Most of the professional difficulties that Ian Campeau (AKA Deejay NDN) of first nations DJ crew A Tribe Called Red faces aren’t that of the usual show-booking or money-making variety. The act is insanely popular, selling out gigs all over the world, getting support from EDM impressario Diplo, and indexed on the Polaris Prize long list for the second straight year.
No, what has been the group’s tallest mountain to scale has been the reconciliation of attitudes towards a group of young, aboriginal men bluntly incorporating both sound and imagery of their race into their music and performances. Lately, it’s escalated, with the band pleading online with their non-aboriginal fans to discontinue wearing headdresses to the shows; taking on the city of Nepean, Ontario’s football team’s racist name; and facing the intense backlash that has hit them square in the face.
Now that you guys are touring the world, playing heavily attended shows in places like Detroit, and across Europe, you’ve started to recognize attendees dressing in first nations headdresses, yes?
Yeah. It was a trend that started before we were touring or making albums. But now that we’re touring more and playing more festivals, we’re starting to see them more, unfortunately.
Are they the kind of headdresses one might find for a child’s costume; made of plastic feathers, or are they more elaborate, or authentic?
Yeah. The majority of them are costume variety but some are more elaborate, very non-specific to any Nation though.
So what’s the part about them that you and your counterparts are finding the most offensive? Is it the lack of specific nation represented, or is it that it’s by non-First Nations wearing them, or something else?
Both and more. It’s creating a false idea of what it means to be Indigenous today. It’s “Pan-Indianism”. It’s robbing the First Nations of their nationhoods and nationality. It’s making us all “Indian” instead of recognizing me as an Anishnabe or Ojibway. I’m NOT an “Indian”. I’m of the Anishnabe Nation. Also, it gives the impression that Natives are something from the past. Not here today. If you were to think of an “Indian” you certainly aren’t going to think of me, tattooed in a hoodie with a Sens cap on. We, as First Nation people, have never had control of our image in colonial media since its birth.
But you use the name “Deejay Ndn”, and your act is called “A Tribe Called Red”. Do you use those names as a type of sarcasm?
"A Tribe Called Red" we came up specifically to appeal to both Natives on the Rez and to the Urban Aboriginals. "A Tribe Called.." has been used for years by different drum groups and Nations on letterman jackets and such. [i.e. A Tribe Called Mi’kmaq] So we knew the term would be recognized by Natives in rural and isolated communities as well as the obvious "A Tribe Called Quest" reference to the First Nations in urban settings.
Right, but you say that you’re “not an Indian” but your moniker is Deejay Ndn.
"NDN" is a spelling for "Indian" that I have only seen used by Indigenous youth. It was also something that would be recognizable to rural FN youth and urban FN youth. Like Keith Secola’s anthem "NDN Car."
So it’s reclamation of the word? Like “queer” or “n*****”?
NDN also stands for “Never Die Native” which is in retaliation for “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It can be seen as a reclamation. I prefer to use the term “decolonization.”
What about the fact that your merch has headdresses on them? Your “Electric Pow Wow” shirt has a man in a headdress on it. Is it specific to a certain nation?
It’s not cultural appropriation if it’s your own culture, right?
So you’re saying, if first nations individuals or leaders were to show up in headdresses, even if they are plastic feathered ones, it would be couth, but being that it’s young, white, EDM fans, that doesn’t wash.
Yes. Exactly. But it has yet to happen. I have yet to speak to someone who is First Nation who wears fake headdresses and war paint to EDM concerts. It’s “redface.” Just like “blackface”.
Do you ever address these fans at shows, either during or after you’re finished performing?
Absolutely. We played at the Electric Forest Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan last week and there were plenty of “hipster” headdresses in attendance. We had a traditional male dancer come out and dance for two songs. I made a point to “Hey guys in your fake headdresses, this is what it really looks like. You’re headdresses are fake and this is real.” Not sure they got the point but it was addressed on stage in front of a festival audience.
If you and your partners could address all those who attend in headdresses in one statement, what would you say?
"Please stop. It’s disrespectful and we really don’t appreciate it." That’s about all we can say at the moment. We’re in the middle of our civil rights movement right now, today. So hopefully, in a couple decades, "redface" and terms like "Redskin" and "Indian" will go way of "blackface", and terms like "n*****" and become tabooed in North American society.