'Native North America': How We Ignored Incredible Folk and Country Made at Home

How Kevin "Sipreano" Howes assembled Light in the Attic's illuminating compilation

Willy Mitchell and Desert River Band Credit: Courtesy of Willy Mitchell and Desert River Band

Deep-digging archival label Light in the Attic is illuminating a stash of music that's sweeping, under-appreciated, barely documented and surprisingly close to home. While reissue labels continue to mine unheard sounds from far-flung parts of the globe, Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 focuses on music made by the indigenous people of Canada and the northern U.S. Due November 25th, the album rings with brilliant garage-rock fuzz, pedal steel-laced heartache, singer-songwriter Earth love, radical politics, wah-wah heroism and the occasional lyrics in Inukitut. 

Produced by Canadian native Kevin "Sipreano" Howes, the 23-artist, 34-track, three-LP set (plus 120 pages of notes) is a detailed, panoramic joy. Howes has spent the past half-decade putting together what he calls a "jigsaw puzzle" of North American culture. With easily picked-out reference points ranging from Credence Clearwater Revival to Black Sabbath, the songs of Native North America are personal and political, filled with big dreams and small, from territory both immediately familiar and breathtakingly undiscovered by American ears. We caught up with Howes to talk about compiling this landmark release. 

What got you into collecting regional Canadian music?
It's sort of an extension of DJ culture and, as weird as it sounds, the sample-based aesthetic of rap music. It was basically realizing that all the rap records I loved from artists like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane, the rhythm tracks from all their tunes were sampled from soul, funk, rock and jazz records. Once I had that realization, I started digging back into the roots of music, maybe in the early-to-mid-Nineties. Once you start digging, you're at record stores and thrift stores and flea markets and you come across all these incredible records. 

Living in Canada, I was moving back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, I just started coming across all these records from Canada and wanting to learn more about them. Just like the States, it's vast and varied. The only way you can find these records is to actually travel. I'd get in my car and drive across the country looking for records. Music in the Sixties and Seventies, especially in Canada, was very regional. In a town like Regina in the province of Saskatchewan, a band might've cut a record in the late Sixties and that record never left the city. There just wasn't access to distribution. I've been doing it for the last 15 years, or more, hitting the road and digging up these records. I love artists like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot dearly, I have all their records, but there's more.

And then what was your rabbit-hole into discovering the world of aboriginal music
Willie Dunn, most definitely, was the gateway into learning more about the contemporary music of the day of the indigenous peoples. Growing up here in Canada, in elementary and high school, we'd watch a lot of films in classes from the National Film Board, a government sanctioned film entity. Willie Dunn was a filmmaker in the late Sixties for the NFB and cut an amazing short film called The Ballad of Crow Foot that was done in 1968. I remember seeing that film as a kid and it was deeply affecting, it stayed with me, and the name did, too. When I was out there in the Nineties picking up records and I came across an album by Willie Dunn. I took it home and was floored. I couldn't believe the poetry and the instrumentation. It was as good as any folk or rock record I'd heard from anywhere in the world.

Willie Dunn is fairly well known in Canada and had received some international acclaim. But, other artists, there's no information. I wound find these records out in the field, be it Vancouver or a smaller community out in the prairie, and my mind just boggled when I tried to do research. I couldn't believe it! These records were so killer. And to Google it and not find a damn thing about any of the artists, any of the music! Or looking in a quote-unquote "history of Canadian music" book and looking in the index, these guys aren't even mentioned. I realized early on in this process that you have to go right to the source. I had to go right to the artists and track them down. 

How did you choose the boundaries of 1966 and 1985?
They weren't intended as borders, it just represented the years these songs fell between. You can't place a year on it, but that era from the Sixties to the Eighties was an era of great awakening in indigenous cultures across North America. Younger people were getting in touch with their roots and something that had been suppressed for many years through colonialism. For many years, ceremonies like the potlatch and pow-wows and sweat lodges were banned and people were forbidden by the government to practice their traditional cultures. But in this era, it was starting to open up again. People were opening up to the realities of what had happened. Cultural pride was exploding. It just happens to be the years between the Chieftones in '66 and Eric Landy in '85. 

A lot of these artists came out of the folk music boom, reflecting the music of the Sixties, so those are the sounds that were pumping out of the stereos and radios in those days. These days, in indigenous music across North America, we hear a lot of hip-hop and dance and electronic music. If Willie Dunn was alive and in his early 20s in 2014 as an active musician, he'd be making hip-hop. You listen to his lyrics and he almost was rapping back in the Sixties. A lot of the First Nations musicians I spoke to said about Willie Dunn that "he was our Leonard Cohen." They're actually both from Montreal. I was curious how often they crossed paths. I want to ask Leonard that some day. 

What kind of crossover was there between the aboriginal musicians and other Canadian scenes?
The Band were playing the same bars on the Young Street strip in Toronto that Willie Dunn was playing. Robbie Robertson is of indigenous descent. There was crossover. Duke Redbird, one of the poets on the album, who worked with Shingoose, lived in the same apartment building as Joni Mitchell. Shingoose lived in the States [in 1969] and recorded as a group called Puzzle on ABC Records, working with Jimi Hendrix's engineer Eddie Kramer. The Chieftones opened for The Beach Boys a week before Pet Sounds was released. There are some obvious crossovers, but most of these artists didn't get any recognition for it at the time.

There's a really vast sweep to the music included here.
This project has just been a big eye-opener and a learning experience. You learn more about the history of Canada and North America as a whole and the effects of colonialism. It just makes me angry to learn more about the history of our country, and how it informs the status of people today in 2014. There was so much cultural suppression. Willie Thrasher was part of something we had here called the Residential School System where aboriginal kids were taken away from their homes and forced to speak different languages and not practice their customs. After Willie got out of that school system — which doesn't exist anymore but was prominent in those days of the Sixties and Seventies — music for him was a way to rediscover his indigenous roots and heritage. 

There are 23 artists and groups represented on this one. They'd tell me their stories. And there are some very heavy stories. There are members of Sikumiut that are living on the streets of Montreal. Willy Mitchell, his career was sparked by an actual bullet right in his head at the hands of a trigger-happy police officer. In some cases, I could meet the artists in person, in some cases on the phone. My mind was melting daily for a period of, like, five years. It was really affecting to hear these stories. We'll be sending it out to libraries and cultural centers across the country so, if somebody in 10 or 15 years stumbles across a Willy Mitchell record and want to know more about Willy Mitchell, and they type his name into Google, at least there'll be something!

I hope this release can help the artists that are still active today and pay respect to those who aren't. I hope there's an opportunity for those who are still active to work off the back of it and travel the world. Willie Thrasher is ready to get on the Greyhound bus and take it across Canada.