Grammys To Add Native American Category

NARAS decision represents long-sought victory for underrepresented artists.

Concluding a long battle for recognition of Native American musicians, NARAS, the organization behind the Grammy Awards, announced on Tuesday the establishment of a Native American category within the folk genre of the awards.

"Our understanding of the music, traditions and challenges which face this community is growing, and the academy is pleased to be able to acknowledge the achievements of these musical styles with a new category," said Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Tom Bee, president of Sounds of America Recordings, has been fighting for wider recognition of Native American music since the early '70s, when his group XIT began recording songs about the history of Native Americans on Path of the Redman (Rare Earth).

"I'm a militant, an activist," Bee said from his offices in Albuquerque, N.M. "Ten years ago I started sending NARAS sales figures and demographics about Native American music to get this thing spearheaded, and then some other good people carried it forward.

"Native Americans have had music long before the white man ever came to America," Bee, a member of the Dakota tribe, pointed out. "Sitting Bull used to listen to the music of the birds to compose melodies on his flute, and there's Native percussion in the roots of jazz and blues. The bottom line is, justice has finally been served."

SOAR is home to such artists as Brule and Douglas Spotted Eagle.

Robert Doyle's Canyon Records of Phoenix has been marketing Native American music for 49 years and is the home of Grammy-nominated artist R. Carlos Nakai as well as Sharon Burch, Robert Tree Cody and Joanne Shenandoah, whose music was used in the soundtrack to the television show "Northern Exposure."

Recognition Late But Welcomed

Although his label has received Grammy nominations, Doyle said, "They had to be kind of shoe-horned in there. I think the establishment of a Native American Grammy category is long overdue, and a wonderful recognition for the artists and for the culture."

Annie Humphrey agrees. Humphrey is a member of the Ojibway tribe and records for the Makoche label. Her singer/songwriter style, shown on her latest disc, The Heron Smiled, doesn't fit any traditional category, but she sees herself as a thoroughly Native artist, as does her friend John Trudell, who worked on Humphrey's album and whose latest disc, Blue Indians (RealAudio excerpt of title track), was produced by Jackson Browne.

"It's great to be recognized by the people within the Native community, as with the Nammys [Native American Music Awards]," Humphrey said from her home in northern Minnesota. "But recognition from the wider community represented by the Grammys is needed to help the music grow."

"I think it will challenge the artists to do even better work," Nammys executive producer Ellen Bello said. Bello was instrumental in preparing the proposal that led to NARAS' decision. Speaking from her New York offices, she said her awards show would continue to grow, too.

"We have 32 categories," she said, "and the number of recordings by Native American artists has almost doubled since we began in 1996."

Music industry editor Adam McGovern, whose "MusicHound Guide to World Music" includes substantial coverage of Native American music, adds: "It's not enough to just have a place at the table, you need a prominent place-card so people can get to know you. The Grammys' new Native category will help introduce listeners of all backgrounds to more of the superb Native music that's been burgeoning in all genres."

Sandra Schulman, Nashville director of the Native American Music Association, also feels that the notice from NARAS will bring added recognition to "the broad variety of Native music. Walela, Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, they'll all doing very different things, and the Grammy exposure will bring out the variety of what Native artists are doing to a larger public."

Category Could Boost Music's Appreciation

Miller, who is touring in Europe, took home five Nammys in November, including one for Best Song of the Year for "Ghost Dance" (RealAudio excerpt).

"Maybe it'll get the trade magazines and record stores following suit, with stocking Native music and having Native charts, if the Grammys are leading the way," said Randall Davies, president of the Colorado-based Creative Services Company, which has represented many Native artists.

"This is a great development," Bello said. "But this music, Native music, has been here for thousands of years, and there's still so much work that needs to be done to get people to appreciate the richness of it."