Burning the Imperialist Nostalgia: The Native Urban Renaissance in North America
by Bryce Henson
Indigenous cultures are symbolically constructed in a pre-Columbus past as a mechanism to produce an essentialist notion of Indigenous peoples, who majestically vanish upon contact into the contemporary moment. While it was recognized that the United States of America was previously inhabited by Indigenous peoples, European contact and colonialism have erased them—when or how are always a mystery—from the imaginative contours of who belongs within these borders that are now inhabited by white Americans and minoritized communities. This is what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo called the “imperialist nostalgia” (1993) that longs for a pristine Other culture that was ‘lost’ when the colonizer killed it. It then becomes the responsibility of the (former) colonizers to maintain and carry on the cultural traditions of this Other lost group. This nostalgia is both the physical and imaginative erasure of Indigenous bodies from modern society (which is imagined as anywhere outside of reservations). Thus we can only imagine Indigenous peoples to be backwards, savage, living on reservations that separate Indigenous peoples spatially and culturally, and practicing a monolithic “traditional” Indian culture. From the cornfields of Champaign-Urbana where I write this, we see this through the use of the Chief in unlicensed paraphernalia and the use of Indian music, drums, war paint, and headdresses to “honor” the “tradition” of a generic and fictional Indian tribe. My question is, then: what do Indigenous peoples have to say about modern society and urban belonging through cultural expressions?
To answer this question, I turn to A Tribe Called Red (ATCR), a trio of Indigenous DJs from Canada, who have “become the face of an urban Native youth renaissance” that “showcase native talent and aboriginal culture, alongside an open, wild party.” The “Electric Pow Wow”, as they deem it, weaves together their cultural heritage with a variety of musical genres, such as hip-hop, reggae, and dubstep. The trio consists of Bear Witness (Cayuga, Six Nations), Ian Campeau aka DJ NDN (Ojibway, Nipissing First Nations), and Dan General aka DJ Shub (Cayuga, Six Nations) who began throwing monthly parties in 2008. While they note their initial motive was to get people to dance, they also saw the political implications of Indigenizing club space. As noted in an interview with Canadian Dimension, part of this was educating their fan base, who would eagerly arrive to their performances with headdresses and war paint. They addressed these racist cultural appropriations through Twitter, illustrating the technological entanglements of culture and politics. Part of their critique is that these cultural representations homogenize Indigenous peoples to a singular culture rather than specifying which nation they belong to as well as the idea that Indians only live in the past and are not part of modern society.
A major point of contention for ATCR is the invisibility of Indigenous people in urban environments, those “off” the reservations. One emphasis of their Electric Pow Wows has been to showcase urban Indigenous talent. Their intervention is that Indigenous people are not only still present but also constitutive of urban contexts. Yet, Indigenous voices remain excluded from conversations about US history and culture. Consider their “Our Gifts for Thanksgiving” electronic newsletter:
On this fourth Thursday of November, you might ask yourself: do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving? Well… Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for Native people. In a way, each day is a day of thanksgiving [sic] to the Creator for the original people of Turtle Island. This doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy turkey, pie and family as much as the next person, but at the same time the Thanksgiving myth largely shared in mainstream culture perpetuates a one sided view of a complicated history surrounding this holiday. (A Tribe Called Red, 2014)
This email correspondence illustrates Indigenous peoples are excluded from the discourse around Thanksgiving and demarcated from urban environments and modern popular culture. By referring to their similar appreciation of “turkey, pie and family”, ATCR challenges the essentialist notions that Indigenous people are either extinct or living on premodern reservations by illustrating that they also perform dominant sociocultural practices. The nostalgia quickly dissipates when they contradict the imperial memory. At the same time, their newsletter scores that their exclusion permits the dominant sociocultural order to control how we talk about US popular culture and histories, a discourse that excludes Indigenous peoples.
As part of their complicated entanglements of symbolic erasure, Native culture and urban environments, ATCR released their song “Burn Your Village to the Ground” to show the complexities of urban Native peoples.
