Breakdances With Wolves: When Hip-Hop Came to Indian Reservations

Looking back, it kinda reminds me of this '80s movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which some dimwit inadvertently drops a Coca-Cola bottle from an airplane flying over a remote Indigenous African community.

The tribesmen (and women) have never seen or felt glass before—they had no exposure to western technology—and therefore the community assumes it must be a "present" from the gods.

So this small, Indigenous community begins using the Coke bottle. They pass it around. Everybody finds a need for this tool that he or she previously didn't even know existed. They use it as a culinary implement, a musical instrument, a weapon—but not ever as a soda bottle.

They didn't know what it was for, so they simply made shit up. It was cool and new and shiny. A strange object in a foreign world became useful—became necessary.

It came into their lives suddenly, mysteriously and completely devoid of context. Thus, they all just made shit up as they went. Created the context. And it was beautiful. And it seemed weird, but it worked. Somehow.

Why am I telling you all this?

I later went to school in New York City. The reasons that I went to school in New York City are twofold: 1) good school, and 2) because I romanticized the birthplace of hip-hop since I was a little lad. I just knew that I had to live there at some time in my life. But when I moved from our little Suquamish Reservation to NYC and told friends in NYC why I moved there, they were always shocked—"How the heck did you get into hip-hop on the reservation?"

Believe it or not, all those years later, I was still trying to uncover that context for the mysterious tape that introduced me to hip-hop in the middle of the boonies.

Truth is that, in 2014, if you go to any Indian reservation within the U.S. you'll find Native youth listening to hip-hop music en masse. You might even find some Native hip-hop artists (more about them later). Now, keep in mind that these are remote locations—hundreds of miles away from any urban centers, in the midst of acres and acres of forests, cows or sheep grazing and farmland—yet, hip-hop has a grasp on the young folks.

But at one time, our reservations were almost unilaterally more prone to listen to pow-wow music or country or guitar rock and found solace in the familiar stories of homes on ranges and horses and remote locations within those genres.

I remember the exact moment when Native youth in the most remote parts of the US began to find a strange affinity with young Black and Latino youth in the most densely populated metropolitan areas. We found our shiny thing, like the African tribesmen, and made up the context.

Now granted, we weren't butt nekkid in the African bush; still, we were in remote northern Montana (far too cold to be butt nekkid), a few miles south of the Canadian border, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (and many reservations nationwide!). We weren't completely unfamiliar with western technology—we had a TV, although there was no cable, with two TV stations (and one was in Canada so, y'know, take that for what it was worth). We had a car, a red Pinto that had an amazing ability to fit eight of us into it.

We were Native country folks, in a very beautiful way. Close communities. Small town folk who live in a beautiful-yet-harsh environment, harsh cold and harsh winds (-20 degree temperatures and/or 70 MPH winds are not uncommon). Many of us, including my family, didn't even live in town, live anywhere near a paved road, or have running water. Many of our roads, even inside the town, were not paved. There was nothing urban about us. And the isolation wasn't just geographical—my pop culture influences were pretty much my older sisters (pre-hip-hop, I listened to a disproportionate amount of Ricky Skaggs, Olivia Newton John and Ronnie Milsap) and Friday Night Videos, the NBC music show that came on when we could get good reception. Life was simple. Country mice.

We loved our small communities and had very little interaction with or use for the outside world, except during the occasional venture to the "Big City" (on, in this case a town with a population of about 50,000 well over a hundred miles away) for Christmas or school shopping. I don't think that there were too many of us who had "bright lights, big city" ambitions. We were country folks, reservation Natives, and we would live and die here just as our ancestors had lived and died here for tens of thousands of years. That is special. And beautiful. And no one else in America has that connection.

But then, like in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, it came from no place. A wonderful and powerful gift from up above—the Gods!! It required immediate action.

Breakdancing Comes to the Rez

The year was 1985—springtime. I think my older cousin Leland Bear Medicine (or maybe it was Julian Many Hides) got the first copy of Beat Street on the rez. Maybe. Both Leland and Julian tended to get stuff first—they were just those types of dudes. Mind you, movies usually didn't hit the reservation until a good year after they came out "mainstream." I now know that breakdancing had been around for a several years before mainstream (white) America got hip and it was several more before we got it on the rez. By then, it'd been around for quite some time.

