*Originally published on Live for Live Music*
With the fierceness and grace befitting a revolutionary empress, Chloe Smith stands firmly with her sisters in resistance, and in solidarity with the movement. Her band Rising Appalachia have long made their voices heard on many matters of social justice, lioness sistren fronting the squad, their siren songs supremely effective in raising the collective awareness, be it about eco-consciousness or human rights. One half of the dynamic sibling duo is the eloquent and affable Ms. Smith. Growing up with sister Leah Song in Atlanta, GA, the pair are daughters to a musical mother and sculptor/painter father. They migrated through halcyon days making tunes by busking and gigging their way through New Orleans, before departing their beloved Crescent City and decamping to the progressive enclave of Asheville, NC.
Chloe became confidently aware during adolescence that her heart and mind were attuned to some critical causes. Over the past decade, she has stepped into the spotlight impassioned by her activism, it’s been a fuel to propel her career as a recording/touring artist. Focusing on alternative touring practices, as well as Prison Yoga Project, and Slow Music Movement, Smith and her cohorts in Rising Appalachia have walked the activist walk from jumpstreet. An anti-establishment vein has always run rampant through folk music’s cultural circuitry. Smith, Song and company are at the forefront of the resistance, and are leaders of this new school of progressive action in the music scene.
Enter Poet/MC/Writer/Educator Lyla June Johnston – an uplifting and inspiring woman, hardened by life’s cruel realities, yet cut from many a righteous cloth. She is a student of global cycles of violence that eventually gave rise to The Native American Holocaust, and the destruction of many cyclic relationships between human beings and nature. This exploration gave birth to her passion for revitalizing spiritual relationships with Mother Earth, and cultivating spaces for forgiveness and reconciliation to occur between cultural groups. Lyla June is anthropologist, and economist; she is artist and community organizer. Like her ancestors, she strives to make “every breath a prayer.” She lives by a philosophy built on a foundation of health and peace established for the next seven generations to come.
Lyla June was raised in Taos, New Mexico and is a descendant of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages. She states that her personal mission in life is “to grow closer to Creator by learning how to love deeper.” This prayer has sent her on many an inspired and influential journey, and the hymn materializes in myriad ways; one of them being her collaborations and connections to Rising Appalachia, and by proxy this conversation with Chloe Smith, and Live for Live Music.
The thread at the center of our discussion is activism through music, and Lyla June and Chloe open up about their motivations, efforts individual and collaborative, and their respective roles in the movement. They also both relate their experiences to/in Standing Rock, and the Dakota Access Pipeline, no doubt a hot-button, sensitive, and controversial topic. For those of you reading this article who may have been sleeping under a rock for the past year or so, let’s catch everybody up on the basics concerning this sad and serious situation. These are the facts, without prejudice, as we understand them today, in February 2017:
The Standing Rock Sioux and environmental activists have bitterly opposed the $3.8 billion Energy Transfer Partners pipeline under the Missouri River, fearing a pipeline leak would destroy the tribe’s only source of drinking water and contaminate the supply for millions of people who live downstream from the pipe crossing. The Sioux have also tried to preserve cultural and religious landmarks spread throughout the area, some of which they say have already been destroyed by pipeline construction. Thousands of people have cycled through the encampments since the protest was launched in April 2016, including non-Native activists who oppose fossil fuels as an energy source because it contributes to climate change.
In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency the White House put construction on hold pending further assessments, and for a moment the protesters believed they had won. Crowds lit off fireworks on the snow-swamped prairie of North Dakota. But everything changed with the arrival of President Donald Trump. Within days of taking office, he issued an executive memorandum on 24 January calling for the pipeline to proceed. Two weeks later, the president’s order was obliged, and the Corps granted the easement. For the Sioux people who opposed this venture and the coalition of 200 tribal nations that joined them, this development is a crushing blow.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said earlier this month it will greenlight the final phase of construction for the Dakota Access pipeline, prompting indigenous-led water protectors to call for a “last stand”. In a letter to Congress, acting Army Secretary Robert Speer said the Army Corps will cancel an environmental impact study of the Dakota Access pipeline and will grant an easement today allowing Energy Transfer Partners to drill under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River. The Army Corps also said it would suspend a customary 14-day waiting period following its order, meaning the company could immediately begin boring a tunnel for the final one-and-a-half miles of pipe.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said it is undaunted in its commitment to challenge an easement announcement by the U.S. Department of the Army for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The drinking water of millions of Americans is now at risk. We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water and sacred places from the brazen private interests trying to push this pipeline through to benefit a few wealthy Americans with financial ties to the Trump administration,” said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Americans have come together in support of the Tribe asking for a fair, balanced and lawful pipeline process. The environmental impact statement was wrongfully terminated. This pipeline was unfairly rerouted across our treaty lands. The Trump administration – yet again – is poised to set a precedent that defies the law and the will of Americans and our allies around the world.”
