pieces of a culture that, over the past centuries, European colonists have tried to erase. What first got me interested in hearing more about Rainey’s perspective was when I saw him at a panel discussion titled “Times and Territories.” The conversation had turned towards the politics of archives and how archives might perhaps be a cemetery of cultures and rituals, where once alive temporalities are in a sense “killed” by being recorded. Although I think there is some truth in this point, I thought it was interesting that Rainey disagreed with this assessment. He explained that archiving for him is a crucial means to ensure that Native cultures are not erased: that although perhaps problematic, this technology is also an important tool for voicing those who are underrepresented. This “boots on the ground” approach was something I found highly relevant, and it is reflected in the extensive archive of powwow events that Rainey maintains on his Soundcloud page, as well as his efforts to support Native artists while following his own innovative musical directions. During our conversation Rainey also pointed me towards several powwow singers who have inspired him or who are active today. For those interested in taking a deeper sonic dive, a list can be found at the bottom of this interview.
And so I wanted to talk to Rainey to hear more about his world, how he arrived at the music he’s making today, what it was like for him to play in Europe for the first time, and what he wants to see for the future of Native American music. Below is our conversation.
Just to start things off, can you tell me a bit about the tradition of powwow and powwow singing and how you become involved in it?
Well just to start from my beginnings, I really am thankful for the powwow teachings that were made available here in the city for young kids. There may not be that deep sense of cultural identity here, just because it is the city and not a lot of our elders moved from back home to the city. The ones that did were those who wanted to teach the youth about powwow singing and what powwows are.
There’s lots of different opinions on what powwows are and where they come from. Some people have the stance of it coming from a non-Native person, Wild Bill Cody was someone who back in the 1800s and 1900s would have Natives travel along with him in a sort of travelling circus. It would be like a band of Indians and they would perform and do dances. So that was sort of the earliest form of powwows. But from there they banned our religious practices that we couldn’t do in public. Although that didn’t stop us from doing them. Those are really sacred ceremonies, everything that’s not powwow is totally off-limits to the non-indigenous crowd but powwows are fair game, I guess, although it’s a little weird if they get appropriated.
Tell me a bit more about the difference between powwow and other ceremonies you’re part of?
I argue a lot that what we do on a private, local level, seasonally, through the traditions of our ancestors, you know, those are things that people will never ever see. Native people, for the right reasons, hold a tight guardianship with what we know and what we learn. We’ve been around for a long time and we have powwows for everyone to come to. But we also have private seasonal ceremonies that no one will ever get to see. And that's what makes us grounded and connected to the Earth and what it’s for.
As an Indigenous artist today, do you see the work you’re doing as being in a way political?
The messages in my songs are just like – they’re just powwow songs. I’m not saying anything; they’re just a pattern of vocables. Everything I do is just thought up in my head. Making this album I didn’t have any intentions really of a political stance or anything. But also I was explaining to someone at my show last night, you know, that I made this during the quarantine and we can think about what happened during the quarantine. I’m from Minneapolis, where the whole George Floyd thing happened. For me, watching people in Wisconsin align themselves with a blue line in a flag was, you know – it was pissing me off. Nobody was making car decals or putting that flag up until George Floyd happened. So I was like: “You’re not supporting police lives. You’re just being a racist fuck.” Living among walking hypocrites might have influenced me to make a song like no chants where I’m just like “RRAAAAAA,” so that's one thing I can probably channel. When I’m performing it, I really do think about what pisses me off, but I’m not performing it to be like “You’re seeing me pissed off,” it’s more that it just comes up in my head while I’m performing it. I know what I do can be so drawn back and really nice to the equipment, but when I do that “RRAAAAAA” I wanna break their fucking speakers. That’s just how I am, because what’s a broken speaker to hundreds of years of the erasure of who we are? You can’t put a price on the pain and hardship of not even what my people have gone through, but what contemporary Indigenous artists have gone through in the last forty-plus years.
What is the world of contemporary Indigenous music like today?
It’s very difficult to be a Native right now, but it’s also a very beautiful thing at the same time. Even last night I had a lot of good conversations with some Native artists about how we’re now on the cusp. We’re teeing up the ball for our kids to hit a home run. We might not be able to turn that key, we’re gonna fab that key and give it to our kids, and hopefully in the future they will live in a time and place and a space where Indigenous culture is supported. The contemporary Native arts that have come from years of oppression need to have more of a stage. This also needs to be more for the artists themselves and less for the people that it’s being taken in by.
