In the face of the many seemingly unsolvable problems of the world, it takes courage, faith and determination to take on the role of a superhero. Colours Of A Changemaker is a series of interviews with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour from around the world who are using their vocation to create social and environmental change. As Gandhi once said, we must be the change we want to see in the world, and these changemakers are doing just that through their art, music, written works, social platforms and much more.
Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas is one half of the electronic music group The Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red). The group came onto the scene in Ottawa, Canada in 2008 when they started mixing powwow music with electronic music. They have since been the only group ever to do a solo opening for the Juno Awards and have been twice nominated for the coveted Polaris Music Prize.
I had the good fortune to chat with Bear over Zoom in early January of this year. We spoke about his music; his responsibility to, and for, a community; tokenism; how his group confronts misappropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous culture; and the shift from being A Tribe Called Red to The Halluci Nation.
I’d love to start with where A Tribe Called Red came from. What’s the story of how you guys came to be?
The group started out of a club night . . . back in 2008. It was a bunch of us who were all Native DJs around the city, playing our own gigs, doing our own thing, and [we] decided to come together to throw a party that was aimed towards the community really. The first nights we threw . . . [were planned around] when there were things happening in the city . . . when the powwow was in town or the AFN [Assembly of First Nations] Christmas meet or annual meeting was happening—just times when we knew there would be lots more Indigenous community in the city, we’d . . . throw these parties.
In the first year we probably only did five or six, but the response was overwhelming. Right from the first night, we sold it out—line-up-down-the-street kind of thing. [And] there was also a reaction from Indigenous people in Ottawa saying, “This is something that we need, and you can’t stop doing this; you’ve created the space, and now we want it and we need it and you can’t stop.” So it really quickly became a monthly party that went on [for] just under 10 years. We’re not doing it anymore.
When you recognised the community that was there and looking for connection, what did that feel like? Did it feel like a responsibility that you stepped into?
Definitely; there was a really quick realisation that we had a responsibility to [that community]. We didn’t do it on purpose. [We’d just said] let’s throw this party and see what happens. And then we got told. And that really explains a lot of our career—[it’s] been us listening and reacting to where we feel our community is at.
It sounds like you were bestowed a leadership role without really looking for one.
Yeah, definitely. And that came with all sorts of different things. Like we definitely got told that we were—whether we liked it or not—being looked at in that way, that we had a responsibility in the way that we conducted ourselves. There is such a lack of Indigenous representation that when you become the only example, or one of the few examples, you have to be responsible to that.
Can you talk to me more about that responsibility?
Yeah, well, what really solidified it was once we started using powwow music in our music. We just started off as a bunch of DJs, and really [started making the remixes] as a way to give back to the community that was showing us so much support in the club night. So, we wanted to make something—well, I mean, it really wasn’t even us. There was another group that . . . had this one song that sampled powwow music, and they’re non-Indigenous which is usually a really weird thing, but they had done it in such a way that . . . we got really excited. It was a song called ‘Get It Up’ with MIA and Santigold that was produced by a French group called Radio Clip. [When] we played their song [at the club night] . . . everybody jumped up—all the people in the club jumped up—and . . . it became a moment. So, [we said], “Okay, well, [we] guess people are ready to let this happen.” It’s weird that it happened with this French group first, but we were able to use that as a way to test the waters.
Because it was an iffy thing to do . . . bringing something like powwow music into a club, into a place where there’s alcohol being served, there’s definitely some boundaries being pushed there. We weren’t bringing in things like a big drum or regalia at that time; it was just the sounds. So we—ourselves and the community around the electric powwow—had to be okay with [the boundaries that were being pushed]. And that’s how we found out they were okay—[through] somebody else’s music. [After that] we started making mashups . . . of powwow songs and already-produced dubstep songs. Our first original was in late 2010. It just turned 10 years old. Electric Powwow song.
Yeah, that was the first song I heard by you guys.
