Nêhiyawak – Indigenous trio dismantles colonial conceptions

Amiskwaciy (Edmonton)-based trio ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐊᐧᐠ (nêhiyawak) has been nominated for Best Indigenous Artist or Group in the 2020 Juno Awards for their debut full-length album nipiy. Kris Harper, the band’s lead singer, songwriter and guitarist speaks to the influences and inspirations behind the band’s genre of Moccasin-Gaze – an Indigenous play on the British-derived, guitar-heavy, wall-of-sound genre Shoegaze –as they tackle personally political conversations around Indigeneity, all while challenging and expanding the definition of Indigenous Music.

“We’re hopefully ushering in, to use a term floating around, a Renaissance of like Indigenous perspectives. But this [movement] has to also be decolonized in its roots. And that goes directly to the understanding of who the Indigenous person is,” says Harper. “A lot of the time in North America and South America, and around the world, there’s an image as to what is Indigenous, and I feel like in reality, that’s a colonial interpretation. And so, we’re really questioning that.”

A subversive sound

Photo courtesy of Nêhiyawak

Harper has been involved in music since his teenage punk years and has always sought for his music to hold passion and meaning. With this most recent group, however, nêhiyawak represents a novel, more deliberate attempt at challenging the bounds of what’s considered Indigenous Music.

The all-Indigenous trio defines their Mocassin-Gaze sound and aesthetic on their first full-length LP, nipiy: spacey synths and carved cedar log percussion add subversive character to the UK-originated Post-Punk and Shoegaze that serves as their sonic base.

“This kind of re-interpretation [of Shoegaze] from an Indigenous standpoint, it takes all kinds of factors into account, really about examining music as a whole, but also our relationship to it,” says Harper. “Moccasin-Gaze could be deeper than just a sound or emulating some kind of British genre. It could also just be a full-on new school interpretation.”

Equally characteristic to the spirit of the band are Harper’s vocals and lyrics. And while he serves as the group’s primary credited songwriter, Harper takes a step beyond just acknowledging the previously discussed ideas he is employing.

Indeed, as personal as Harper’s own expression and poetry may be, he says that there is a larger goal of speaking to themes of Indigenous universality, as well as amplifying the voices of those who came before him.

“Going back to like that time in the 2000s, the Idle No More movement for women, and also with the chief of Attawapiskat, Theresa [Spence], these women were essentially bringing major questions to the conversation. I always thought of this when I was starting this project,” says Harper. “A lot of times in music, there’s a stage, there’s like a microphone and you speak down to people. But I was always like, What is the audience saying? How do you put the microphone out there? So even though these are my writings, at the same time I can’t necessarily take claim for a bunch of these ideas of global Indigeneity.”

Redefining ‘Indigenous’

But while the band speaks to the global similarities of the Indigenous experience, Harper says that, simultaneously, nêhiyawak also hopes to challenge the limiting, homogenizing misconceptions about Indigenous music.

“It was always about really cracking it wide open. At the time we were doing it and it was already so deep. Some of the major game changers in Canada, like Buffy [Sainte-Marie], Tanya [Tagaq], A Tribe Called Red, Jeremy Dutcher and Lido Pimienta, really cracked open Indigenous music. And again, it’s not a genre; we shouldn’t even be recognizing music as racially charged pieces. But it’s just actually impossible to disenfranchise the two ideas. Yet when looking back at the history of music there’s not really one Indigenous sound anymore,” says Harper.

And through this subversive, deliberate approach, Harper and nêhiyawak hope to dismantle the narrow colonial conceptions of Indigeneity itself.

“I always believe there was a very strong intention about opening up this conversation of Indigeneity in a decolonial way. And it really includes so many more people at that table, in which case, again, [nêhiyawak] makes up the smallest perspective ever. But I feel ready to have these conversations, and I feel like there’s others that are very ready to have these conversations.”

For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/nehiyawakband.