Shortly into the song, we are taken to an audio recording of a scene from the 1991 Addams Family film where Wednesday Addams, portrayed by a young Christina Ricci, disrupts her school Thanksgiving performance with her clairvoyant monologue about the deleterious impact brought onto the Indigenous peoples by the Pilgrims’ theft of the land and their ability to profit and prosper through physical and symbolic Indigenous erasure. The selection of Wednesday Addams’ monologue ruptures our sense of time. ATCR uses this 1990s popular culture film to reconstruct and alter the past by showing Indigenous peoples as agents of change and refusal through their burning the Pilgrims’ villages in the reenactment of US history. Simultaneously, it provides social commentary about how US colonialism has impacted Indigenous peoples into the present. For Indigenous peoples, we are confronted with the question: when has colonialism ended for them? Wednesday’s speech draws on its temporal ambiguity to foresee that “years from now” Indigenous peoples will be living in trailer homes and reservations, selling bracelets on the roadside, and will be hung in degradation; it inserts Indigenous peoples into the present and more importantly calls attention to the revisionist history that Europeans and their descendants have perpetuated.
The burning of the village is not just a literal one, emphasizing Indigenous agency and resistance, but also a symbolic fire that burns the imperialist nostalgia that Indigenous peoples are stuck in the past and absent from the modern urban environment and popular culture. And in this fire, one must be attentive to the brutal and genocidal legacy of US history as well as the current living conditions of Indigenous peoples on their own lands. Indigenous peoples are present in the past and reject the Thanksgiving ritual as a cultural representation of harmony between Indigenous peoples and US settlers. Thus the use of Wednesday is doubly useful to place Indigenous bodies into the contemporary popular culture and to simultaneously challenge settler colonialism retrospectively through how we celebrate Thanksgiving and what it represents.
What may seem peculiar is the use of Wednesday Addams, a white female youth, to reclaim urban Indigeneity and culture. Cultural critic George Lipsitz (1994) provides insight into this paradox with the notion “strategic anti-essentialism,” where one takes on the identity of another ethnoracial group to “articulate desires and subject positions that [they] could not express in [their] own voice” (p. 53). If Indigenous bodies are erased from the modern urban landscape, then their voices are also silenced and excluded from discussions of Indigeneity, culture and bodies. By keenly drawing on popular culture references, of another medium no less, ATCR mixes this clairvoyant monologue by Wednesday Addams into their musical bricolage to engage the meaning of Thanksgiving and the erasure of Indigenous bodies. Wednesday Addams becomes (re)politicized and compels ATCR’s audience to rethink not just the issues of Indigeneity, but why Wednesday Addams is the medium through these issues become intelligible in popular culture.
This brings us to what might a group such as ATCR might provide in terms of decolonization. They weave an Indigenous bricolage of technology, culture, and politics in urban contexts that creates friction within dominant ways of knowing about Indigenous peoples. As such, ATCR does not solely insert Indigenous peoples into urban contexts but rather demonstrate that urban histories and Indigenous people are not mutually exclusive entities. If Indigenous people are constitutive of urban histories, modern society, and popular culture, then they are able to disrupt the dominant tropes of their disappearance as well as reassert the centrality of Indigeneity to popular culture. It is in this space that we must reconsider not only our forms of knowledge about Indigenous peoples but also ourselves, our histories, and our cultures. ATCR is invested in a decolonialization project that requires us to rethink notions of urban belonging, US history, and popular culture from the epistemological standpoint of Indigeneity. This is not looking back to some ancestral saying but rather to the very Indigenous bodies who are located in complicated positions within a constellation of US modern society, urban histories, and popular culture.
Bryce Henson is a multiracial Black scholar from the Pacific Northwest. He is interested in Black Studies, Critical Mixed Race Studies, Transnationalism, Popular Culture, and Diaspora. He is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation research analyzes the role of race, labor, culture, diaspora, and globalization in the lived experiences of Black rappers and graffiti artists in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Bryce can be followed on twitter @HellaNWFresh.
A Tribe Called Red. (2014, November 27). A Tribe Called Red: Our Gifts for Thanksgiving.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with Television: The Violence Profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172–199.
Lipsitz, G. (1994). Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place. New York: Verso.
Rosaldo, R. (1993). Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
 I put “off” in quotation marks to score the notion that Indigenous peoples can only be authentic in designated spaces. This same logic would not be applied to Europeans backpacking through Asia or US African-Americans in Europe.