Yeah, that’s the first OG song we did that wasn’t a mash-up. So once those things started happening, and it was evident that we were using culture in our music and getting a lot of attention for it, that’s really where that responsibility idea sunk in. Because [we realised that] now we’re representing something more than just being the DJs who we’ve been for years. Now, there’s this cultural element that is not only something that we’re using because it’s natural for us and something that makes sense for us and a way we wanted to represent the community around our electric powwow party, [but] it was also becoming a representation of contemporary Indigenous culture.
That must’ve been surreal to be a part of a culture shift and be conscious of that at the time.
Yeah, well, I grew up in Toronto and then I moved to Ottawa in my early 20s. And so, I’ve always lived in the city. I’ve always had a connection to my community and my reservation—I come from Six Nations. As [does] 2oolman, the other guy in the group now. Tim—2oolman—he grew up [on the reservation]; [but] for me, it was a place I went to sometimes. I definitely grew up in the city, [and] I’m not the first generation of that; my family has been urban for generations now.
And [with] my family mostly being artists, there’s always been a big part of everyone’s art that’s about either documenting or trying to express the urban Indigenous experience. That’s been a huge part of my life, for my entire life, watching my family’s art. So I was always very aware of that [urban] community and being part of that community and that community being my home.
Over the years, that community has grown a lot. Ten years ago, when we were starting, there was a real feeling of [needing] to define this. What does it look like? What does it sound like? Like there was definitely a moment where that was happening. And a lot of artists came out of that moment. And so, we were really just part of that. Again, it always feels like we’re riding the wave of things: we’re not leading this; we’re just following where things are going.
You’ve lived with such awareness of the responsibility that comes when one sees their capacity to shape the future of one’s culture. Having grown up in a family and a community that were deeply aware of the cultural shifts happening for urban Indigenous peoples and then you, yourself, contributing to that shift by introducing powwow music into electric music, all the while understanding that you had this community that you were connected to and suddenly responsible to—what does that feel like? How do you reflect on that?
Well, it was a goal of mine really. My mom’s an actor, [so are] my grandmother and my great aunts, and a whole chunk of my family. When I moved to Toronto from Buffalo, it was because my mom became the artistic director of Native Earth, which is a Native theatre company that she was the second artistic director [for]. (It had just started in the 80s.) And so, my mom was very instrumental in creating the Canadian Indigenous theatre community. She was there at ground zero for it.
That must have been really neat to grow up around. And she was also an activist, right?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. She left home at an early age to join the American Indian Movement. And that’s what she did through her teens and into her early 20s before I was born and then settled down in Buffalo, doing dance and theatre. Being part of that, I was always really aware that this was my family’s thing. It wasn’t mine. I was there; I witnessed it, but I was a child, so it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t what I was contributing to create.
So, my dream from a really young age was how do I achieve that myself? I always dreamt of being part of something that was at its beginnings.
When we started Tribe, I was already 30, so no longer being in my 20s, I felt that moment had passed for me. You know, you think of those things happening in your late teens through your 20s, [so when] you hit 30 . . . you’re like, “Okay, I guess that’s not going to happen.” And then it did [for me]. And not where I thought it was going to happen at all. I was really surprised at the reaction that we got from Indigenous people for what we were doing [because], like I said, it was a risky feeling in the beginning.
And I wanted to come back to that risky feeling. What did you feel you were risking? And what had you decide to risk it anyway?
So, when you come from a culture that has not only gone through and survived genocide, but also cultural genocide, right—like there was a direct attempt to destroy Indigenous culture in North America. So . . . when you have a culture that survived that, the parts of the culture that survived [did so] because people held them very tightly . . . they shielded them from the society that was trying to destroy them. And so those things had to go underground; those things had to become very private and very personal to just survive and to be passed on to other generations. When that happens to your culture, you have a tendency then to treat your culture as very precious.
There definitely was a feeling when I was younger—through most of my life really—that we don’t talk about these things; we don’t share these things. It’s ours, and we have to protect it . . . [and so] we’re really careful with the music that we use. It’s specifically powwow music, not ceremonial music; it’s music that’s meant for dancing. And those kinds of aspects of culture were still really difficult to share, and people are very guarded in the way that we do share those things.