Breakdances With Wolves: When Hip-Hop Came to Indian Reservations

Just like the Coke bottle in the African bush, this mysterious video inspired action. We quickly began forming breakdancing crews and finding any accessory that we could find that remotely looked like it could be considered "urban" or edgy. We were used to adornment—we got dressed up for our Native social dances, called "pow-wows." Breakdancing just required a different type of regalia. I cut off the tops of striped socks for my wristbands; some people made wristbands out of BMX bike pad covers. I got caught stealing bandanas from the local Ben Franklin craft store. We were creative and industrious; we breakdanced in our dirt roads, inspired by these magical movies (by this time, we had stumbled upon the horrible Breakin'. It wasn't nearly as good as Beat Street, but Turbo's broom scene is still amazing to this day).

On the rez, it was an unwritten rule that every single battle had to have "Jam on It" by Newcleus. It simply wasn't a battle without it—that was one of the first questions asked. "Do you have 'Jam on It'?" If not, the battle was considered tarnished. Moot.

We always had it though. My cousin Leland made sure of it. He formed the crew comprised of young'uns from our community, Starr School. We battled other communities on the reservation—Heart Butte Breakers, Low Rent Project Poppers, and so on.

I can't lie, I was pretty nice—I took the VERY fancy name "Top Pop" and worked on my poppin' and lockin' something vicious. I was a little bit too chubby to really do too many power moves, but I used to go directly from dancing at pow-wows into the "game tent"—where vendors would set up game rooms at pow-wows with lots of video games—and "break" in our pow-wow gear on the dusty ass pow-wow grounds. We'd quickly disrobe from our very Native pow-wow gear and get ready for something much more contemporary, and a bunch of Native pow-wow kids would breakdance and hopefully draw a crowd to the game tent in exchange for free video games. A crowd would form.(FYI: Pow-wow dancers made the best breakdancers—dancing is dancing. All the boys from the contest-winning pow-wow drum group Blacklodge were pretty amazing breakers in their day.)

It was a great and weird scene—why hip-hop at this traditional Native event, hundreds or thousands of miles from anything remotely "urban?" Still, it made sense to us. The songs contained survival messages, just like our own powerful songs—codes for future generations. And the breakdancing was a celebration of movement and energy, much like our dances.

In a world where Natives are often taught that our traditions are evil or primitive or unworthy, we understood breakdancing's threat and energy and celebration of dance. It fit into our world well. We didn't have to choose "either/or," we could do both—celebrate our Native culture as well as relate to this other culture thousands of miles away.

We were fresh. Granted, we were about two years too late. I later found out that by the time breakdancing and hip-hop hit us, it was already pretty much passé in the outside world.

But that didn't matter—it spoke to us.

Since Then

Much to the dismay of the resident Megadeth and RATT (etc.) fans, as the 80s came to a close and the 90s began, hip-hop won the day for Native young kids. It had pretty much became the unofficial voice of the young and poor—color didn't matter. And, not surprisingly, given hip hop's broad egalitarian reach, Native folks began to get more involved in all parts of the culture. Since Indigenous people invariably come from an oral tradition, the notion of communicating history and/or calls to action via song is very intuitive, and the unabashed activism of the early-90s "Golden Age" of hip-hop makes a lot of sense to many Native people.

By that time (early 90s, the so-called "Golden Era"), I was living on the Suquamish Indian Reservation in Washington State—much closer to a major urban area, and to the action—local groups like Mixalot, Criminal Nation, Silver Shadow D, Ghetto Children, Source of Labor—while also listening to a lot of the political music that was going on nationally—Public Enemy, BDP.

As I mentioned earlier, I moved from the Rez to NYC to experience the Mecca of hip-hop. I was also there to attend Columbia Law School. For me, it made perfect sense. Hip-hop's activist spirit, combined with my family's ancestral directive to always serve our community, compelled me to go law school.

While in NYC—on some "full circle" shit that is so Native—I began writing because one of my good friends, the late Rashan Hilson, wrote for The Source and knew how broke I was. At the time, The Source was the shit so Rashan had a lot of pull with a lot of smaller magazines. Being the good dude he was, he did me a solid and got me some small writing jobs for some now defunct hip-hop rags to help keep a roof over my head. "Damn, a Native kid in NYC writing for hip-hop magazines in the birthplace of hip-hop?" Surreal.

