Indigenous Executive Producers individually answer questions from Northwestern Ontario’s Naotkamegwanning First Nation following Rumble film screening
By: Damon Hunter
Last month, I wrote about the screening of the hit film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which was produced under the Indigenous film production company Rezolution Pictures. Within my closing sentences, I included the fact that the film’s starring celebrity and executive producer, Stevie Salas, would be answering community-given questions. Salas, a renowned Apache rock guitarist, has worked among Hardware, Justin Timberlake, Mick Jagger, and Rod Stewart. He hosts the music and comedy show ‘Arbor Live’ on APTN, alongside actor Adam Beach.
The opportunity to do so stemmed purely from an email conversation with Rumble’s producers. What you’ll find below are answers from two: musician Stevie Salas and his co-producer, Tim Johnson.
The interview has been edited for length.
Q: Rhonda White, Gr. 7 teacher at Baibombeh Anishinabe School: “I wonder what had inspired the makers of the film to tell this story. How did it come about?”
Salas: The story started when I was young – just a few years out of high school playing guitar for Rod Stewart. I was playing Madison Square Garden in NYC and thought: “Am I the only Native American musician to ever play here?” Once I started to research this, I found out that I was NOT and that there were some amazing Native musicians that I didn’t know were Native. I thought, “The world needs to know about these musicians!”
Johnson: While serving as associate director overseeing exhibitions and programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, I was responsible for identifying and hiring Indigenous talent. One of our programs focused on contemporary Native American music.
We produced a symposium with related concert entitled The Blues: Roots, Branches, and Beyond, that provided a fascinating look at the contributions Native musicians made to the development of the blues, including points of convergence between Native American and African American communities. We even featured a concert series called “Classical Native” that sought to dispel stereotypes by presenting the works of contemporary Native American classical music composers.
These offerings advanced my interest in music produced by Native musicians and I wondered what more could be done to increase recognition of their contributions and talents. It was during that time that Stevie Salas first came to my attention. Of particular interest to me was his role as producer of Arbor Live, a music variety show featured on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that highlighted Native musicians alongside popular recording and performing artists of stature.
I made a point of meeting Stevie [and] we quickly found common purpose in our shared objective of elevating public attention to the depth, range, and contributions of Native musicians. I then hired Stevie as my contemporary music advisor and thus, was formed the creative and structural confluence that would lead directly to the development of our popular Smithsonian exhibit, Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, and the follow-up documentary by Rezolution Pictures, RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World. The development of the concept took form and shape over the course of our two-year collaboration with several members of my staff involved.
Q: Rhonda White, Gr. 7 teacher at Baibombeh Anishinaabe School: In mainstream media, we are often shown how music has evolved from deep south rhythm and blues to rock sounds, most notably black or African American artists. Curious about their process of tracing the initial Indigenous rhythms, drumbeat, and vocals?
Salas: When people started to arrive in what would become the United States, they brought with them many of their unique styles and culture. Soon they would mix with Native Americans that were already here and from that, amazing things would come. Mixing the Native American heartbeat ‘four on the floor’ drums with African polyrhythms was the start.
Johnson: One of the amazing achievements of our exhibit and follow-up documentary was drawing attention to the contributions made by Indigenous musicians to the formation of various genres, such as the blues, jazz, and rock and roll, which serve as the foundations of North American popular music. Research conducted by Brian Wright McLeod, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Native Music, and Smithsonian researcher Chris Turner, amplified our attention on the Indigenous musicians who shaped these genres and how their cultures influenced the sounds of this music.
Take Charly Patton for example. Patton, who had Choctaw heritage, was a seminal influence on the careers of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. He performed in the 1920s delta roadhouse and juke joint scenes, banging on his guitar, swinging it around wildly, and even playing it behind his back. His energetic performances influenced the theatrical style of famous rock and rollers such as Jimi Hendrix.
