On Sunday February 12th, the Alberta-based Native drum group Northern Cree performed at the 59th Grammy Awards ceremony, in Los Angeles. According to the group’s leader, Steve Wood, the entire experience was an amazing tribute to Indian country and First Nations people.
This year marks the seventh time Northern Cree has been nominated, the group’s last bid in 2006. Though the Grammys discontinued the Native American category in 2011, Northern Cree was nominated this year in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category for their newest album, It’s a Cree Thing, released in 2016 through Canyon Records.
In an interview with ICMN, Wood talked about why he was proud to be invited to the Grammys.
How was the experience?
The experience was totally amazing. It was awesome. We didn’t garner the award, but what transpired there on that stage and across Turtle Island for all First Nations people was totally priceless. You couldn’t match that with any award.
The energy and pride that it sent to the First Nations people — we didn’t expect that. We didn’t know that people would be so honored and proud because our music was being performed on that stage.
What happened was surreal. It wasn’t just First Nations people, there were a number of different ethnicities that felt it was beautiful to share our music with the world.
You posted photos of you rubbing elbows with Hollywood celebs on Facebook. How did it feel to represent wearing regalia?
A lot of people were in awe. They wanted to take pictures with us. A couple of guys were totally mobbed by media. Everyone was around us taking pictures, everyone was telling everyone else to back away so they could grab the photo. It was pretty profound.
How did it feel to bring your song and Native culture to the world’s stage?
First of all, we didn’t forget how we got there and who we were. All the things we do when we go to a pow wow or ceremony, we did there.
Before we got started, we asked if we could step outside. We were on a patio on top of the building and we smudged. That’s why everything was so powerful. People were looking out the windows and watching us.
When we hit that stage it’s like we were singing at a round dance. When I say, ‘we are the real thing.’ I say that with conviction, because we are. We live in our communities, we speak our language and we do our ceremonies. We don’t just dress up like that just for a weekend.
Just last night there was a small round dance in our community, and number of our group members went to assist because we are not bigger than that. That is where we come from, and that is what helps us. We stayed true to ourselves.
We were not trying to emulate anyone else. I think that sends a very powerful message out to people.
After the performance, the Grammy’s Board of Governors told us, “That was totally amazing, we are going to get you guys back here.” Some of them told us, “We need you here.”
I don’t think they’ve had an afternoon performance views spike like that.
Can you describe the experience of walking out on stage at the Grammys?
As we walked out onto the stage, there was a sudden hush. I think people were in awe and didn’t expect us to be dressed like that.
There were a ton of positive responses on social media from Indian country.
We were reading comments on our Facebook page, and there was one that stands out to me. One person said, “I’m standing here, holding my grandmother’s hand and we’re crying together.” And I thought, wow, so many people had tears in their eyes. It was powerful. I never thought that would happen.
We received congratulations and messages from famous people. One famous person who honored us and congratulated us — and we should be congratulating him for everything he’s done for First Nations communities — was Billy Mills.
What was the mood of the group after the performance?
We were stoked. Our category came up, which let the wind out of our sails. We were asked to walk on the red carpet with the bonnet, but I was feeling so emotional I didn’t want to go out there and talk to the media because I might not say the right things.
I decided to hold back just a bit. I didn’t even comment on our Facebook page till the following day. What transpired was so much more than that award. It was electric.
What is your message to the young people who have been sending inspiring and congratulatory messages?
As we were flying back, one of the guys asked, “What do you think this will do for all the young people?” I said, “Tthere are going to be a lot of singers out there, and that is awesome.” My message is that young people don’t have to emulate anyone. They can be themselves and they can aspire to great things.
The Creator made you special, so you can believe in yourself. Every one of us, we are all from different tribes and we are all special. We just have to believe in ourselves. We have to stick close to our ceremonies, we need to teach our languages to our children, that is important.
When we immerse ourselves in our culture, our ceremonies and our languages, that is when we heal.
I am a teacher and I can tell you looking into the eyes of my students, they were inspired and I am like, ‘wow.’ They see me on the screen, and now I’m standing in front of the class, and I can tell them, ‘you can do this. You have a gift. All you have to do is work for it. You can do anything.’
The Northern Cree Singers have been performing since 1980 and have released 37 albums over the past 35 years. The 2017 Grammy in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category was awarded to E Walea for Kalani Pe’a.