Our conversation took place in mid-January 2017, so after the short-lived “victory” of the Obama ruling, and around the time that Donald Trump was being inaugurated, just before he gave the virtual go-ahead for the pipeline to be completed. Despite an apparent “loss” at this dire stand-off, the reverberations of the protests can and should be felt, in any and every direction. This is a story that remains relevant, as the people must show their continued, unwavering vigilance in this matter, and all matters that threaten our beloved planet. This a dialogue between two queens, two servants to Mother Earth, a pair of spiritual warriors; the virtues espoused are concepts of cross-cultural organizing, activating, and healing, through medicinal music and the networks that surround the songs. These discussions are as salient and necessary as ever; we will continue to wake the activist leviathan within women (and stoke the conscious, heart-filled flame that burns inside of all peoples), we bring to you this conversation between Chloe Smith of Rising Appalachia, Native American activist emcee Lyla June Johnston.
Thank you both for taking the time to speak with me on some sensitive and important matters. Live for Live Music is grateful for the chance to discuss these trying and turbulent times. Chloe Smith, please allow me to start with you and some background, or context.
L4LM: When, or how, did Rising Appalachia become an activist band?
Chloe Smith: Leah and I both were “activists” before we were Rising Appalachia. As in, we were elbow deep in educational/environmental/cultural preservation work first, and once music took the reins on our lives, the two naturally cross pollinated. Our music became a platform to express the deeper desires of healthy communities and stewardship for the wild. My father always told me not to make art for art’s sake, to put some grit and purpose behind it. I take that to heart every day that I show up for this strange enticing career/passion.
L4LM: We can hear it in your melodies. We feel it in the music and we receive the message. I myself, as a fan first, have been made aware of many social justice causes and environmental movements through Rising Appalachia’s involvement. From permaculture to touring by train, you spotlight a lot of progressive ideas and values.
CS: Now, one of our sweetest evolutions is with something we call The Slow Music Movement, which is a conjoining of many of our passions outside of the great hustle of traditional touring (train travel, prison justice work, youth education, permaculture action days, earth building and architecture, nonviolent communication, plant-lore and herbalism, etc.) Our work with Rising Appalachia continues to be an ever evolving relationship with both music as muse and music as gathering tool. We are constantly learning how to move the movement off the stage and into the ground. How to show up responsibly and effectively to the places we are invited to. How to be vessels of a larger story. We most certainly do not know the answers, but instead are living the questions both privately and publicly and invite our fans to do the same in their own lives. We are all teachers and students, speakers and listeners, leaders and followers.
L4LM: Solidarity with the movement has brought you into orbit with one Lyla June Johnston, activist emcee, journalist, writer, poet, spiritual guide. Before we go any further let’s bring her into the conversation now. Lyla June, thank you for making the time to speak with L4LM.
For those of us not in the know, we are interested in your journey- artistic, activist, personal, and whatever you would be so kind to share, so that our readers can get a bit of a frame of reference for Lyla June.
Lyla June: When I try to describe myself, I immediately want to say that I’m just a woman who aches for a world with less hatred, less prejudice, less division and less violence upon women, children, the people and the land. This is the ultimate force that drives me from sun up to sun down. My life story is a bit too unmanageable to relay in a few short sentences, but suffice it to say that mine is a journey of tragedy and triumph. A journey of split families, drug and alcohol addiction, ample sexual, physical and emotional abuse, broken bones, broken heart and self-hatred into the eventual personal rebirth I enjoy today.
