ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Arrival at the Sixth Annual Native American Music Awards on Nov. 15 required skillful navigation - between game tables and slot machines, through cigarette smoke and throngs of gamblers in T-shirts and blue jeans - to the rear of the building where a crowd of music fans in formal attire gathered at the mouth of the cavernous Bingo Ballroom. A man in full traditional dance regalia hovered at the auditorium's entrance, eyeing the concertgoers from under face paint and a feathered headdress, before disappearing backstage. The three members of heavy alter-rock band Blackfire, awarded Best Rock/Pop Recording at last year's ceremony, arrived a few minutes later. Brothers Klee and Clayton Benally wore dark suits. Their sister and bassist Jeneda looked strikingly elegant in an outfit that could have been lifted from the pages of Vogue or Elle. They too disappeared backstage.
Welcome to the NAMMY's - a study in musical contrasts, and testament to the refusal of Native artists to be pigeonholed into a single image or sound.
A quick survey of the mainstream music world does not yield many high-profile players of American Indian-descent. On the contrary, Native artists, producers, and promoters often struggle for recognition and access to resources. The Native American Music Association (NAMA) works hard to transform such norms. The NAMMY's were established in 1996 as part of NAMA's mission to promote, preserve, and celebrate all forms of American Indian music. The organization's efforts also led to the Native Music category of the Grammy awards. By honoring the talents of American Indian artists, NAMA is making significant strides towards increasing their exposure and chances for wide-scale success.
Some of the most beloved names in Native American music were showcased at the NAMMY's. But something much deeper was also on display. Participants had the chance to witness the fusion of seemingly disparate musical forms, as featured artists marry centuries of musical tradition with modern innovation.
This year members of NAMA voted along with the online general public to select winners in 25 categories ranging from Best Blues/Jazz Recording to Best Hip-Hop/Rap Recording. Nominees were chosen from more than 145 submittals, exemplifying the range and versatility that characterize the artistry of American Indian musicians.
The audience stood reverentially as traditional drum group Black Eagle began the opening act. The reverberations of their song were intensified by a line of dancers in pow wow dress winding their way around the crowd and onto the stage. Pima Express performed their popular "chicken scratch" blend of polka, rock, cumbia, and country. And from the Christian hard-rock of Triple Cross, to the politically-conscious rap of Florida native Shadowyz, to Derek Miller's solid blues/rock blend, the performances highlighted the prevalence of young talent within the scope of Native music. Eighteen-year-old Marlena Begaye, named Best Debut Artist, was among many up-and-coming award recipients, including Tribal Live, Nicole, and Litefoot.
"It's amazing how this happened. I got here so soon," said Begaye. "My next goal, really, is the GRAMMY's."
Pop singer Jana was another young nominee. She spent the duration of her performance perched serenely on a stool in the middle of the stage, but her powerful, acrobatic voice filled the auditorium. Later, as she accepted the award for Best Female Artist, Jana encouraged other young women to follow their musical ambitions.
"I think we should give a hand to Native female artists; there aren't enough of us," she said, leading the audience in a round of applause. "I'd like to see more of us out there."
World record-setter and weight-lifting champion Harold Dean Collins, otherwise known as "Chief Iron Bear," accepted the Jim Thorpe Sports Award for his feats of strength, as well as his community leadership.
"When I was 5 years old, my goal was to become the strongest Native American," said Collins in his acceptance speech. "Now, through Chief Iron Bear Sports Camps, I'm helping other Native kids reach their goals."
John Densmore, former drummer for The Doors, was recognized by NAMA's Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award for decades of musical contributions and activism on behalf of several American Indian communities.
Awarded a NAMMY for Best World Music Recording, Red Earth rounded out the night's acts. The band combined rock, reggae, jazz, funk, and other musical elements in their infectious, energetic blend of "tribal stew" - a term that could easily apply to the event's entire range of performances and personalities.
Honored by three nominations for their own mix of influences, young Alaska-based band Pamyua took home the award for Record of the Year. Co-founder and producer Phillip Blanchett glowed with excitement after the ceremony. He said Pamyua has plans to tour throughout Scandinavia in the upcoming year. Like most of the night's gracious award winners, Blanchett credited their community for much of the band's success.
"It's so cool to represent our part of the world," said Blanchett. "There's not really much representation from the north, and to come down here, you have to pay your own way. We did a fundraiser concert, and it was just beautiful; the Anchorage community came out and supported us in a huge way. We're just so blessed and honored to have their support. That's the only reason we're here, physically ? And we're excited for things to come in the future."
Pamyua has every reason to be hopeful. The NAMA award series continues to open up opportunities for Native musicians, post-nomination exposure allowing many of them to share their gifts with an increasingly wide audience. The NAMMY's aren't yet broadcast on network television, but this year's proceedings effectively demonstrated that (as co-host Darrel Lawrence noted), "the future of Native American music has never been so promising."