Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln returns with a bold and timely new political single, “Treaties”, sampling Indigenous elders and the iconic words of singer Leonard Cohen.
Frank Waln is no stranger to the complex intersections of art and politics.
His music is both deeply informed by his Lakota heritage and by his commitment to uplifting his people in the face of continued injustice. Now, in the era of a colonial Trump autocracy, that struggle has taken on an ever more urgent force.
On January 24th, Trump signed an executive memo that set the stage for the revival of the contested Keystone XL pipeline and the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. On Wednesday, that final approval was granted. Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault called the decision a violation of tribal rights, treaty rights, human rights, and civil rights. But this decision is just the latest in hundreds of years of such violations.
Every treaty signed with Indigenous nations has been violated and broken. Over 500 years. More than 500 treaties.
It is against this backdrop, that Frank Waln’s latest single, “Treaties”, arrives as the perfect soundtrack to this continuous struggle for Indigenous existence. The track is a hypnotic instrumental that samples Leonard Cohen’s 2014 song “Nevermind”, in a repeated refrain: “The war was lost / The treaty signed…I live among you / Well disguised… I had a name / But nevermind”.
“When I heard ‘Nevermind’ by Leonard Cohen”, Waln says, “I was really intrigued by the way some of the lines resonated so much with Indigenous peoples’ experience with the US government in regards to our treaty rights. I wanted to flip the song for years. As I was chopping the song up and a new song started taking shape, I realized I’m not the one who should be speaking to my audience about treaty rights. Indigenous elders who have have been fighting for treaty rights should be the ones speaking. So I had the idea to use samples of Indigenous elders talking about treaty rights.”
“Treaties” incorporates samples from Suzan Shown Harjo, Faith Spotted Eagle and Kevin Gover. Waln requested Spotted Eagle’s permission to sample her voice and incorporated samples from Gover and Harjo found on YouTube of a public presentation they made to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian at a conference on treaty rights.
For Waln, decentering himself in this narrative is key to an ethic of respect for those that have gone before him. “As an Indigenous producer and songwriter”, he says, “centering the voices of Indigenous elders in a song is a great way to show my audience who I learn from, and to share knowledge directly from the source. This song is as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago, when the US government was breaking its treaty rights. It’s happening right now with the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines being built on treaty land.”
“How can the United States call itself the greatest country in the world when it won’t even honor the treaties that founded this country?”, he asks. “I hope this song spurs every American citizen who hears it, Indigenous or not, to pressure our government to follow its own laws and honor the treaties. This song is about justice.”
Listen to Frank Waln’s “Treaties”:
Download the track at Frank Waln’s Bandcamp.