Choctaw singer Samantha Crain says it can be hard for indigenous artists to feel they are “Native enough” to announce and perform as indigenous artists.
It’s an issue that Crain, who is based in Norman, Oklahoma and who appears in a short documentary making the rounds at various film festivals, says is important for all indigenous artists to focus on.
“We have lost so much of our culture and tradition through colonization and Christianization that the only way forward, in many tribes, is to start creating our own new tradition and culture and continue that of which we have access to from the past,” she tells Indian Country Today Media Network.
“The only way for us to survive is for us to start creating new art and new music and new tradition, with respect to our ancestors and elders, learning what we can from them.”
For Crain, the short documentary was a chance to share her story and connect with others. Set mostly inside her home in Norman, the documentary features Crain singing her song “Elk City” and discussions about her advocacy, creating music and touring. Crain took part in the Occupy movement, which she says inspired aspects of some of her songs.
“I’ve always kind of been an advocate for the underdog. I’m very political, and I’m very opinionated and I do get involved with things when they mean a lot to me. That floats into cultural appropriation,” she says.
Crain was an outspoken critic of Christina Fallin, the daughter of current Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who was in the news in 2014 for posting a photo of herself on social media wearing a Plains headdress while at a Native American-owned racetrack in Oklahoma City.
Fallin is not Native, and she and her bandmate later asked for forgiveness because they “innocently adorn ourselves in your beautiful things.”
“Usually,” Crain says in the documentary, “the intent behind cultural appropriation is more of a lack of education and understanding, and if a group of people say it hurts them, it will be stopped.”
Crain says that was not the case with Fallin. “I saw that as an opportunity to draw out a lot of the people around here who I think were already really active in the fight and the conversation against cultural appropriation, specifically the appropriation of Native cultures.
“I don’t think people respond very well to being preached at or being told to think one way or to change the way they are,” Crain says in the documentary. “I think people do respond to having empathy for people, though.”
The documentary was a collaboration between Invisible Nations, a multimedia project exploring the lives of Native Americans living in Oklahoma, and FireThief Productions, an Oklahoma-based independent production company.
“I love Samantha's music so much,” says Invisible Nations lead producer Allison Herrera. “She probably will hate me for saying this, but she's like a Native Woody Guthrie, except she's better dressed.”
The documentary is showing at film festivals across the country, including the recent Tulsa American Film Festival and the California American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival. The Smithsonian is also interested in obtaining the documentary for their collection, Herrera says.
Crain performed during an event at the Tulsa American Film Festival, singing one song in Choctaw.
Though Crain is not yet conversational and is still learning the language, she says she plans to continue to write songs in Choctaw as a way to create traditional and cultural material for future generations.
“It is important to sing and speak in the language so it keeps living in the physical world,” she says. “Every time someone speaks the language or sings a song in the language, it is not dead. It keeps living.”
The short documentary can be viewed here: