A conversation with Native poet and educator Tanaya Winder regarding debut EP
Poet, entrepreneur, and educator Tanaya Winder, Duckwater Shoshone / Pyramid Lake Paiute, Southern Ute, Diné, and Black has been blazing trails for Native artists and women for years.
Winder’s latest move is a debut EP titled For Women and Girls on Fire. After publishing her poetry collection Why Storms Are Named After People But Bullets Remain Nameless, Winder told Indian Country Today, she wanted to bring her words to life.
The EP delivers with songs that range from mournful and reflective to power ballads professing self-love and healing. The EP laces spoken-word with vocals, acoustic guitar, and even hip hop, and includes collaborations with breakthrough rappers Frank Waln and Mic Jordan, among others.
Winder started the collective Dream Warriors, whose members are featured heavily on the EP, to support musicians and artists dedicated to Indigenous healing and resilience. This month, Winder and Dream Warriors will travel to South Dakota and Minnesota.
Before Winder takes off, I caught her in her Colorado home to talk about her evolution from poetry to music and the inspiration behind her words and song.
Rebecca Nagle: I was really excited to see you evolve from poetry to music. What inspired it? Did it feel more vulnerable to record your thoughts versus writing them?
Tanaya Winder: Growing up in ceremony, I was singing sundance songs, and other community tribal songs, before I even started writing. But I had never thought about it beyond those spaces. I started to feel more and more called to sing.
With poetry you can write in code, you can make it more lyrical, you write it so it can be interpreted in different ways. But with music, it has your voice, your heart, your emotion. And that can be scary, but singing and music feel more free. I know my spirit is meant to sing. As long as one person can vibe or resonate with a song, it's done its purpose.
RN: This album is full of collaborations. Who are we going to hear on the album and how was collaboration part of your creative process?
TW: You'll hear Frank Waln on piano, you'll hear my cousin Jon Chavarillo on Guitar, Mic Jordan on Guitar, Delbert Anderson on trumpet and then our friend Mauricio Espinal on keys. As Indigenous people, we're not meant to do things alone.
In 2017, I started talking with my friends from Dream Warriors about buying a guitar. I was coming home from Christmas and they told me, ‘we got you an edible arrangement.’ They had it sent days before I returned so by the time I got home, I was thinking that edible arrangement must be crazy by now. When I went to get it, there was this huge box and inside was a guitar. They had all chipped in. I was in tears.
When I decided I really wanted to put an EP out there, Jordan came up with a guitar riff, I read my poem to it, and Frank recorded it on the spot. That’s how it all started. I almost fell into the trap of I should wait, this is not good enough. Fear holds us back. I would not have been able to do it alone. It's really beautiful to do something a lot of people helped encourage.
RN: One of the things that really moves me about the album is the way it was both really real about trauma and pain, but also really grounded in resilience and hope. Why did you choose those themes*?*
TW: Trying to heal is a constant daily practice. It's like everything we do to stay healthy. I try to eat right every day, drink water every day, try to work out. Healing is just like that.
When I wrote the poem For Women and Girls on Fire, I made a graphic with the words. So many people shared it and resonated with it. When you're in your own pain or trauma, you're in your own little cage. You can't see what's going on around you. But so many people are going through the same thing. For my first EP, I wanted something for people who are on fire, whether they're struggling or using their lights to better themselves and the world. I wanted to give people that empowerment.
RN: How do the different tribes and the heritage you carry inform your writing and your music as an artist?
TW: The whole concept of this EP is honoring my path. I want to be more conscious and intentional about honoring all of the nations I carry within me. My heritage also includes black lineage, and I include part of Nina Simone's Blackbird on Thirteen Ways of Loving a Blackbird. Right now, I am working with different Paiute, Shoshone and Ute elders to translate different phrases. My next full album will include those indigenous languages so I can not only teach myself but give back to my community and help others learning the language.
RN: I know that you've done a lot of work reaching out to Native youth both at your job and with your art. Could you talk some about the messages in this album that you hope Native youth will hear?
TW: I wrote Pray For You for my students. I see how much it hurts young people when their parents choose drugs over them, or alcohol over them, or even a boyfriend or a girlfriend over them. As an adult, you do the things you have to do, like call Child Protective Services or try to get them support. But at the end of the day, it never feels like enough. I remembered feeling so defeated one day and then I thought, ‘I can pray for them.’ So I wrote that song.
As Dream Warriors, when we visit communities we talk to young people about surviving our own traumas. Surviving suicidal ideation, surviving addiction, just surviving being an Indigenous person in this country. We talk about boarding schools, forced assimilation, the loss of land, the loss of language, but also what it means to reclaim it.
RN: For young Native artists who are getting into poetry or music, what advice would you give them?
TW: I would say, ‘Write, just write. Try not to censor yourself. Share it with people who will listen and give you good feedback. With music, just practice every day.’ I've met people who want to get well-known really fast. All of the Dream Warriors and myself, if we never got to perform again, we would still make music until the day we die, because it's something inside of us that needs to get out. You do it for you. You do it for your spirit. And that means you do it for your community as well. Once you are strong in that, it's not going to hurt if gigs get canceled. Make sure you're grounded, first, in what is really important.
RN: So it looks like you're going to South Dakota, Minnesota, and Canada. Can you talk some about your upcoming tour, and where people can catch you in person?
TW: Dream Warriors will be visiting Lake Andes School in South Dakota, the Brave Heart Society with Faith Spotted Eagle in Rosebud, St Francis Indian School, He Dog Middle School, Wolf Creek School, and Pine Ridge High School. On January 26th, we'll be performing at the Rapid City Performing Arts Center with Dances With Words, a spoken word group. It's awesome to be able to share space with the youth.
You can listen to Winder’s debut EP “For Women and Girls on Fire” on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.