During the era of swing and jazz, there was a genre of music played in rural and regional venues that had not yet reached mainstream popularity—the blues. The blues is thought to have developed from a combination of African and Native music traditions. Many historians have traced elements of blues music, such as its shuffling beat, to Native drum rhythms and the call-and-response style of singing.
The influences of this music went beyond the Indigenous beat, extending to melody as well. In our film, Pura Fe reveals how Charley Patton’s blues melodies were shaped by Choctaw social dance and stomp dance songs. Another example is jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey who began her career as a cinema pianist in Spokane, Washington. [Mildred] was a household name by the mid-1930s. Along the way she helped her brother Al and their high school friend Bing Crosby get a foothold in the music scene. Bailey later became a bandleader, working with almost every big name in the swing era, and even hosted her own radio show—the hallmark of celebrity for bandleaders during the ’30s and ’40s.
And of course, Like Wray originated a raw guitar sound shaped by volume, distortion, and simple song structures that became a hallmark of rock and roll. He is almost universally credited with inventing the “power chord,” without which hard rock could not exist. He was also able to create distortion, echo, and wah-wah— staples of today’s guitar sound—without the aid of technology. Wray inspired such major rock figures as The Who’s Pete Townshend and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to explore the soundscapes that have made them rock-and-roll guitar legends. Our film is named RUMBLE, because this was Link Wray’s 1958 hit song, that changed the direction of rock and roll for numerous musicians.
Q: My name is Arianna Jack and I am in Gr. 7 at Baibombeh School. Have you ever been to school?
Salas: Arianna yes, I went to school in San Diego where I grew up. I LOVED school because I had such amazing friends who still to this day, are in my life.
Johnson: Indeed. Education is very important, not only when you’re young like yourself, but should be a lifelong pursuit.
Q: Jaryn Joseph, Gr. 7 at Baibombeh Anishinaabe School: “What was your school like?”
Salas: Jaryn, I went to several schools growing up. They were public schools in San Diego. We lived by the beach and most of my school friends were surfers. We even had a surfing class in high school.
Johnson: I went to several schools completing my formal studies at Buffalo State College. They were all good, but I’ve always felt education could have been made more relevant and even more fun! This is partly what led me to work in the museum field, where the transmission of information is conveyed through exhibits and publications and media that help make learning more interesting and engaging, in other words, fun! Just like our film RUMBLE!
Q: “My name is West Ranville, I’m 12 years old, I go to Baibombeh school and I’m in Gr. 7. What is it like hanging out with all these celebrities?”
Salas: West, some celebrities are nice and some are not so nice. The famous people that were in RUMBLE were mostly friends of mine from my years of playing music around the world. Remember, that role models come in many packages and some are not celebrities.
Johnson: I don’t seek to hang out with “celebrities.” It’s not one of my interests or pursuits. However, I do seek to spend time and develop relationships with creative, intelligent, and honourable people of good character, those who are honest and have integrity.
As you go through life, choosing with whom to associate and perhaps emulate, are critically important decisions. Making wise decisions about who to hang out with led me to become an executive at the Smithsonian Institution.
I also live in the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, where my friends range from musicians and celebrities like the legendary Robbie Robertson, two-time JUNO Award-winner Derek Miller, contemporary dancer Santee Smith, movie actor Gary Farmer, and fine artist Raymond Skye, to community educators like Dawn Hill (a residential school survivor), wise elders that I really respect and learn from like Rick Hill, Don Lynch, and Ron and Don Monture, and even the elected chief of our community, Ava Hill.
Q: “My name is Kandace Cowley, I go to Baibombeh School, I’m in grade 7. How many pow wows have you been to?”
Salas: Kandace, I have been to many pow wows in North America. My favorite memories are the times that my father and I would go to pow pows together.
Johnson: I’ve been to more pow wows and Indigenous cultural events than I can count. When I was young, I used to accompany my father to pow wows on weekends all summer. He was a vendor who sold T-shirts featuring Indigenous designs. As one of the first to do this, his expressive shirts helped instill pride in those who wore them. Nowadays, there are many folks who sell Indigenous designs on T-shirts and an industry has even emerged of Indigenous fashion designers.
