Ed Kabotie captivated a sparse audience with personalized storytelling, visuals and music on Nov. 17 at the Connie Gotsch Theatre at San Juan College.
He shared “alter-Native” history, as he calls it, in a presentation enhanced by an occasional song with clean, looping acoustic guitar, flute and a powerful voice. His band, Ed Kabotie and Tha Yoties of Flagstaff, rocked the same venue with reservation-rock reggae on Nov. 19.
After opening with a Native American song, Kabotie launched into his presentation, a mix of storytelling, song, art and history.
“Human beings have a great talent for screwing things up,” he said. Many cultures, including the Hopi, believe that we’re in the “End of the Fourth World,” but how are we doing? he asked.
“These teachings are so important that our culture is built upon it,” Kabotie said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Hopi, but you don’t get lost and end up in Hopi … you’re going to figure out you were lost way before you ever get to Hopi.”
Kabotie projects a powerful presence and grabs the audience by the heart. He projects an open and generous spirit on stage and off.
Kabotie’s mother is Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and his father is Hopi. He graduated from Santa Fe Indian School, and though he enjoys taking classes at community colleges, he said he was not driven to seek a degree.
As Kabotie spoke, he projected images of his family’s artwork on a big screen behind him, often depicting stories of hardship and brutality. With photos of Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and paintings by his grandfather and others, he conveyed a vast landscape of artistic talent. His own art was on display in the lobby.
The big screen amplified a message about the birth-life-death cycle and the role that manifest destiny played in subjugating Native cultures in North America. His music also reflected the ties that bind the oppressed.
“Reggae music is the music of an oppressed people that have lived under the iron hand of another culture for the last 400 years,” Kabotie said.
He said Jamaicans and the Hopis share common ground of oppression, a passion for freedom and a vision of peace. In the reggae of Bob Marley and the Wailers and other performers, they echo a cry for their people.
Native Americans in the Caribbean after Columbus’ landing were “decimated by disease, by war and by refusal to be enslaved – they would rather kill themselves than accept slavery,” he said.
“It’s a foundational truth that we need to recognize that our country was built on … the genocide of Native American people and the enslavement of African people,” Kabotie said. He then strummed the chords of Marley’s ‘‘Redemption Song,” his strong voice resounding with the famous lyrics:
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Warfare against Indigenous people endured, he said, referencing the bloodshed in the historical Santa Fe Plaza and the execution of five medicine men in 1670s, which led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. That date, Aug. 10, 1680, is celebrated as Independence Day by his people.
The continuous warfare marched on, past the imprisonment of the Navajo people, which saw one-third of the population die between 1864 and 1868, and into the oarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian School. There, Indigenous children were removed from their family, indoctrinated and forcibly assimilated with white education and religion, sometimes suffering sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Kabotie showed a photo from 1906 of his great-grandfather, who, he said, was arrested for refusing to send his 6-year-old son to the school.
The attack on Native land includes, Kabotie said, the Kayenta and Black Mesa strip-mining operation and hundreds of unremediated uranium mines on Navajo land. Though the Peabody Coal mine was started with tribal approval and employed hundreds of tribal workers, rights to coal and aquifer water were obtained for pennies on the dollar. Today, many Navajo communities still lack running water.
A natural showman, Kabotie introduced each song with a personal story that displayed a highly forceful stage presence.
He demonstrated his concern for a patron, who was injured in a fall before his show, by playing one of his original tunes, “Sunflower Girl,” as she was being assisted.
Kabotie spoke of the matriarchal nature of his people and said his grandmother was one of his heroes. He dedicated the now electrified version of ‘Sunflower Girl’ to all mothers, aunties and sisters, thanking them for their sacrifices.
Inventive lead guitarist Alec Tippett used a slide to create eerie effects for a rollicking tune with a heavy bass line provided by Hunter RedDay and Andrew Baker on drums, about environmental destruction.
“Cry for the River” honored the Colorado River and other endangered waterways. Based on the Steve Miller hit “‘Take the Money and Run,” the band played reggae riffs and Kabotie expressively rapped-sang about mining companies doing just that.
“Restless Native” got everyone howling, with Kabotie in highly animated mode as he synced his guitar with lead guitarist for a climatic finish.
Kabotie laments the fact that everyone experiences the repetition and results of cycles of destruction.
“All of us experience some very unexpected twists and turns in this life … but maybe mistakes we make are the things that make us the strongest … and open our eyes to truth,” he said.
“Right now I’m crying, I’m crying out for my people … I’m crying out for our land,” Kabotie said. He then wound up his presentation with his adaptation of by Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
With a reggae beat and a catchy guitar looping under the well-known melody, he played lead guitar and flute, and sang his version – “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi.”