Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

It started with a simple idea: honor the Indigenous people whose land they were performing on.

Soon, alternative rock band Portugal the Man was incorporating a land acknowledgement into every one of their concerts -- their original idea reaching thousands, and growing in impact each time. 

Then in 2018, band member Zach Carothers made a spur of the moment decision to dedicate the acceptance speech for their first Grammy award to Alaska Native communities. 

“We'd like to rep this for all the kids in the villages — Shishmaref, Barrow, Bethel. All the Indigenous people in Alaska and around the world. You're beautiful and your culture is beautiful. Thank you for inspiring us,” Carothers said to an audience of nearly 20 million viewers after receiving a Grammy for their chart-topping single, “Feel It Still.” 

The response from fans around the world and Alaskan locals alike was overwhelmingly positive. From that moment, it became clear to the band that they had a platform they could utilize. Their Indigenous advocacy changed from casual partnerships, to a more formalized effort.

Born and raised in Alaska, founding band members Zach Carothers and John Gourley grew accustomed to Alaska Native culture being present on the land. With around 18 percent of the state’s population identifying as Indigenous, tribal heritage is visible in many aspects of the Alaskan lifestyle. As the band’s fame grew and they began to tour other states, seeking out information on Indigenous cultures in the various places they visited seemed to be a natural extension of their Alaskan upbringing.

“It is all about elevating the voices in the culture, and not just the problems -- this isn’t charity. We just like to pass the mic, to create a shared learning experience between us and the crowd,” Carothers said, explaining the band’s effort to invite Indigenous political leaders and artists to speak at their concerts.

Today, the band’s advocacy permeates many aspects of their public identity, from social media campaigns to song releases.

On Twitter and Instagram, their handle includes the hashtags #Landback and #MMIW, referencing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Landback initiatives. Small efforts, which they described as ways to spark conversation for fans who might not be as familiar with the terms.

Their approach is unassuming, acknowledging that initiatives like landback might be intimidating to people new to the term. But in their view, that wasn’t an excuse to ignore the issue altogether.

“It's one of those things, where you just have to have a conversation and see where it goes,” he said. “We're just doing our part to keep that wheel moving.”

Music’s age-old uniting properties were something the band viewed as a tool as well. In the interview, Carothers painted a familiar Thanksgiving scene: relatives who were arguing over current events, but ended up coming together over their shared love for a popular song or movie.

“In this day, when everything is so divisive and people argue a lot, using music and bringing in advocacy and truth into that is very important because it loosens people up, it helps them find common ground.”

In line with this belief, the band released a song last Indigenous People’s Day in collaboration with “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Portland-based hip-hop artist, The Last Artful Dodgr, titled, “Who’s Gone Stop Me.” The music video features world champion jingle dress dancer Acosia Red Elk, from the Umatilla tribe in Oregon. In the future, they hope to do more creative collaborations with Indigenous performers.

When keeping track of the growing list of community initiatives proved difficult, the band decided to formalize their efforts in the form of a foundation. In 2020, the PTM Foundation was born, which focuses on “highlighting the stories of Indigenous peoples.” The foundation’s website exhibits everything from community grants to help get out the Native vote, to videos of recent collaborations with Indigenous performers.

The band’s activism has garnered them several awards: the Legend Award at the Native American Music Awards, and the Public Sector Leadership Award from the National Congress of American Indians, to name a few. But while they have received recognition for their efforts, Carothers emphasized that they do not consider themselves experts by any means. Rather, they hoped their advocacy showed fans that anyone could get involved with social justice initiatives.

“When it comes to being any kind of ally, we're constantly learning. It’s important to understand that you don't know a lot of things, and you should never have your own agendas,” he said. “We just want to listen, and help further Native peoples’ plans.”

This was especially important in today’s era, when Carothers felt there sometimes could be a slight pretension involved with celebrity activism, a sort of “I know more than you about certain things” attitude.

“You don’t have to be rich. You don't have to be a knight in shining armor. Just recycle your beer cans, respect the land, respect the people on it. Do the right thing,” he said.

In the coming years, the band hopes to continue sharing what they’ve learned with fans, building out their advocacy network, and centering Indigenous voices.

“There are so many things that we didn't know, that we didn't read in grade school,” he said. “So many truths are hidden.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.