The Why

But this story isn't just about "breakdancing" or "dressing urban" or going to law school. I mean, yeah, the "mimicking urban culture in remote America" thing was a cool bit of Early Globalism 101 for us Native kids, and was initially the way that we expressed our affinity to the culture. But it's the superficial part—the window dressing. The core that we related to was the hope.

We related to the hope that shone through the tough circumstances of the inner city. It sounded just like us maintaining hope in our homelands, where, make no mistake, things are harsh.

Many young Native men die very early deaths. Native men have a shorter life expectancy than any other men in the U.S. Our places struggle with poverty in far greater numbers than any other places in the country. To wit, six of the top ten poorest counties in the U.S. house Indian Reservations. In Glacier County, which contains part of the Blackfeet Reservation, per capita income is $11,597. We embodied every single thing that Melle Mel was talking about in Beat Street Breakdown.

That was us. The struggle was us. Financial deprivation was us—rural as hell, country as hell—yet, something very real in common with poor, urban Black and Latino youth all the way across the country. If hip-hop was indeed about the struggle, we were more hip-hop than anybody because we experienced more struggle than anybody in this nation.

But this wasn't a poverty competition—no Oppression Olympics here. We were in it together. Instead, this was a hope competition—that's what our homelands are about and that's what hip-hop was about—never losing hope even in difficult times. And together, we maintained hope and found commonality in these strangely dressed city dwellers.

Crescendo of colours hang in tune, Man why oh why d'ya have to die so soon? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, where the good die young it's all thy must, 'Cause as life must live, death must die and the tear shall fall from the living eye, Huh!

—Melle Mel, "Beat Street Breakdown"

That was the link, those were the ingredients—music, poverty, young death, and hope despite it all. We related to that. Like Kenny on Beat Street, we worked through the pain and the death and find ways to make life meaningful and better within our reservation communities.

So after this there'll be no more hard times, no more bad times and no more pain, No more chump change, none of that bull, Just movies, museums and the hall of fame

—Melle Mel, "Beat Street Breakdown"

We're gonna make it. Somehow. Assimilation, historical enmity and genocide or Reaganomics, slavery and benign neglect, we are all the stepchildren, united as the impoverished diaspora, but also united in hope. We will make this better. There's no stoppin' us.

And, somehow, weirdly, hip-hop became our soundtrack way out in the middle of everywhere.

A Playlist: Some Milestones and Icons in Native Hip-Hop

To paraphrase my dude, the amazing b-boy/photographer Thosh Collins, "contemporary hip-hop in Indian Country is a really interesting hybrid." Hip-hop is something that it is not inherent to native people; it's not, in any way, "traditional." But natives have incorporated foreign objects and ideas into our cultures for many years now, and reshaped them so that they more closely resembles us. Often for survival purposes.

Breakdances With Wolves: When Hip-Hop Came to Indian Reservations

Take Catholicism, something that was violently thrust upon many Southwestern Natives—who then combined it with many of their own spiritual beliefs, protocols, superstitions, and flavor. Boom! You've got something that's Catholicism in name, and Indigenous in spirit; Catholicism with Indigenous appearance and sensibility. Sure, it's Catholic, but the ceremony, the appearance and many of the symbols are completely different.

Likewise, ours is Native hip-hop. That may be the answer to the question that I know some of you have: "Well damn, if there's all this influence and history, why haven't any Native rappers blew?" I suspect it has something to do with this "Native hip-hop" thing, that sometimes it can feel obscure to relate to these Native people doing hip-hop in the middle of no place. It's not recognizable to the mainstream the way Eight Mile might be; it's an uncommon narrative that many cannot empathize with. At least for now. That'll change. Probably.

It's not at all uncommon to find Native rappers, Native b-girls and b-boys or hip-hop producers in our reservation homelands, even in the most remote spots. Just like every place else in the nation, thanks to the internet a Native kid on the Pine Ridge Reservation or Navajo Reservation has exactly the same access to "underground music" in NYC or LA as anyone.

Breakdances With Wolves: When Hip-Hop Came to Indian Reservations

Big Brother Ernie Paniccioli is the unofficial godfather of anything to do with Natives in hip-hop. The author of "Who Shot Ya? Three Decades of Hip-Hop Photography," Ernie took many of the iconic photos of the early years of hip-hop and has been immersed DEEP in hip-hop culture since literally day one.






