Shifting the narrative
In Sitka, Alaska, musician, and artist Nicholas Galanin creates music as Ya Tseen. Imbued in his new record, and across all of his creative output, is a conscious effort to shift the narrative away from painful histories of Indigenous peoples.
"Indian Yard" refers to a sign in the pale and parched desert of the Coachella Valley, California. Standing 45ft high, rising out of the chalky rocks and cholla, it displays one of the most famous typefaces in the world, featured on countless guidebook covers and selfie backgrounds, one that is synonymous with stardom and the American Dream.
But instead of spelling “Hollywood,” this sign spells “Indian Land”. It’s a site-specific work created by 41-year-old artist/musician Nicholas Galanin, a showy reminder that the playgrounds of the rich and white are on stolen land, and a rallying cry to return what isn’t theirs.
The misrepresentations upheld by institutions transfer into the mistreatment of our communities still today. - Nicholas Galanin
"The iconic sign was historically placed as a white-only real estate advertisement. A lot of people don’t know that” Nicholas says of the Los Angeles landmark, which was erected on the Hollywood Hills in 1923 and at first spelled “Hollywoodland.”
The message behind the sign aligned, he continues, with “manifest destiny” – the belief in the 19th Century that white settlers were divinely ordained to colonize the US – and consequently “the displacement of Indigenous communities from their lands and homes.” But it also speaks to the role that the film industry has played in perpetuating “a certain version of Indigenous communities,” he says, “not portraying us as we, portraying us as a stereotype. The misrepresentations upheld by institutions transfer into the mistreatment of our communities still today.”
Nicholas’ piece, which is titled Never Forget, cemented him as a crucial voice in contemporary art. His use of the word “Indian” has sparked some concern within the community on whose land the sign stands – the Agua Caliente reservation, belonging to the Cahuilla tribe – who feared it was reductive but Nicholas, who is both Tlingít and Unangax̂, says it’s a knowing reference to a word he disagrees with.
‘Indian’ is a monolithic term that was embraced by the government as it removed each individual community from their place and space, over 560 Indigenous communities, with unique cultures, unique histories.
These types of messages skewer much of Nicholas’ work as a multi-disciplinary artist who defies easy categorization. Ya Tseen is a conscious effort to shift the narrative away from painful histories – liberation as an act of resistance.
"'Indian Yard' humanizes Indigenous experience in the world in a society that has historically dehumanized us,” says Nicholas. “It doesn't abandon the battles or the things that we still work daily towards in our communities, but I feel like it creates space for conversations based on all of these other aspects that oftentimes are overlooked intentionally when we're written about in the institutional or academic world. We have love, we have joy, we have our families and our children. We're not only defined by trauma; we're not only defined by these aspects of our history. You can't always get that through one art project.
This album humanizes Indigenous experience in the world, in a society that has historically dehumanized us.
Not one to submit to the cliché of a happy ending or a clear resolution, Indian Yard grows gradually more ominous in tone: one of the most intriguing tracks, the Sun Ra-referencing Gently To The Sun, imagines a space above the Earth without police brutality, pre-colonization, and with a poem rapped by Tay Sean atop a syncopated beat – Nicholas’ take on Afrofuturism, perhaps, where post-punk meets rap meets jazz.
Synthetic Gods, meanwhile, featuring Palaces and Boss, includes audio footage from the protests on Seattle’s Capitol Hill last year during the Black Lives Matter uprisings during its taunting trap abstractions. And it ends with Back In That Time – mercuried rap with menace.