So . . . . that’s where the risky feeling came from. We [didn’t] know how people [were] going to react. Are we going to be told that we’re not respecting protocols? That we need to stop what we’re doing [because] we’re breaking protocols? That we’re not treating culture the way it needs to be treated? And all of those things were huge pressures on what we were doing. [They were] questions that I didn’t have the answers for but had to ask our group “Is this right?”
It was the reaction from people saying we want to inhabit these spaces [that gave us confidence]. It’s not like there wasn’t an urban Indigenous community here; they just had nowhere to go and be together as a young, Indigenous urban community. So, we were creating that space and wanted to create music that would represent that community while also [being] enjoyed by everybody.
Because that’s the other thing: we’ve always had crazy talent in our communities, but it’s in our communities. [It’s not talent] that most other people are aware of. So that was another goal . . . to have something that was instantly recognised as ours, but everybody could enjoy and . . . relate to.
We used a lot of dubstep in the early days . . . [to make] it something that was relatable. On one hand, with non-Indigenous people, they could relate to it and experience something new that maybe they had never experienced before, and on the other hand, we have Indigenous people who know their culture, who recognise those sounds, but also now get to experience them in a different form, while watching people from outside of the community.
In the early days, we did a double bill show with a comedy troupe called the 1491s. They did [a comedy show for] the first part of the night, and then we did the electric powwow thing afterwards. At around 11–11:30, the [1941s said], “Okay, we’re going to head out, [we’ve] got a super early flight in the morning.” At that time, we only had a handful of original powwow sampled songs, so we would wait till midnight—wait till the club was packed—to play them. So, we [said], “Well, hold on a second, you know, if you hang out for another half hour, you’re going to see White people dance to powwow music.” They both just stopped dead in their tracks and said, “What?” And they ended up staying for the rest of the night and were just blown away. Because we’re not used to people outside of our community, knowing, understanding or participating in what we do unless it’s presented in this very stereotypical or culturally appropriated way.
Yeah, so that leads me to a question about who your music has brought together. Who do you think your music has connected? And what impact do you think your art has had on that relationship?
It’s connected a lot of people. I [mentioned] that in the beginning] we [held the club nights], when there was powwow or things that had a lot of Indigenous [people involved] . . . After we did that first handful of shows, we noticed that everybody who was from a community in the city that is underrepresented, disenfranchised, looking for safe space—all of those people—showed up to our parties, because they had heard [that] we had created this safe, inclusive place for Indigenous people, and it was a really good time.
So next thing we knew we had people from across every community showing up at our parties. And that’s really what blew it up. That’s really the moment that took us further. We weren’t just speaking to our community. And we were being listened to.
This points again to . . . that 2008–2010 time period where there was a shift, and to this day, I don’t know why it happened. But there was a shift in what the average North American was willing to participate in. And it [happened at] a lot of different levels to a lot of different communities . . . a lot of different people were suddenly being listened to, where before [the average North American] would’ve never interacted with them. In music, you saw things like bio funk from Brazil becoming a big thing and cumbia becoming a big thing, and things like that [which] were previously very community-oriented. But [in the 2008–2010 shift], everybody started listening to [them], and [they] became part of the club music conversation.
What spurred that shift? In thinking back to that time period, were you aware of the shift as it was happening? Or is that something that you noticed in hindsight?
No, we were watching it happen as we were doing it. Dave Nada started one of the first music styles that was just invented by DJ play. He had been playing a ditch party in LA [with] a lot of Dutch house and really big 4am club music. And these Chicano kids weren’t feeling it. So Dave had a bunch of reggaeton instrumentals, and he took [them] and turned them all the way to max speed and turned the [speed of the] Dutch house all the way down . . . and crossed them over, and it created this what became moombahton. So moombahton happened in this moment, but then it exploded all over the world.
Because music was in that moment of the “blogosphere of music.” Everyone was constantly looking for a new thing, a new sound to post on their blog . . . all this cross-pollination of sounds happened. Club music is very connected to community and space . . . there were [styles of music] from specific communities that were starting to pop off.