I am now many years sober, many years safe, many years surrounded by inspired and uplifting individuals, and many years steeped in a deep self-love and self-respect I hold for myself today. All along the way, even in the darkest times, I used poetry and music as a way for me to affirm the love I sought for the world, even when I couldn’t find it for myself. My inspirations may sound kind of cliche, but I always gravitated towards those that responded to extreme hatred with extreme love: Tall Bull, Martin Luther King Jr., Sitting Bull, Princess Diane, Zarcillos Largos, Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, etc.
As a Native American (Diné/Cheyenne) woman, I was born into a prime position to respond to great hatred with great love and forgiveness, for I was born into the horrific legacy of colonization. I enjoy this practice quite a bit. And so a lot of my time, focus and energy goes into contributing to Indigenous Liberation and also into forgiving and healing the racial and ideological divisions between settler and native populations. Despite my drug-filled adolescence and teenager-hood, I managed to get into Stanford University where I graduated with honors with a degree in environmental anthropology. I am currently studying education for native youth at the University of New Mexico.
L4LM: Thank you Lyla for that inspiring introduction. We are already grateful for the work that you do, and I feel blessed to have you join in this conversation, too. Lyla, how did Rising Appalachia appear on your radar? What is the genesis of your collaboration?
Lyla June: I was blessed to connect with Rising Appalachia and my sister Chloe Smith through their drummer, Biko Casini. I led the production of the Black Hills Unity Concert in 2015 in Piedmont, South Dakota, which included everyone who’s anyone in Native American music as well as emerging artists and voices in indigenous communities that need to be heard. We were blessed to have Biko’s presence. A few years later, because of Chloe, Leah and Biko’s prioritization of Indigenous Issues (thanks guys!), they raised money for a native youth program at a local show in Albuquerque. They saw one of my performance pieces and asked me to open their show the next day, which of course I was honored to offer.
L4LM: Let’s talk a little bit about Standing Rock please.
L4LM: Chloe, when Rising Appalachia played in Grass Valley in late November, there was a great deal of attention, focus, and prayer for Standing Rock throughout your spellbinding performance. Clearly it had already permeated deep into the consciousness of your band and your songs. How/when did you first learn of the DAPL situation in North Dakota?
CS: I first learned about the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance early in August when we were asked to spread the word about the group of youth from Standing Rock Reservation running from North Dakota to Washington D.C. to speak out about their water rights. We were on tour, of course, and began following that movement through our friends at Honor The Earth (Winona LaDuke), Lyla June, The Herbal Action Network, as well as Shailene Woodley’s call to actions. In line with many others, we raised awareness as best as we were able each night about Standing Rock as well as garnered support/ supplies for the camps through our social media each week. Our prayers and songs have been directed towards the waters of North Dakota (and our earth) in solidarity with the movement on the ground ever since.
It’s really inspiring to hear of artists coming together through the strong fabric of activism, from the outside looking in, it tends to serve the artists’ creative process and spirit of collaboration mightily; as well as empower the people who are receiving the art. It awakens people to action through song. Really primordial stuff there, in its essence.
Chloe, after the show in Grass Valley that night, you briefly let me know that you and Leah would be traveling to Standing Rock in a couple of days. Please tell our readers about your experiences there; your motivations, reservations, and the situation on the ground when you arrived.
CS: Leah and I were initially hesitant to go to Standing Rock due to the efforts it was taking to keep the camps supplied and not over taxed by supporters only able to come for a few days. We felt compelled to fundraise and pray from afar and were ignited to keep the conversation at the center of many of our concerts across the country. It wasn’t until we got a direct invitation to come to Oceti Sakowen Camp that we actually felt that tide shift towards physically being in North Dakota. The Indigenous Youth Council, as well as our friend Lyla June, wanted to put on a female led concert featuring our dear friends Climbing Poetree, Sarah, Desiree Harp, and Rising Appalachia. We had four days off in the middle of this most recent Resiliency Tour which happened to fall on the exact same 4 days that Climbing Poetree had off that month. Thanksgiving week. After hearing the call for the concert and speaking to the other ladies, that insurmountable magnetic pull began playing its part and pulling us to Standing Rock.
