This I’m a Berkeleyan was written as a first-person account of an interview with Sierra Edd, a graduate student in the Department of Ethnic Studies whose research focuses on Native American studies and music, and sound in politics. .
My current college career began when I first listened Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape in 2014.
I was an undergraduate student at Brown University in Rhode Island. One of my teachers at the time — Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation) — introduced me to ideas about Indigenous appropriations in art and Indigenous representations in visual culture. I wrote an article about the mixtape for his class, and it inspired the research I’m currently doing at UC Berkeley.
I am Diné, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. I grew up in a small border town of Durango, Colorado. As a youngster, I always had in mind that going to a big city away from the reservation was a way to “succeed”. So when I went to the East Coast, I thought that was going to be my experience on the other side of life.
When I got there, however, I realized I missed home. Music that reflected my cultural identity, like the songs of Futurisms, has become a way for me to hear myself reflected in the world. Indigenous music gave me the affirmation and comfort I so needed to be Diné.
During those years at Brown, I felt a lot of isolation and disconnection. I was trying to find my voice in a space where there weren’t a lot of Indigenous people.
So when I heard FuturismsI felt a rejuvenating familiarity and connection through the music that reminded me of home.
Listening to the mixtape was special for me, as an Indigenous person. Hearing songs in Diné Bizaad (our language), I felt at home, listening to my grandparents or my family. This moment elevated my upbringing and my Diné values: It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, Diné Asdzáán Nishłí (I am a Diné woman), and I carry my ancestry and my way of being.
The Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape was produced by RPM — Revolutions Per Minute — in Canada. It’s an Afro-Indigenous collaboration, so there’s a very broad group of artists included on the mixtape. My favorite track is “Speak to Me of Justice”, which is more of a spoken performance. There is a woman’s voice talking about the regrowth of plants and the collapse of factories in a post-capitalist world where industrial things go downhill. At the same time, she talks about the return of the bison, the return of our parents from the corn, the return of the stolen land.
In my research as a graduate student at Berkeley, I am interested in how listening to music produced by Indigenous peoples and designed for Indigenous peoples creates a sense of kinship and also helps Indigenous people in the diaspora to feel connected to their culture, as Futurisms did for me.
It wasn’t until my graduate degree that I considered music as a space for learning and enhancement with scholarly research that often disappointed me. As I learned more about the fields of sound studies and ethnomusicology, I realized that these fields, like visual arts and photography, came from a Western perspective. I think that context is really important to the way some Indigenous artists make music today — because they’re doing it for themselves, rather than worrying about making their culture acceptable.
Throughout my life, I’ve had conversations with my father about Indigenous music – he talked about how we’ve always had Indigenous musical practices and traditions within our tribes. Studying our music in an academic setting is just another way to share this with the world and bring critical questions about the importance of revitalizing our cultures, our languages. And also, it’s a way of challenging the idea that contemporary Indigenous music is a new thing; we continue and transform our practices in new ways.
Many of my Native Studies classes have focused on visual culture, history, or literary writing, and those are really great, but I lacked a space to explore what it means to think through Indigenous music with sound studies with Indigenous studies, together?
So Ever Reyes, a graduate student in ethnomusicology, and I started the Indigenous Sound Studies Task Force. I am also part of the Digital Ethnic Studies working group. They are both part of the Center for Race and Gender. I really like these spaces because they are student-focused and often very open. You can take the conversations anywhere and you can read any text you choose, which is much less structured than courses.
For the Indigenous Sound Studies Working Group, we held two symposia, one on intergenerational sound studies and the other on the politics of listening. The speakers were Dylan Robinson, Trevor Reed and Karyn Recollet, all of whom are leading sound studies researchers from Canada and the United States.
Karyn Recollet’s work is really crucial in asking questions about solidarity with black studies, thinking about shared ethics and moments of coalition and imagination. Trevor Reed is a Hopi author and jurist. He reflects on what it means to have music, especially linguistic and cultural knowledge, to carry out a type of politics, such as sovereignty and to keep the culture alive? Dylan Robinson’s work is about bringing the idea of non-extractive listening to music, so instead of seeing music as something we can own, Robinson looks at how we can learn from music without contextualizing it and get out of where it came from.
Music changed my relationship both to my research and to myself.
After obtaining my doctorate, I will have fulfilled the dream I had as a teenager who followed in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents by going out to study. Along the way, I realized that no amount of institutional recognition could ever replace the value of a lifetime’s journey in my cultural heritage, language, and worldview.
I am constantly learning and seeking to know what it means to be Diné, especially if it means forging a new path. It guides my research ethics, my teaching methods, and my outlook for the world beyond academia and music.
My advice to other Indigenous students interested in studying Indigenous music or unexplored topics in their department is to start with collaborations and discussions with each other. The greatest motivation for my work is the support and energy of my colleagues, students and friends who share my interests.