Great blues music and a strong family tradition combine to inspire the members of Indigenous, hailed as one of the greatest electric blues bands of the early 2000s. The group, all members of the same Native American family, began their career in basement jam sessions in the early 1990s using old instruments. Within a few years, they had matured and moved into large concert venues—which included a performance at one of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural balls—to become a sought-after musical act by the end of the decade. As the quartet gained exposure from constant touring in the late 1990s, critics quickly hailed the newcomers for their musical brilliance and exceptional stage presence. Mary Bowannie reported in News From Indian Country that the group “leaves some rock critics grasping for words… [but] it is simple. Indigenous has the power to stir and unleash emotions that are deep inside everyone.”
The members of Indigenous, three siblings and a cousin, were raised in South Dakota. A member of the Nakota Nation, the family lived on the Yankton Indian Reservation. Although the band members have described their years growing up on the reservation as an experience not unlike life in any suburban American town, the political climate for Native Americans was far from ideal. Indeed, the children were exposed even in early childhood to the American Indian Movement (AIM), as their father and uncle, the late Greg Zephier, was active in that cause. Later, when they came of school age, their experiences with bigotry at the local schools drove them back to their family for home schooling in a less hostile atmosphere. As a result, it was the home of Greg and Beverly Zephier, the parents of the sibling band members, which spawned the fledgling quartet in the early 1990s.
As part of their education, the siblings studied music with Greg Zephier—himself a former musician—as their teacher. The children were still pre-teenagers when he introduced his pupils to some old musical instruments in the basement of his home. The equipment was leftover from a 1960s band called the Vanishing Americans with which Zephier had once performed. In addition to the instruments, the Zephier household contained a cache of vintage blues recordings, including many of the electronic genres that came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s. The future Indigenous members listened to the records and emulated the music. As a group they held their earliest jam sessions at the family home. Zephier, as their mentor, insisted that the band practice for at least two years prior to attempting a public performance. During those earliest years, as Indigenous bassist Pte professed to Scott Hickey of the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, the young musicians practiced and jammed through 12-hour days, beginning at noon and continuing through dawn.
For the Record…
Members include siblings Mato Nanji, guitar; Ptc (born Ptehcaka Wicasa), bass; Wanbdi (born Wanbdi Waste Win), drums; and cousin Horse (a.k.a. Tasunka), percussion; all are members of the Native American Nakota Nation.
Began as a basement band at home, early 1990s; moved into local venues and self-produced recording, mid 1990s; began touring, late 1990s; signed with Pachyderm Records, 1998.
Awards: Native American Music Award, Group of the Year, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Pachyderm Records, 7840 Co. 17 Blvd., Cannon Falls, MN 55009-4048.
Eventually the musicians ventured forth with their music into their hometown of Marty, South Dakota, where they performed their first jam outside of their home in 1995 in a local casino before an audience of friends and family. For the next three years, their concerts were held in virtual privacy as they continued to hone their performance skills. Still under Zephier’s guidance, they performed locally in casinos and other small venues, most often where their relatives or close friends comprised the audience. The limited concert schedule lasted three years before the band performed in a public concert. For the first two years of their public career, they appeared in a series of extended and exhausting tour engagements. Their earliest venues consisted frequently of off-road nightclubs where audiences were oftentimes very small and were largely unpredictable. Their earliest recordings were self-produced and marketed for local distribution. Indigenous released their first compact disc, called Awake, in 1994.
Indigenous prides itself on a strong sense of family tradition and loyalty. Born in the 1970s, Mato Nanji, known as Mato in the group and whose name means Standing Bear in his ancestral Nakota language, is lead singer, guitarist, and primary composer and lyricist for the group. From the earliest Indigenous performances, his fiery guitar playing was widely recognized among the greatest of his generation. Critics compare Mato’s extreme guitar styles—including playing with his teeth—to the sounds and antics of Jimi Hendrix.
Though a member of the Nakota Nation, Mato’s interest in music runs deeper than tribal ties. “We want our music to be color blind,” he stated to Cheri Soliday-Paul in News from Indian Country, aware that the band is perhaps too often recognized for the Native American ethnicity of its members instead of its engaging music. To many Native Americans, however, the band’s success is a beacon of pride. Kevin Peniska commented in Lakota Times, “We, as Indian People, need to feel proud of this band and its accomplishments. The honor of one is the honor of all.”