L4LM: Yes! The “Seventh Generation Medicine Concert.” People have wanted to hear more about this ever since the videos and photos surfaced in the weeks after the concert. Can we get both of you to share a bit on the whole thing: the intention, planning, music and message behind the event?
Lyla: Our collective creation of the “Seventh Generation Medicine Concert” at the Standing Rock water protection camps was another way for us to redefine who we are. There were four major artists/groups: Desirae Harp (Native American singer), Saritah (Korean singer), Climbing Poetree (African American/Indigenous poetry duo), and Rising Appalachia (European-American/Indigenous bluegrass band). This is a very significant line-up from a Lakota perspective because the medicine wheel that guides all Lakota ceremony and daily life is made up of four quadrants: red, yellow, white and black. It has been interpreted by many Lakota elders that this symbol represents the unification of the races of humanity to make the hoop whole again. As the seventh generation from the time of major colonization on this continent, we are working to transform a culture of war into a people of peace, a people of unity and a people of justice. For this reason, myself and others (Joanna Cruz, Che Johnston and others) worked very hard to ensure that this concert would fly. I devised the name of the concert and the flyer, obtained the necessary equipment and found local hosts (the International Indigenous Youth Council), because I knew that the water protectors needed an injection of beauty and positivity after many weeks of abuse and police brutality. I wasn’t able to witness it unfold, but from all accounts it was a very special offering to the camps.
CS: All was rather synchronized and surreal in panning out. It began to bloom into a prayer much larger than ourselves. Surrender came. Solidarity took its strong arms and pulled us out of our tour haze and into the movement. As soon as we pulled over the little hill and saw Rosebud camp and the beautiful starkness of the landscape there, the tipis and smoke stacks and brightly painted banners and flags staked out in support… I was able to take my first deep breath. Camp was beautiful. Peaceful. Well organized and in a constant state of prayer and spirit. People immediately extended hands and embraces to welcome us.
Sobriety was the first order. Compassion the next. Respect. Courtesy. Awareness. Nonviolent training. A different pace. Respect for elders and youth. Etc. We were shuffled into the Youth Council yurt that was warmed by wood stove and smiling faces of next generation leadership and stamina. Intentions were shared by all sides of the concert visionaries. Stories told in circles so that we were all aware where these relationships and connections were coming from. In 25 degree weather (this was BEFORE the blizzard), we walked to the central fire and began piecing together the microphones and wires needed to project our songs out to the people gathered… cold… some smiling… some saddened and weathered… all gorgeously unified and projecting the strength of service to the land.
Someone had painted a bright colorful banner, “7th Generation Medicine Concert” with the four colors of the medicine wheel represented by our ancestry and hung it as a backdrop. The skies were steely grey and we had bags of hand warmers in all pockets to try and coax our fingers to play the right chords and not freeze in place. We each sang 2 songs and then passed it to the next group, round robin style of sharing that women are so well versed at. Our dear friend Lulu from Santa Cruz had packed up a huge duffel bag the night before of hundreds of organic hand crafted chocolate for us to bring to the concert, which was met with a rowdy yawp of delight as we sang Medicine and passed it around to the protectors. Small pleasures in an intense setting. Each person called to give something unique, to show up with their own truth and passion, their own story of forgiveness or resistance.
What a powerful portrait you just painted with this potent recollection! Chloe, what were your experiences at Standing Rock like after Rising Appalachia’s musical offering? Take us through the rest of your sojourn.
CS: In the days that came we gathered in warm tents and tipis with media folks and friends from across the country to hear stories and listen to what was needed. What was changing. What were successes and what were mistakes. Thanksgiving day we gathered with our friends Paul Stover Soderman and Phil Little Thunder and the Little Thunder family to listen to their story about ancestral trauma and healing through the renaming of Black Elk Peak. Our meal that evening was a 2 hour line at Rosebud camp to circle through the main kitchen and thank the people whom had been holding space there since the beginning of the noDAPL movement. No one ate until everyone had thanked them for their work and diligence and profound sacrifice for the health of all our water. It was a beautiful thing. That night we ate by the fire with the drums and songs drowning out any chatter, giving our greatest thanks to Standing Rock and the ripples it is creating in us all.
