Since a 1994 UN resolution, August 9 has been dedicated to Indigenous Peoples, defined as distinct cultural and ethnic groups whose members descend from the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic location that was later colonized by a now-dominant group.
In the Americas, Indigenous peoples have been under threat since the start of European colonization in the 15th century. Their population has been decimated due to foreign diseases, forced labor, displacement for the extraction of resources, and other forms of violence. Today, their way of life, languages, culture, and lives are still at risk due to settler colonialism and violence, climate change, economic and racial discrimination, and cultural assimilation. Many Indigenous women suffer gender-based violence. In the context of our global environmental crisis, Indigenous people are some of the major guardians of flora and fauna. Indigenous peoples make up around 5 percent of the world's population, but protect 80 percent of global biodiversity, a crucial component of mitigating the effects of climate change.
Music is a powerful vehicle for artistic expression, identity, emotion, and social change. Here are five songs by Indigenous women and non-binary people from what is now called the Americas — a name derived by Italian merchant and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. To the people who have been on the continent for tens of thousands of years, this geographic region is commonly referred to as Turtle Island or Abya Yala.
Orgullosa soy Raíz, by María Reyna
María Reyna is a Mixe singer from the region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Together with orchestral conductor, composer and pianist Joaquín Garzón Rivera, she released “Orgullosa soy raíz” in 2019. She fuses opera vocals with Jazz and Bolero genres. She sings in different Indigenous languages and in Spanish.
In the context of much discrimination and racism towards Indigenous peoples in Mexico, Reyna sings of her pride in being an Indigenous woman in “Orgullosa soy raíz,” which can be loosely translated as “proud of my roots” or “proud to be the root.”
Que honor ser Raíz//de culturas ancestrales//ricas y ceremoniales//que desborda este país
What an honor to be Root//of ancestral cultures//that are rich and ceremonial//which overflow this country
Nada, by Lido Pimienta (feat. Li Saumet)
Lido Pimienta, from Barranquilla, Colombia and now residing in Toronto, Canada, has been gaining prominence in the Americas. Identifying as Afro-Colombian and Wayuu, her songs speak of feminism, love, and joy. Her album “Miss Colombia” was among the nominees for best Latin Rock or Alternative album in 2020. “In her music, we can hear elements of cumbia and bullerengue, which are native rhythms of Colombia, together with elements of electronic music, in some cases of synthpop and in other cases of hyperpop or avant-pop,” writes cultural magazine Doble Rodada.
In “Nada” (“Nothing”), featuring Bomba Estéreo's vocalist Li Saumet, Lido Pimienta sings of women's suffering. Pimienta wrote of the song: “[Women] carry our pain, like a memory, like an illness, like punch, like wound. … It hurts to be one of us. It hurts when you are of the water, of the sun and the mountain, it hurts when you are not the mainstream one, you have to survive, not live.”
Todo lo que yo sentí, todo lo que yo viví
Por todo lo que presentí, ya no me queda nada
Por todo lo que yo miré y todo lo que ya soñé
Por todo lo que te esperé, ya no me queda nada
All that I felt, all that I lived through
For all that I felt, all that I saw, I have nothing left
For all that I looked at and all that I dreamed of
For all that I waited for you, I have nothing left
Ton vieux nom, Elisapie Isaac
Elisapie Isaac is an Inuk singer-songwriter, documentary filmmaker, and activist from present-day Québec, Canada. She wants to sing about the strength and resilience of Inuit communities in the north. She says:
C’est vrai qu’on a vécu des choses extrêmement difficiles, mais les gens pensent toujours que les autochtones sont des victimes, mais allez les voir en 2018. Vous verrez la fierté d’un peuple qui travaille tellement fort. Le territoire, la langue, les enjeux sont encore bien là, mais les tambours reviennent. Les jeunes des premières nations réapprennent à les utiliser de façon cérémoniale. Ça va être fort comme guérison. On a de plus en plus l’impression qu’on nous entend et je sentais qu’il fallait que je parle aux gens de chez moi dans une langue qu’ils connaissent. Il fallait que je fasse encore de la musique.
It's true that we've been through some extremely difficult things, but people still think that Native people are victims, but go see them in 2018. You will see the pride of a people who work so hard. The land, the language, the issues are still there, but the drums are coming back. First Nations youth are learning to use them ceremonially again. It's going to be strong healing. We feel more and more that we are being heard and I felt that I needed to speak to the people back home in a language they know. I needed to make music again.
Dis-moi comment tu plantais la neige//Comment nous sommes faits de pierre//Je veux t'écrire une chanson//Pour te rappeler ton nom//Ton vieux nom
Tell me how you used to plant snow//How we're made of stone//I want to write you a song//To remind you your name//Your old name
Minha Força, by Kaê Guajajara (feat. Canário Negro & Nelson D)
Kaê is a Guajajara native who grew up in Rio de Janeiro's Maré favela complex and became one of Brazil's upcoming Indigenous singers and activists. They identify as non-binary and sing about the experience of Indigenous people who live in urban settings and mixes elements of hip-hop, rap, Brazilian funk (as in “Essa Rua é Minha“), and traditional instruments and elements of their mother tongue Ze'egete.
In “Minha Força” (“My Strength”), they sing alongside Canário Negro about inner strength in the face of diversity. The video portrays solidarity among Black and Indigenous women.
Ah, se eu soubesse//Sempre da força carrego//Fico tipo um cavalo//Sem entender a força
Ah, if I only knew//the strength I carry//I'm like a horse//Without understanding the strength
Remember me, by Fawn Wood
Fawn Wood, of Cree and Salish descent, is an emerging singer and songwriter who is also active on TikTok and participates in Pow Wows, cultural and social gatherings of Indigenous peoples in North America.
In May 2022, she won the JUNO in the Traditional Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year category for her album kakike. She is expected to release another album later this year. With regards to her award, she said:
I think it’s a blessing and it was something that was a long time coming. At one time it was illegal to sing our music. But this is the music that has been on this land forever.
“Remember Me” is one of her most famous songs and made rounds on Indigenous TikTok to remember the women who suffered gender-based violence. The song is a love letter to those who have passed away.
Remember me (remember me)//When the sun comes up in the morning sky//There I will be (there I will be)//Soaring with the eagle so high//Feelin’ free
There are plenty more songs by Indigenous women to discover — Guatemalan Mayan singer Sara Curruchich continuously updates a playlist on Spotify with Indigenous women singers from around the world.