SupaMan is a rapper/beatboxer/producer/pow-wow dancer/flute player from the Crow Nation. He was recently highlighted on MTV and gives, as mentioned before, a lot of that "Golden Era" boom-bap style hip-hop. This dude is amazing—straight up. Check out this video:

Chase Manhattan—An Anishinaabe artist, this dude is MUCH closer to mainstream, "regular" hip-hop; still, he's on this list just because he's really talented and has a dope flow.

Nick Galanin/Silver Jackson—Silver isn't rap, but he's 100% hip-hop in his presentation and style. He's also an incredibly dope visual artist and makes everything from traditional Tlingit jewelry (bling bling!) to really weird book/carvie/thingies…I don't know what they're called. Either way, this dude is one of my favorites.

Litefoot—You really can't talk about Natives in hip-hop without talking about Litefoot. Foot was one of the first Native hip-hop artists recording, period, and was DEFINITELY the first Native artist to really create an industry and monetize the product of hip-hop within Native communities.

Red Cloud—He's got really dope stage presence and could probably be a very effective comedian as well. Like Chase Manhattan, there's nothing distinctively "Native" about his sound or presentation but a great live performer.

A Tribe Called Red—They're winning big right now—not really hip-hop, but definitely (and obviously) influenced by hip-hop music, it's electronic production and mixing with a very strong Bomb Squad flavor. One of their biggest songs is the iconic ode to Indian people and also obviously the beauty of red skin in the song, "Red Skin Girl."

Frank Waln—Frank is, like me, very strongly influenced by the activist sound of the "Golden Era." He's a dreamer. As a result, I'm very strongly predisposed to like him. From protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline to exploring reservation images, he wants to change the world, and thinks that hip-hop is his tool to do so. I like that shit.

There are plenty more—this is just a short list. Rapper Nataani Means (the son of iconic /legendary activist Russell Means) has a new album out; rapper/producer Redskin the General has a new label—Cabin Games—with Native and non-Native artists rocking (and specifically a group called "HighTek Lowlives"—go check for them); a brother named Nightshield, who is really dope and has some fun party music and has been consistently selling product (music, not drugs) in South Dakota for probably 12 years; Yaiva is another one influenced by proactive, activist 90s rap—I love his spirit; Angel Haze, Nomadic, Quese IMC and the very dope, very Native Culture Shock Camp collective , War Party, Slug from the group Atmosphere is one of my favorite rappers in the world; Immortal Technique, David Love, and many more.

But the million dollar question: "Will any Native MCs crossover to the mainstream?" Tough question. I tend to lean toward "probably" instead of saying "definitely." While there is tons of Native talent, today's mainstream music listeners value image and narrative over talent or quality of music. Maybe if more Native rappers got shot—or were ex-corrections officers pretending to be drug dealers—they could more easily cross over. If a Native rapper did cross over, it'd be someone like Chase Manhattan, because his subject matter more closely resembles "mainstream" subject matter, for better or for worse.

But "crossing over" hasn't seemed to be the goal of Native hip-hop to date. Instead, hip-hop has fit rather nicely into simply being another verbal tool within Native people's large supply of devices—stories, songs, prayers, preserving our languages—that keep our oral traditions strong. This is Native hip-hop, after all. here's no questioning that we ingested hip-hop and claimed it—we loved it for what it is. But just like our Indigenous Africans kin with the Coke bottle, we recognized that hip-hop could serve a purpose for us and help us to enrich and enhance our beautiful tribal cultures. But we also recognized that in order for hip-hop to survive within our communities, it needed to speak our unique truths and so we made it our own.


Breakdances With Wolves: When Hip-Hop Came to Indian Reservations

Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and an attorney. He grew up on both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Indian Reservations and continues to work and live within his community. He is the author of two books, "How To Say I Love You In Indian" and "Don't Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)", both available at www.cutbankcreekpress.com. He also writes his own column for Indian Country Today Media Network called "The Thing About Skins." His twitter handle is @BigIndianGyasi. He is still kinda nice with the backspin and oftentimes gets the opportunity to talk about the cross-section of pop culture and Indigenous culture. www.gyasi-ross.com

This essay is dedicated to the Godfather of Native Americans in hip-hop, Uncle Ernie Paniccioli.

Image by Tara Jacoby