But when Dave made moombahton, it wasn’t necessarily like that. All over the world, people started making their own flavours of [these styles of music]. So we started seeing things coming out of Mexico and things coming out of Germany, and [A Tribe Called Red was] swept up in this whole scene where it was . . . less about if you were a house producer or Drum and Bass producer, it became about what flavour can you put on the sound that’s happening right now. So, we put our flavour into the mix.
Sounds like you were in this perfect storm of all of these musicians creating new sounds from their communities, and that was all intermingling and then you guys came onto the scene as well. And it sounds like everybody was really interested in taking ownership...
And representing. There was this idea of representing yourself and your community. And specifically for Indigenous communities, who had . . . again that idea that our voices were always confined to our own communities. All of a sudden, we could produce music cheaply and easily and we could get it out to the world quickly. This was [during] the SoundCloud explosion . . . [where the main concern of musicians was] how much SoundCloud content [we could] get up so all the bloggers would write about [us]. So all those things—the blogosphere, SoundCloud—those all contributed to amplifying these voices that had previously been confined to their communities.
When I think about specifically the impact that we had, there’s the obvious part of it which is representing ourselves and the way that we see ourselves and being a representation of that, not only for our community but for non-Indigenous people to see as well. What I find really interesting is watching—and I mean, I hate to take too much ownership over this, because there’s a lot of things that went into it—but I would say 10 years ago, if you ask the average Canadian what powwow music was, they probably didn’t know. And I’d like to think that we were part of creating that awareness.
Did it surprise you the receipt that you had outside of the Indigenous community?
Definitely. We never expected people to listen, because that’s not what we were used to seeing.
There [was] always [a] worry [that] when this moved out of our community, that we were being looked at—you know, the tokenism thing; that people are just looking at us or holding us up, because we’re an example of Indigenous culture but not because we’re necessarily good. That’s always something that creeps into the thinking.
When I have those thoughts, [I remember this one time] after opening up for [Diplo and] Major Lazer . . . in Montreal. We went back to [Diplo’s] dressing room, and when we walked in, he stopped the whole conversation in the dressing room and said, “Hold up, hold up. Everybody, you gotta meet these guys. They’re amazing DJs.” Like, he didn’t say they’re amazing Native DJs; he didn’t say these guys are bringing Native [music to the scene]—all of that shit. He just said these guys are amazing DJs. That was a huge moment in knowing that we were being seen for what we were doing.
And since then, has any of that tokenism crept in? I’d imagine that the Polaris nomination would probably be a much bigger version of Diplo saying, “Hey, these are amazing DJs.”
That thinking is hard to avoid, and you definitely wonder those things, but time and time again, we’ve had experiences with people in the industry, who [say], “No, these guys are just really good.” And that’s always very, very reassuring.
But other things have definitely reassured us of that. Like you bring up awards shows. We did the opening for the Junos [in 2016]. The Juno Awards generally open with a six-minute piece where . . . three bands play two minutes each of their hit songs. We got asked to participate in that. But as a DJ group, it’s really difficult to do a two-minute performance, because it’s just pressing play and then pretending that we’re doing something, and I personally refuse to do that. And so, whenever we get asked to do these things, it’s a mind-bender for me, because [I wonder], how do I create something that isn’t just us doing this [claps his hands over his head], and pressing play. So, when we [told the Junos that] we had these concerns around it, [the Junos] said, “Well, we don’t want you just to do one song; we’re going to give you the full six minutes,” which had never been done before. They’ve never given it to one artist. And we said, “Okay, that’s cool. But six minutes still doesn’t give us a lot of space to do stuff.” And they said, “You know what, we want you guys to do whatever you’re comfortable with.” And they gave us full freedom to do the show that we wanted to do even though it wasn’t what they were looking for. That was another one of those moments where I [thought], “Okay, these guys are respecting us. And they’re giving us the opportunity.”
That was really exciting, and definitely one of those moments where I [thought], “Okay, this isn’t tokenism. They really believe in what we’re doing.”