What are some of the most powerful situations, lessons, or understandings from your time at Standing Rock?
CS: I went to Standing Rock to be an ally to the water protectors on a “holiday” that holds historical weight for many people across this country. I went because I believe in the voices of the people to stand up against corporate greed and ask for more than just profit to be considered in the tactics of resource extraction and the necessary fueling of our economy and country. I went because water is sacred and we must be a voice for the voiceless, gathering in solidarity in the years to come to take action steps in what we believe in. I went because I was invited by the Youth Council to perform at the center fire with three other female groups, all representing the different colors of the medicine wheel, aspiring to uplift the spirits of the camp after the water cannon event took place the previous day.
The Standing Rock prayer is bigger than pipelines and front line media drama. It has grown to showcase to the world a larger story of indigenous resiliency, nonviolence, national unity, forgiveness and resistance, ancestral healing, and many more deeply relative and poignant things. But we still want this win. DAPL was rerouted when it was proposed to route just north of Bismarck due to citizen concern of water contamination there. Now that it has been rerouted through native land, we cannot be silent.
I’ll never forget that medicine concert or the three days we gathered with friends new and old in North Dakota. I’ll never forget the elders around the fire holding deep space, the youth firing up the crowds with full integrity and grace. The hoop songs sung by the young men to their sweethearts. The non-violent trainings and warm gathering spaces to connect and listen. The riot cops on the hill above a thousand people praying by the river on thanksgiving day. The angels all around us. It was a honor to put our feet and our songs into that earth. May Standing Rock be an example to the whole world, no matter what happens with that damn pipeline.
What are your plans to stay involved? How can your fans and friends join in the cause, specific to your involvement.
CS: Depending on the turnings of the recent tides in regards to the Army Corps of Engineers… we remain diligent in keeping our eye on DAPL. Although there has been a recent victory, we all are aware that these things can be changed, ignored, or overturned. There is a Titan in the white house and fossil fuel addicts all over Congress. If there is a call for people to return to camp em masse…. we are open to that call. In the meantime, we encourage people to keep a keen eye out on both Standing Rock as well as their own local fracking and extraction industries and developments. In the years to come, its not looking like an easy road for our natural resources. Show up when you are able. Gather in community centers and learn what is going on in your backyards. Resist when it is called for. Complacency is no longer a national pastime. That couldn’t be more clear.
Thank you Chloe, for your passion and leadership, in song, emotion, and direct action.
Lyla, please talk about some of your other endeavors and passions. Your poetry, and your music, as you are an emcee. The Nihigaal Bee iina Movement?
Lyla: Honestly, poetry and music is something I do on the side, even though it’s what I am most known for. I do not want to limit myself to being a musician because singing the message is only half the battle: we must then live the message and build the message. It is important for me to remember that there are many ways I can change the world in addition to standing on a stage and helping people see the world in a different way.
For this reason I have rolled up my sleeves in various ways and pulled in the trenches. For instance, I’m leading a group of about 30 Diné people in New Mexico and Arizona to create a summer school where we teach and learn traditional skills to revitalize our ancestral education systems. I also walked with a movement started by young Diné women called “Nihigaal Bee iina” (Our Journey for Existence). in the year 2015 we walked 1400 miles around our traditional territory as a prayer for our land, our language, our culture and our people.
As I write now, I’m on a tour bus across the country playing shows for the #Earth2Trump movement hosted by the Center for Biological Diversity. We are garnering support in 16 cities from west to east until we finally reach the inauguration and ensure there are protectors of environmental stability through the next four years. I enjoy every minute of my service even when it is challenging. I am honored to work on parallel paths with wonderful musicians like Chloe and Leah and Biko. As a fellow MC and extraordinary human being, Wake Self, has said, “Let my soul be a song and my life be an instrument.”
Conversation hosted by B.Getz
Seventh Generation Medicine Concert video courtesy of Indigenous Rising Media
Photos from Standing Rock courtesy of Leah Song
Photos of Lyla June used with her express written permission.