There’s other people out there too, Native people, powwow singers who are sound enthusiasts, audiophiles, and we’re trying to make it a better environment for powwow music. There’s a record label named Canyon Records that has a longstanding history of recording and putting Native American music out there. People would go to them because they had the resources and the connections and they would really help you along. But still, everyone there, they were all white dudes. The dirty part of the business, though, was that they were giving sort of early blues singer deals. They would backdoor Native artists with a bunch of legal language where they owned half of the rights to the music we would make. Also, they’ve put some really old songs down on some of their records, from way before the label existed. For example the Lakota flag song that's sung at every powwow. Someone recorded that on one of Canyon’s records and it had me thinking, “There’s no fucking way they’re saying that they own half of the Lakota Flag Song.” And so it’s gonna take all the powwow audiophiles, all of us together to reclaim all of that. I feel like the more that I can put people onto powwow music, the more I can help allocate resources into this whole genre that has been unkempt, that deserves caretakers, and you know, funded caretakers.
What was it like for you to sing powwow in Europe for the first time? Was it strange to play in a church at Rewire considering the role of the church in the genocides during North American colonisation?
Well, I really do enjoy travelling and giving a piece of my culture. Like I said, powwows are just a tiny piece, even if I told you everything about powwow I wouldn’t even be scratching the surface of what our culture is. I am sensitive to some of that stuff though, like you’ve got a Jewish dude – Andrew Broder – and a Native American singing in a church on Easter Sunday. Like, y’all didn’t think about that or was that on purpose? I had a shadow in the pulpit line that I wanted to say during the show but I couldn’t remember it. But you know, being in the shadow of the pulpit where someone for however long this church was intact for, they’re reading from a book that was used to conduct genocide and the erasure of a language, the erasure of Native peoples. That book in America was the spear; it was used to conquer. I’m actually baptised Episcopalian, and that’s only because I was a little baby and my grandma and my mom were in the church. There’s definitely churchgoing Natives out there. So when I was growing up I remember going to church with my mom. I was definitely out of place but I was just holding on to it for the sake of my mom. So I wanted to have some respect when I was playing just because of my mom and my grandma, but I also wanted to take some jabs in their house of prayer. That line about “the book of genocide” was just off the top of my head. Usually at that point in the show I start talking to the crowd a bit, but honestly I don’t really wanna talk to the crowd. If it was up to me, it would just be dark and I’d just walk on and walk off without saying a word. No breaks too – just one hour straight of noise.
What kind of responses do you get from Native people to your music when they first hear it?
Once they get a hold on it and they figure out what I’m doing they’re usually pretty receptive. The way I’m singing too, it’s not cut up like other electronic Powwow music. For me that’s something I did on purpose, because as a singer hearing electronic Powwow you only hear a little bit of the original song. So as a singer I’m like, dude, just play the whole song. Just let the song play. Whenever I hear someone singing in the background in commercials or in a movie it’s always cut up, it’s never a full song. When I’m listening to a song, I wanna know what song they’re singing and as a singer, our perspective is getting lost. You should respect our songs and play the whole thing. Otherwise I feel like a Native audience will react more, give me more encouragement. Non-Natives usually don’t know what to do, like they’re thinking should they dance to this? But it’s about what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing, but you’re not there to stare at me. I don’t wanna be stared at.
What do you think is needed for the future of powwow music and Native artists?
I think that with Indigenous music, and especially contemporary Indigenous music, it needs to happen more and there needs to be more inclusion, but it should not be forced. I don’t want us to be tokenised, where people just say “e gotta have an Indigenous act because we have to.” Instead, are we really gonna be sensitive to this person when they’re here? You know, are we just inviting them, or are we really gonna be interested in having people notice what this person is bringing? I know why they invite me and Andrew Broder is because the type of stuff we’re making hasn’t been heard before.
I guess what I ask of people is to have more inclusion, but to not make it a required inclusion. We want you to have us because you really want us to be there and you vibe with our music. I just feel like people should accept us as who we are as Indigenous people and that they don’t get too deep into the pedestalisation of who we are. We’re just trying to be another artist from a different background. Natives just want to be accepted on their own merit and what they’ve done.
*** During our conversation Rainey pointed me towards several other Native American powwow singers that have inspired his work. For those interested in diving deeper into the genre, Rainey recommends checking out Harvey Dreaver, Marlon Deschamps, Fawn Wood, Sullivan and Day, Randy Wood, Joel Wood, and Tia Wood, and exploring further from there.arlon Deschamps, Fawn Wood, Sullivan and Day, Randy Wood, Joel Wood, and Tia Wood, and exploring further from there.
Martin Osowski (1998, CA/PL) is an artist, filmmaker and writer based in Rotterdam, NL. He is a graduate in Aerospace Engineering from the Delft University of Technology and in Lens-Based Media from the Piet Zwart Institute. Martin's work has been shown at the EYE Filmmuseum, V2_ Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam Art Week, and the Porto Design Biennale. He collaborates onFaun, a worldbuilding collective, andSHED, a studio and art space in Rotterdam.