On the topic of tokenism, you guys have been really active in addressing misappropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous cultures. What hurdles have you faced in that?
There’s nothing I would call a hurdle. There’s been things we’ve had to confront, and we’ve been vocal about that. But—and this definitely doesn’t go for all Indigenous people or all people who are in a position like we are—but the way that we see it is that we’re here to have those discussions. So, if we need to, we will. That’s part of the responsibility of who we are and what we’re doing.
It’s pretty amazing: very quickly it switched from us [the group members] needing to deal with these situations to our fans, our management, our whole network around us [being] the more vocal people in the moment. If you show up at one of our shows in Redface or wearing a headdress or something, it used to be us . . . getting on the mic and [saying], “That’s not cool.” But now one of our people, be it our manager or our road manager, [will go] up [to the person], walk them to the bathroom and say, “You can leave or you can wash your face.” Or it’s going to be the crowd. The crowd will confront people very quickly.
And that speaks to another of the things that I see as a success in the group. There’s a history of Indigenous people being quiet about stuff. Again, that just goes to the survival of genocide, like “Let’s not get ourselves in any more trouble; let’s not draw any more attention to ourselves.” So, when we started [doing the club nights] . . . our community [was] still being like that. It was hard to get people to start dancing at our shows because people weren’t used to coming out and taking up space.
Now, if you come to our show in Redface or in a headdress, our audience will stand up and tell you that what you’re doing is wrong and have that conversation with you in the middle of a club. When we played at Coachella—the birthplace of the hipster headdress festival—there wasn’t a single headdress at our show. And actually, as soon as we started playing, the Navajo Nation flag went up, and [then]a few [more] Nation flags flew up. And all of these Native faces pushed their way to the front of the crowd and claimed that space.
And that’s happened again and again. It happens all over North America for us; even outside of North America, that’s begun to happen. There [are always] Indigenous people . . . at our shows, and they will always represent and they will always take up space. And that’s not something I saw our community doing at the beginning of this.
So again, that’s not something that I take responsibility for [because it’s] also people deciding how they want to represent and be seen, but it’s a shift that’s happened over our career, definitely.
And I can only imagine the pride that you must have in your community for standing up to misrepresentation and misappropriation, for saying, “Okay, enough. Let’s be proud. And let’s call the people into conversation about their choices.”
Yeah . . . our second record Nation to Nation . . . the reason it has that name is because that was when Idle No More was starting. So, there was this huge moment for our culture, for our community, where people did exactly that: they stood up and said, “Enough is enough. We’re not going to be silent; we need to be heard, and we’re not going to be ignored.”
That happened while we were recording [Nation to Nation], so [there was a big] influx of Indigenous people [into] Ottawa, [and] all of those protests and actions were going on. [It] was massive; you felt it everywhere. And that name, Nation to Nation, was because that’s what people were calling for. The people were [saying that] we need to be dealt with as the sovereign nations that we are, and that we need to have the conversation; we need to be brought to that level playing field.
One thing that we used to talk about a lot when that album came out was the idea—the Truth and Reconciliation was going on just previous to that—this whole idea that we [Indigenous communities and Canada] were coming to the table finally to have this conversation . . . about what has happened over the past 500 years. But to [Indigenous communities], it felt like there was a lot being glazed over [for the Government] to just sa,y “We’re coming to the table now.” So what we were saying was, “Let’s talk about creating the foundation before we start talking about the table.” We need to actually start doing the real work on why we’re in this position that we’re in now. To just quickly start talking about things like reconciliation—we’re not even there yet. We haven’t [yet] levelled the ground to build the table on.
But again, that wasn’t just us deciding those things; that was us listening to what was happening in the movement and watching what people were doing and saying.
It sounds like there was no specific moment when A Tribe Called Red decided, “Okay, we are activists now.” It sounds like it was a natural growth that you all recognised was there within you, and there was already a need and a movement happening, and then a community that was there and was responding.
It was all very haphazard. There was no plan, there was no… it was all just happening.