Wanbdi, the group’s drummer, is the only female member of Indigenous. Her full name, Wanbdi Waste Win, means Good Eagle Woman in Nakota. Her intuitive drumming skill has been described as a subliminal glue that cements Indigenous into a unified music machine.
Wanbdi also receives credit as a lyricist for many of the band’s popular songs. One year younger than Mato, Wanbdi, as with all of the band, received careful instruction from her parents in both the language and tradition of her people. Likewise, she and the band members followed the lead of her parents in rejecting drinking, smoking, and drugs, even in a modern music culture that sometimes exploits such practices. Ironically, it was a drunken driver who was blamed for an automobile accident early in 1999 that injured Wanb-di’s neck and kept her away from the stage for several months. With other family members sitting in for her, Indigenous successfully maintained their grueling performance schedule in her absence. Egos, according to Wanbdi, are not an issue in their musical organization. They play for enjoyment, and not to impress.
Ptehcaka Wicasa, known as Pte, plays a resounding electronic bass in the group. His name translates in English as Little Buffalo Man. Ptehcaka provided his production skills to the band’s Live Blues from the Sky album in the late 1990s. The album sold several thousand copies. Additionally, he writes lyrics for Indigenous songs with his sister Wanbdi and brother Mato.
Tasunka, the group’s percussionist, is best known by his English name of Horse. He is cousin to Mato, Wanbdi, and Pte. Tasunka adds flavor to Indigenous’ music through conga, timbales, bongos, and tambourine. He has been described as a great talent as well as a showman, with hands that fly in a blur and add powerful embellishments to the music.
Despite untimely setbacks, including as a house fire that destroyed several of their instruments and the subsequent loss of their equipment in a burglary, Indigenous persevered. Their reputation spread, and their music came to the attention of some of the foremost musicians of the blues tradition.
Indigenous signed with Pachyderm Records in September of 1998. They released their first single, “Now That You’re Gone,” that same year. The record, according to K. L. Testerman in Lakota Times, was the fifteenth most played rock and roll song in the United States. On the Radio & Records chart listing, the popular Indigenous song bested rock and roll superstars such as John Mellencamp. Indeed, by early 1999, Indigenous’ music reverberated from radio stations across the lower 48 states. This was true not only in the Midwest, but also in the Plains, the Western desert states, and the major urban music meccas of Los Angeles and New York. A second single, “Things We Do,” was released on video and received the prize for best video at the American Indian Film Festival that year. It also served as the title track for the first Indigenous album on Pachyderm Records.
In the summer of 1999, Indigenous successfully overcame a disappointing experience at the Woodstock reprise festival. At Woodstock, although the band was thrilled to perform on the emerging artist handbill, the enthusiasm turned dank because of the antics of spectators who failed abysmally to connect with the musicians at the ill-fated gathering; the festival ultimately erupted into violence. Regardless, by the end of the calendar year, Indigenous was a popular opening band for prominent blues performers such as B. B. King and Bob Dylan. In late summer, they opened for King at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, Nevada, just weeks before rejoining King in his King of the Blues tour on September 1, 1999. Indigenous’ television performances included an appearance on the nationally televised Austin City Limits on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and the foursome has been featured on popular talk shows. Indigenous’ live performances, often at colleges and universities, were heard throughout the United States, frequently in the states of Nebraska, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.
Reviewer Steve Stancell noted in New York Beacon that the group’s “expertise in the blues rock genre is firm….” The band is well-versed in Hendrix, according to Soliday-Paul, who commented on the band’s “killer rendition of ’Red House’” and other electric blues classics. Critical comparisons between Mato and legendary Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn were commonplace by 2000. Additionally, a distinct honor fell to Indigenous to perform as the opening act for Dylan in his Black Hills debut concert in 2000. With the release of their eleven-track Circle album on Pachyderm in May of that year, Indigenous embarked on an extended tour that brought them to sold-out audiences in more than 30 cities. Indigenous tours extended to charitable events, among them a free concert to benefit the Campaign Against Child Abuse and Neglect hosted at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by a consortium of sponsors, including the Ogala Nation Education Coalition. In the early 2000s, Indigenous was regularly performing as many as 200 concerts annually.
“Things We Do,” Pachyderm, 1998.
“Now That You’re Gone,” Pachyderm, 1998.
Awake, self-produced, 1994.
