Prairie Blues

A Native band plays slave music on the great plains.

The notion that rock 'n' roll is, by definition, what you love but your parents hate might be somewhat dated in these, our nation's VH1 years. But the idea that four sibling teens would start a blues band under their dad's tutelage and continue it into their 20s while living at home does seem a bit odd. The Jackson Family model was always exceptional--and, it turns out, exceptionally abusive--and even the prince of a folky form like zydeco, C.J. Chenier, sowed wild oats in funk before taking up his father Clifton's legacy.

But if the young blues rockers in the band Indigenous shunted the time-honored tradition of using music as a means of rebellion, it's because they tapped an even older tradition of using it as a conference-call between family, community, and generations past. The lyrics on their remarkably assured debut, Things We Do, might not reference the band's Native heritage (the Nativist-sounding name was suggested by their mom). But the group's members are all Nakota (a subset of the Sioux nation, like the Lakota and Dakota), and their traditional upbringing is apparent in the closeness and modesty they display, if not in the scorching Texas-style blues they create.

Hailing from Marty, South Dakota, a tiny town on the Yankton Indian Reservation along the state's Nebraska border, the sister and three brothers of Indigenous were home-schooled by their parents, Greg and Beverly Zephier. Greg was a '70s leader in the pan-Indian activist group AIM (the American Indian Movement) and he immersed his children in Native culture and politics from an early age. When his first son with Beverly, Mato Nanji ("Standing Bear"), was less than a year old, Greg was arrested for protesting work conditions at a pork plant in Yankton. Three years later, in 1978, he took the kids to national demonstrations in Washington.

Greg also nourished a love of rock 'n' roll, and in the late '60s and early '70s, he toured America with two brothers and a nephew in a blues-rock family band of his own, the Vanishing Americans, whose very title reflected the increasingly militant times. (Contrast it with the more neutral "Indigenous" of today.) But Greg had put rock behind him by the time a 10-year-old Mato found his father's guitar and amplifier in the basement and tried his own hand at playing.

"My dad would come down and show me chords and everything," says the young guitarist and singer, a shy 24-year-old who measures every word and laughs with embarrassment when asked to talk about himself. "He gave me all these albums--Santana, Hendrix, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, all kinds of stuff. He said, 'Once you learn it yourself, you'll never forget it.' And I think that's true."

Two years younger than Mato, 22-year-old drummer Wanbdi remembers fighting over the family record player, which she didn't yet know how to operate. "I would tell him which ones to play," she says. "My favorite record was the Doors' first album." Wanbdi had wanted to play guitar, but Mato got one first, so she settled for drums. By the time all the siblings had reached their teens, they were playing and recording together, with Pte on bass and Horse (an adopted cousin) on congas and percussion. "Living in the country, we never really grew up around anybody else," says Pte, who, like Horse, is 20 years old. "We all just kind of stuck together, and it's been that way ever since."

It wasn't until the young musicians had practiced for years that they started playing out, debuting for family and friends at a local bingo hall and gigging at nearby Fort Randall Casino in Wagner, South Dakota. With parents in tow, Indigenous began touring in earnest three years ago throughout South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. After catching the ear of Indigo Girl Amy Ray, the band was asked to contribute a track to her 1996 Honor the Earth compilation. And while recording at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota--the uterus of Nirvana's In Utero--the band impressed studio owner Jim Nickels enough to win a place on his newly formed indie label, Pachyderm Records.

Things We Do is thus a flagship work of sorts. And with a video for the title track in the works by Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre, the album has all the fixings for a pop breakthrough. On first listen, you could easily mistake Indigenous for a veteran Texas blues band: not terribly original, but getting the job done well.

Mato's thick-as-tar voice and snarling, snappy fretwork bear the unmistakable influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Mato's solos are downright stately--as if being a wah-wah show-off would appear unbecoming for a young upstart. The result is an album with a comely restraint that is rare in the wanky, under-25 blues universe currently ruled by North Dakota native Jonny Lang (with whom Indigenous have shared a stage).

And if the group is indeed a cultural novelty--a Native band playing slave music on the great plains--it's worth remembering that one of Mato's obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix, was himself part Cherokee (as is guitar legend and distortion pioneer Link Wray). Though too modest to make any such comparisons, Mato does see himself as repaying debts to such influences--not the least his dad. "If you look at all the guitar players," he says, "they all take, and they give it back. And I guess that's more or less what I'm doing. Trying to give it back to my influences and hold up their name." The band also gives back to the community, supporting campaigns for sobriety and playing benefits for the Dineh people of Big Mountain, Arizona, who are currently facing federal removal from their land in the service of mining interests.

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