Q: Liam Paypompee, Gr. 7 at Baibombeh Anishinabe School: “Would you ever stay on a first nation reservation in Canada?”
Salas: Liam, I actually work on a First Nations reservation. I work with the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation on Six Nations, Canada.
Tim Johnson: Actually, I live in Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, which is the most populous Indigenous community within Canada. I am a Wolf Clan Mohawk and my Indigenous name is Waha:tsa, meaning “He gets the job done.” I take great pride in my Indigenous heritage and truly enjoy my community here. I believe going through life as an Indigenous person helps one to better understand issues of justice and injustice, provides a broader perspective on history, and connects us to our empathic cultural traditions respecting all living things and elements in our universe that make our lives possible. These attributes, when applied consciously, foster intelligence and build character. Please know that your own Indigenous teachings are very important, useful, and empowering.
Q: My name is Carter Nash, 12 years old. I go to Baibombeh School in Gr. 7. Hello Stevie Salas, What is your favourite breakfast? How much do you turn up the volume in your stereo?
Salas: Carter, both my 11 year old son and I like music loud but his mom doesn’t like it loud so we keep the volume at a modest level. As for breakfast, I love green chili and eggs.
Johnson: I’m not sure what Stevie eats for breakfast, but my favorite is bacon and eggs. And, in my experience, listening to loud music isn’t as effective in choosing a volume where you can distinguish the tone and characteristics of each instrument. So, I’d recommend choosing fidelity l lover volume. In fact, when professional recording engineers are mixing music in the studio, they are careful not to play the music too loud because they need to hear clearly and also need to protect their ears from being damaged.
Karli Zschogner, JHR: In consideration of the recognized negative connotation of the term as well as the geographical misrepresentation to the ethnicity Indian, what was the decision to perpetuate the use of “Indian” rather than other terms as Native or Indigenous?
Salas: That’s a complex answer but I will keep it simple. We wanted people around the world who were not First Nations to watch RUMBLE and we thought the word “ Indians” would grab their attention.
Johnson: Great question! The documentary was filmed mostly in the United States, where the term “Indian” is not considered offensive the way it is currently in Canada. Historically Canada has used the term “Indian” and still does in relation to the existing Indian Act. There are many Indigenous nations within the United States that use the term “Indian” in their own names such as Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, the Alturas Indian Rancheria in California, and many others. And for eleven and ½ years I worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC and New York, NY.
So, in that context the title works. Most peoples around the world still refer to Indigenous peoples of the Americas as Indians. Within Canada, of course, the preferred usage in terms of style is Indigenous, First Nations, Métis, or Inuit. And you can’t go wrong with using our specific nations names in our own languages, such as Kanienkehaka, meaning Mohawk.
Q: Mark Taylor – In terms of our culture and people being at such a low with the changing times, what inspired you to keep going forward even though racism was so prevalent? What gave you your edge to fight positively and to move forward with your head up?
Salas: Mark, negativity is everywhere BUT so is positive energy if you look for it. I refuse to believe that anything ISN’T possible.
Johnson: When I was a kid, certainly by fourth grade, I was already becoming aware that what I was being taught about history wasn’t the complete story. In the United States, we were often required to face the American flag and state the Pledge of Allegiance to America at the start of class each day. By fifth grade, I stopped doing that.
As I mentioned earlier, having this knowledge of being Indigenous can make you smarter, more able to utilize critical thinking in evaluating what you’re being taught, more sensitive to the forces that seek to define your reality irrespective of the facts, and more cognizant of and righteous when you encounter those who lie, cheat, and manipulate to get their way.
Always be proud, know that there are many smart people in your community who have useful experience from which to learn, and design your life to be fulfilling, responsible, and fun!
Great work! Naotkamegwanning First Nation rocks!
For more information on teaching and education lessons on the film see TeachRock.