And that has me thinking about purpose which brings to mind a quote that you gave in another interview. You were commenting on your own individual purpose and said, “It’s part of a lifelong quest to understand what it means to be Indigenous in a colonial world.” Can you talk to me about what you’ve learned so far?
It’s something that I started on before I was making decisions for myself. It’s things that were instilled in me by my parents and my family from a very young age.
What I was specifically talking about in that quote was the work of my entire family . . . My parents have not been together since I was a young child, but their work still mirrors each other in a really weird way. My dad’s a photographer, my mom’s an actor, [yet] their work revolves around the same ideas and the same kinds of questions.
And to me, that’s such an important part of my creative work—the questions. [I] don’t necessarily ever find the answers for them, but my work is definitely based in asking myself those questions. So, it’s about intent. I ask myself these questions not to find the answers to them necessarily but to move in those intentions. So if my intention is to understand what it means to be Indigenous in a colonial world, or if that’s the question, then it’s sending me on this path of intent, which is a path I was set on before I was even aware of it, I guess.
Moving through life with intention—I wish everybody took this approach. And now A Tribe Called Red has intentionally moved into a new iteration of itself as The Halluci Nation. Can you talk to me about that?
Yeah, so The Halluci Nation comes from a poem written by John Trudell for us. It’s a concept that he talked about in his work quite a bit, but he specifically gave us a piece that he wrote for us called ‘Halluci Nation.’
John Trudell was somebody who was a bucket list person for us to work with . . . we had all grown up with not only his music but his ideas. And he’s somebody that we all really looked up to. It had come through the grapevine that he was aware of our work and was wanting to meet with us.
There was one show we were doing in New Mexico, and he happened to be there and asked if he could come and introduce [himself to] us. And right from that first meeting, he started putting forth the idea to collaborate. He’d just start reading me poems; he’d rummage through papers, read me something and [ask], “If I gave you that would you be interested in that?”
It was still another year and a half or so later that we actually got him on the album. [During] the time in between, we had decided that the next album was going to be a concept album, that we wanted to tell a story. I was working really hard at writing that story. It had gone through a few different iterations.
And then John . . . gave us this poem, the ‘Halluci Nation.’ And [I said], “Oh no, that’s our story.” [The story] had gone through this growing up, where it started as a very juvenile story of superheroes, and then it had this adolescence of revolutionaries and outlaws, and then John Trudell gave those superheroes and those outlaws a nation. So I filled in what he had given us with what I was writing, and that’s what became the concept around the Halluci Nation.
Right around the time that the album came out, John passed away. Fortunately, we had a number of opportunities to meet with him, and I had some correspondence with him over emails over the few years there.
Every time we spoke, [there] was always this feeling that he was trying to give us information, that he was trying to download as much as he could to us. From the first time that we had met, he had told me that it took him half his life to figure out what we [had figured out] intuitively. And he saw us being able to carry our messages into the future in a way that he wasn’t able to, in a louder voice. So he just wanted to give us as much as [he could of what] he had learnt over his lifetime trying to do what we were already doing. So, there was a real [feeling of] passing the torch.
So there was a real responsibility . . . to carry [on] his message, his ideas . . . in our music. So the Halluci Nation became a really central concept to the group in general. Tim and I are now the group, and it’s a really different feeling in the group from where we started. Tim and I, being from the same [Six Nations] community, we have a language between us and an understanding between us . . . of the way we’ve been raised; our values and our belief systems are really similar, and we have accountability that goes back generations with each other in our community. All of those things have refocused what the group is and what the group is doing. We’re going forward now in a very, very different headspace or mindset, and to represent all of that, we’ve decided to fully take on The Halluci Nation as our group identity.
This is the first interview I’ve done where I’ve talked about it at all because it’s literally just happened over the holidays.
So, now as The Halluci Nation, what’s next for you guys?
We've spent the past two and a half years producing new music. And we have an album that’s ready to come out. It’s been a hard time to put out an album but everything’s ready to go. And it should be coming out within the next month or so.
You can check out The Halluci Nation’s music on all platforms as well as their website, and you can follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Facebook.