Things We Do, Pachyderm, 1998.
Blues This Morning (EP), Pachyderm, 1999.
Live at Pachyderm Studios, Pachyderm, 1999.
Circle, Pachyderm, 2000.
Lakota Times, August 24, 1998, p. B1; January 25, 1999, p. A1; February 22, 1999, p. A5; April 5, 2000, p. LT4.
News Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), August 19, 1999.
News from Indian Country, March 31, 1999, p. 8-9B; June 30. 2000, pp. 10-11B.
New York Beacon, November 10, 1999, p. 30.
Indigenous biography, http://www.indigenousrocks.com/ (November 17, 2000).
Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of a territory that has been colonized by a settler society, such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. As such, they are often minorities in their own homeland. The terms used to identify indigenous peoples vary depending on the colonial history and region, as well as historical period. For example, in Australia the term Aboriginal is common, whereas in Canada the terms include Aboriginal and First Nations, and Indian peoples. In New Zealand, the Maori tribes constitute the indigenous people. In Latin America, they are the Indigenas; in Japan, the Ainu people are the indigenous minority; and in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, they are the Sami. In the United States, indigenous peoples include American Indians (made up of hundreds of tribal nations), Alaska Natives (including Inuits, Aleutians, and American Indians), Native Hawaiians, American Samoans, and Chamorros from Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands. In addition, there are Taino-identified people in Puerto Rico.
In the 1986 report of United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur José Martínez Cobo titled Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations, indigenous peoples are defined as “those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that have developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them.” Cobo goes on to assert that “they form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic traditional medicines and health practices, including the right to protection of vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals.”
A key issue for indigenous peoples worldwide is the question of the right to self-determination under international law. Because the basic criteria defining colonies under international law includes foreign domination and geographical separation from the colonizer, indigenous peoples remain at a disadvantage in terms of the application of decolonization protocols to indigenous nations, an issue heatedly debated within the world community. UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 declares: “all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” However, there is no consensus that indigenous peoples have the right to full self-determination, an option that would allow for the development of nation-states independent from their former colonizers. In addition, it is not clear if such rights should be limited to internal self-determination within the existing nation-states in which indigenous peoples live. A key element in this debate is the use of the term peoples (plural), which signifies legal rights under international law, over and above the singular people, which is grammatically and legally different.
Indigenous peoples worldwide have worked for decades to ensure that their preexisting human rights are recognized and upheld by global nation-states, especially because the domestic laws in most settler states have not protected their ability to assert their self-determination. Key issues of struggle include the right of ownership and control of lands and resources, self-governance, and decision-making authority vis-à-vis the dominant population. As a result of indigenous global activism since the 1970s, a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is currently being considered in the UN Human Rights Council, and a vote by the UN General Assembly is possible at some time in the future. In its draft form, the declaration is currently being promoted as part of customary international law, and indigenous leaders are endeavoring to have states adopt this document in order to make it enforceable and legally binding. There is broad resistance to adopting the declaration, however, especially by the United States.
Histories of racism have varied across different global contexts, but histories of genocide are pervasive, as settler states have typically expanded their territory by waging wars against indigenous peoples. European nations, and later the United States and other nation-states, used the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which rationalized the conquest of indigenous lands, to perpetuate the legal fiction of land possession, and these nations continue to impose this principle as a mechanism of control in their negotiations with indigenous peoples’ legal status and land rights. One of the most common forms of racism against indigenous peoples in modern times is the pernicious falsehood that they are entirely extinct or diluted due to racial mixing. These populations are subject to a standard of authenticity based on a colonial logic of culture and purity. In the United States, the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” endures and has led to stringent criteria required of tribes seeking federal recognition. This recognition enables the exercise of internal self-determination by domestic dependent indigenous nations subject to the U.S. trust doctrine, which is supposed to be a unique legal relationship with the U.S. federal government that entails protection.
Barker, Joanne, ed. 2005. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Calloway, Colin G. 1999. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.
Durie, Mason 1998. Te Mana, Te Kawanatanga: The Politics of Maori Self-Determination. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen, ed. 2007. Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters. St. Leonard’s NSW, Australia: Allen and Unwin Press.
Russell, Dan. 2002. A People’s Dream: Aboriginal Self-Government in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Wilkins, David E., and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. 2001. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Indian Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
J. Kehaulani Kauanui