Native American Artists Struggle To Define Niche

May 6 conference anticipates new marketing initiatives, possible Grammy recognition.

As the variety and volume of music made by Native Americans continues its upward spiral, it begs the question of just what is Native American music — and how can (and should) it be marketed to audiences beyond the native tribes?

"You can currently find independent releases in virtually any style of music created and performed by Native Americans," said P.J. Birosik of Musik International, who is of partial Native American (Tungus-Chumash) heritage.

"This holds true for Native American music in all its glorious diversity," he said. "Rap, metal, rock, country, folk, powwow,

chicken-scratch, jazz, solo flute, techno, classical, hand game and traditional/historical forms of song and prayer, to name a few.

"But only a very few perceivably Native American artists have popped up on the mainstream charts in any significant way: XIT, Buffy Sainte-Marie, R. Carlos Nakai."

At the unlikely venue of the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, an early morning event may change the face of Native American music marketing, and perhaps even help add a new category to the Grammy Awards.

An exploratory meeting to form a Native American Special Interest Group as part of the Association for Independent Music is set for 8:30 a.m. May 6, during the organization's annual convention.

Organized by Birosik and chaired initially by Dolores Doyle of Canyon Records and Paul Brotzman of Four Winds Trading, the group is expected to discuss efforts to encourage the establishment of a Native American Music section in every major chain and online retail site and share an update on the creation of a Native American Music Grammy Award (an announcement is expected by the Board of Directors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences either just prior to or during the AFIM convention).

The issues generating the most discussion, though, will likely be those related to the definition of Native American music, for purposes of awards, retailing and charting.

There are a number of native or native-heritage artists who have found success in mainstream genres. The controversy over Shania Twain's adoption into her father's Ojibway tribe put a high-profile spotlight on this issue — Cher, Wayne Newton and Loretta Lynn have native bloodlines, but none of these artists is trying to make it in the Native American music world.

There, the controversy arises in reverse — how about someone who marries into a tribe, like Douglas Spotted Eagle? Should his work be judged in the same way (and in the same category) as a person with tribal bloodlines, such as Sharon Burch?

What about those who aren't Native American who make native-inspired music, such as John Huling? What about a Native American, such as Nakai, who records classical music, or Rita Coolidge, who sings country — both in addition to a native repertoire?

And what's the place for powwow music, its related styles and their modern offshoots? This uncertainty within the genre has caused mixed messages in marketing.

One suggestion that seems to be gaining ground was articulated by Birosik for a column in the magazine New Age Voice: "Some industry leaders are rallying around the notion of identifying albums as either Native American (those created solely or primarily by musicians with tribal affiliation and/or bloodlines) or Native Heart (anyone else whose music is drawn from or inspired by authentic Native repertoire)."

That's sure to be a fertile area for exchange when the Native American interest group meeting brings together label representatives, artists and merchandisers to share ideas on the present and future of marketing native music.