In America, home of the most ancient of cultures there are four great wonders of our world where people can come and see the essence of our lives. The towering columns and deep canyons of the Southwest, the great pow wows of the Plains, the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe and the Annual Native American Music Awards show (the Nammys).
President John F. Kennedy said, while accepting an honorary degree at Amherst College in October 1963, 'I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.'
Today's Native performing artists have the same hopes.
Considering that our music is the one format that most successfully reaches beyond the stereotypes and the American cultural divide which keeps its races separated and uneducated about each other, it is truly a wonder that the Native music industry has grown to the point that it has. Of 558 tribes around this country only a handful have stepped up and invested in our Native performing artists.
The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, producers of the Grammy Awards, as of last year created a new music category called Native American Music. It was the work of the NAMA organization that assisted the Grammy people to create this new category. Artists that win the Nammys Artist of the Year or Album of the Year have in the past gone on to become Grammy nominees.
For the fourth year in a row the Native American Music Awards and Association, with the support of a few tribes, has organized and will produce the fourth annual Native American Music Awards Show. The show will be held in the Sandia Casino Amphitheater in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 20.
NAMA has been entrusted with setting the standards of contemporary Native music today. Its modus operandi uses professional skills and standards to promote and maintain advancement of the Native music industry and to operate in the best interests of the Native musician.
NAMA membership is increasing and the numbers of supporters and core audience base grows each year. In increasing numbers, however slowly, today tribal entertainment centers in Indian country are accepting sponsorship positions.
This year marks the first time that the Sandia Pueblo will host to the event and its third year as the show's main sponsor. The fact an Indian nation and its casino are hosts reinforces the commitment of some tribes toward Native entertainers and performing artists.
'Our pueblo council has always maintained a deep appreciation for the Native arts and culture,' said Felix Chavez, a pueblo member and the casino's assistant general manager. 'We make it our business to support the Native musical community, they are but one of many communities in Indian country that we support.
'We believe that if we all focus on a industry that offers our youth an outlet to express themselves and make a career of it, then we are assisting in building a positive future for our youth.'
Chavez went on to say that support for the music industry has a broad base. 'We don't lock on to one musical forum, for example we also sponsor the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.'
The decision-making process the pueblo and casino employ is, for the most part, typical of Indian country although the process has become quite streamlined over time. It does not take long to make a decision. Casino management prospects for projects that can fill their venue. They take the idea to the casino marketing department, talk over cost of promoting the event and other logistical details, and then take the information to tribal officials for their stamp of approval.
Although the Sandia expressed altruistic motives for hosting the awards, there are practical reasons. The show draws a large crowd, with an estimated 40 percent traveling from all parts of the United States. This show's diverse drawing power generates income for the host venue and surrounding hotels. But, the show has to draw more paid advertising and sponsors before it can fully compensate professionals responsible for putting the show on.
The NAMA organization, mostly volunteer staff, has not expanded office space since its beginnings. Many young Native professionals eagerly associate themselves with the organization and contribute their expertise to help make the organization a success. They believe in the potential of NAMA.
And they are correct. The audience turnout this year is shaping up to be a standing room-only show, filling all of the 3,300 seats available at the Sandia Amphitheater.
Ellen Bello, president and founder of NAMA said, 'Each year, since our first show, the audience numbers have grown as have the number of artist recordings.'
Executive Director Don Kelly, who directs the production, said, 'This year is the year we take off. For the first time Indian tribes and their businesses are calling us to sponsor some aspect of the show or to buy ads in our promotional campaign and the show itself. We've received numerous bids from some well-known Indian casinos wanting to host the show. All signs are that each year's show will become bigger, but this year's show is the one to catapult NAMA onto the big marquees of the most organized and successful Indian nations and casinos in the country. The NAMA Awards Show is leaving the station for the big time. And, the Native performing artists are riding first class.'
The Nammy awards had its debut at the Mashantucket Pequot's Foxwoods Casino Resort in 1998. 'The show was a huge success, in audience turn out. Financially, we were made happy with its turn out.'
Indeed, the show at that time was going to be a write-off for Foxwoods, explained Kelly Reising, executive director of the Pequot's Public Relations department. Indeed, there were no complaints from the staff accountants 'and the tribal members are still speaking of it today.'
Important national newspapers consistently have given the Nammys high reviews of the show. Billboard Magazine calls the show a '... remarkable variety of today's Native American music.' Wall Street Journal says of the Nammys, 'American Indian musicians are beginning to enter the mainstream music industry without compromising.' The Boston Globe, New York Daily News and USA Today have all come from the Nammys impressed with the variety of musical genres and the professional level of the artists.
Because of the Native American Music Association and the hard work of its members, Native American music is gaining recognition by the mainstream press. But it was the lack of recognition from American Indian tribes and businesses that hurt the industry most, at one time forcing the Nammys to seek support and sponsorship mostly from non-Indian sources.
That has all changed. The number of tribes that support the Awards Show is growing. Since the first year with only one tribal sponsorship, that number has now grown to include nine Indian nations: the Sandia Pueblo, Miccosukee, Pequot, Isleta Pueblo, Seminole, Shinnecock, Cow Creek, Shakopee, and new to the list this year is the Oneida Nation of New York.
This year's program plans to feature the largest and most diverse lineup of musicians from American Indian nations ever at the casino, make that the country as well. NAMA nominees will perform over a two-day period, starting on Friday afternoon with performances in the Sandia Casino's lounge and culminating Saturday evening, with star-studded performances under the great open sky the night of the awards ceremony.
Although it's been almost 30 years since Kennedy spoke, all indications are that we are finally looking to an Indian America that is steadily enlarging cultural opportunities for all tribal citizens.