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A Tribe Called Red aims to reclaim indigenous culture

 Photos courtesy of Tina Wallace

IAN “DJ NDN” Campeau says he still gets nervous before every show.

“Typically it goes away right as the music starts,” he says.

Bear Witness, Dan “DJ Shub” General, and Campeau—the three members of A Tribe Called Red—headlined the Fall Festival on Tabaret lawn  Sept. 13. They’ve been touring extensively around North America this year and their album Nation II Nation is nominated for the 2013 Polaris Prize.

This month, Campeau also filed a human rights complaint against the Nepean Football Club after campaigning against the team’s name for several years. He objects to the team name on the grounds that it is a derogatory and racist term.

“The resistance seems to be about the entitlement about labelling an oppressed race,” Campeau says. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Steve Dean, president of the football club has said there wasn’t any intention to offend anyone with the team name.

“Yeah, intention doesn’t matter,” Campeau says. “It’s still offensive.”

Earlier this year, A Tribe Called Red called out fans that displayed thoughtless and racist behaviour, tweeting, “Non Natives that come to our shows, we need to talk. Please stop wearing headdresses and war paint. It’s insulting.”

The band’s performances also call attention to problematic depictions of indigenous people. While on tour, they include video in their show which repurposes and reclaiming problematic imagery and lyrics.

They’ve sampled Jamaican DJ Supercat’s song “Scalp Dem” and paired it with video of a white British dance troupe performing in aboriginal-type clothing. By using the song and imagery, A Tribe Called Red indigenizes and reclaims depictions of aboriginal people made by non-natives.

“There’s nothing really native about it, even though they’re all singing and dancing as natives,” says Campeau. “The only thing that makes that video native now is that A Tribe Called Red did it.”

Bear Witness and Campeau founded the Electric Powwow at Babylon nightclub, a bi-monthly event dedicated to showcasing aboriginal DJ talent and urban culture.

“We all grew up urban. None of us lived on reserve for an extended amount of time,” says Campeau. “So the urban experience is what we’re doing now, just kind of expressing that we are indigenous people, we do live in urban settings, and this is kind of a product of that.”

The three members had been DJing individually before coming together in 2010 to form A Tribe Called Red.

“In Ottawa, there are a lot of really culturally specific parties,” Campeau says. “Like you have Jamaican parties, you have Korean parties, and we noticed that there wasn’t one like that in Ottawa for aboriginal people.”

While they stick to a set on tour, at Babylon the DJs find they have more freedom to try new things in front of their hometown crowd.

“People know us here, and we know we can push things,” says Bear Witness. “If you’re playing for a crowd you’ve never played before, you’re feeling them out, you’re feeling out what people in that city are used to, what they will dance to. Whereas here we know where we can take it. There’s a lot of freedom.”

The band will stay in Canada for the next month, attend the Polaris Prize Gala in Toronto, and play a show in Owen Sound before taking their tour to Mexico, the United States, and France by the end of the year.


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