For Native American Heritage Month, NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series is featuring indigenous artists. See and hear music from a selection of the artists below, and read more about them on NPR.org.
Raye Zaragoza breaks out of the preconceptions many have of Indigenous music, planting herself firmly in the folk genre, a tradition often reduced to white musicians with acoustic guitars. She pushes back on the narrative of folk music being for a certain type of person in her song “They Say,” in which she sings specifically about a time she realized at one of her own concerts that she probably couldn’t have afforded to be a member of the audience. “They say that folk music’s for the elite,” she sings, “the wise and the old with a college degree.”
Zaragoza is a natural performer, able to go big — like on her 2020 album, Woman in Color — or pare it all back, as she does in this Tiny Desk (home) concert. “I come from a very diverse, mixed-racial background,” she says during a break in her set. “My dad is of Akimel Oʼotham descent, and is Mexican as well, and my mom is an immigrant from Japan, who is also Taiwanese.”
“It’s Indigenous Peoples’ Month every month, don’t you forget, mark your calendars,” says Nicholas Galanin. “I think it’s important right now that we uplift and acknowledge Indigenous people beyond holidays or months, allocated time.” Galanin, who’s Tlingit and Unangax̂, leads Ya Tseen and brings his perspective as an Indigenous artist to every aspect of the band’s music and artistry. Even the backdrop of their Tiny Desk (home) concert is a house screen — the largest of its kind in Southeast Alaska — carved by Will Burkhart and Galanin (as an apprentice). The video itself was filmed at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house, which is modeled after customary Tlingit Long Houses.
Minutes can quickly turn into an hour listening to Ya Tseen’s music, which uses a combination of electronic and acoustic elements to create an inviting atmosphere. But his words are often far more cutting, literally so on “Knives,” which hides an ominous bent under an otherwise dreamy texture. It’s the first song off the band’s debut album, Indian Yard
Seated in the comfort of his home in Winnipeg, singing his song “Lighthouse,” William Prince emanates thoughtful messages of redemption and love. “I greet you today from Treaty 1 Territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba,” he says. “What a time it’s been, I’ve been at home writing songs this past little while, and it really gave me some perspective on something … confirmed something for me. You don’t want to let a day go wasted.” And with that, William Prince’s baritone lulls us into his song “Wasted,” a song he wrote to his son but is full of advice for us all.
William Prince grew up the son of a preacher and a musician on Peguis First Nation. With two albums released in 2020, including a gospel album inspired by the grief caused by the pandemic, he’s been quite prolific. He ends his Tiny Desk (home) concert with “Breathless,” the song that introduced him to the world in 2018; initially released in 2015, the later version we’ve come to know was produced by Nashville’s famed producer Dave Cobb.
Hear more Tiny Desk Concerts on NPR.org.
Read more articles about Native American and indigenous musicians.