‘DIY music is a small world, but so is Indian Country’

Musician and songwriter Joseph Running Crane talks underground music, the overlap of punk and folk, and what it means to be a Native artist. Running Crane will play The Murray Bar at 8 p.m. Thursday night.
Joseph Bullington --
Thursday, March 21, 2019
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Photo courtesy of Josph Running Crane

Musician and songwriter Joseph Running Crane is pictured in performance. Running Crane will play The Murray Bar starting at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 21 and Norris Hot Springs at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 22.

The Bandcamp page of Joseph Running classifies his music this way: “highline folk/reservation rock.”

That’s probably about as specific as it’s possible to get, considering the multitude of influences the musician and songwriter has fused in his songs, which surge with the energy of punk rock, sound like outside-thebox country and shine with the lyrical wit of a rural Bob Dylan.

“Growing up on the rez, you just get your hands on what you can get your hands on,” said Running Crane, who was born and raised in Browning, on Blackfeet Nation. Running Crane will play The Murray Bar in Livingston at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 21 and Norris Hot Springs at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 22.

Early on, what he could get his hands on was his dad’s music: Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, but also stuff like Creed and Nickleback.

Running Crane rebelled by getting into metal — “and not always the good kind.” He was into Slayer, but there was also some Slipknot and Korn in there, too — until his cousin Tim learned Running Crane was into hardcore music and burned him CDs of the stuff he needed to listen to: Everything Went Black by Black Flag, the entire Minor Threat discography, a Circle Jerks album.

With a couple friends — Michael Bustamante on drums, Allen Gordon on bass, and himself playing guitar and singing — Running Crane formed what is, in this writer’s mind, one of the best, most energetic punk bands ever to bust the sweat-soaked basement ceilings of Montana’s underground scene, and undoubtably the best named: Goddammitboyhowdy.

The band was straight up hardcore punk and had none of the genre ambiguity of Running Crane’s current solo project. The title of their 2011 album summed it up: “Goddammitboyhowdy is Rez Punk.”

Eventually, though, Running Crane realized that one of his favorite things about the band was writing lyrics, and he wanted them to be good and he wanted them to be heard. He decided to start his own, solo project, writing and singing his own songs.

When you’re playing hardcore, “you’re just kind of screaming your agenda over loud guitars,” he said. “I got really into prose writing and writing lyrics.”

“Also,” he said, laughing, “you make more money by yourself. I was tired of tending bar and washing dishes.”

Lately, he said, he’s been digging back into the music he grew up with — “Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, a lot of Tom Petty.”

His muscial transition — from punk to folk — is not as unusual as it might sound. Both genres thrive and mingle in an underground, DIY (do-it-yourself) counterculture that has outposts across the country — from Missoula to Bismarck, North Dakota to New Orleans, Louisiana — and you’ll run into some of the people you saw playing punk rock in a basement in Montana 10 years ago playing outlaw country in a dive bar in a different state.

“Might have to do with the fact that most of them are just three chord songs, anyway,” Running Crane joked. “Low-income, hard-living people sing about similar stuff.”

* * *

Recently, Running Crane, a Pikuni, or Blackfeet, tribal member, moved back to Browning after 10 years in Missoula.

“The financial security of being a musician in Missoula wasn’t what I thought it was when I moved there,” he said.

When he moved back, he took a job with Montana Native Vote and hit the roads of the reservation, knocking on doors.

“That was a great way to jump back into the community because I was going door-todoor to register people to vote,” he said. “My last name is Running Crane, which means I’m related to everyone here. You wind up sitting around bullshitting with ‘em for an hour before you realize you’re supposed to be at work.”

This year, the First Peoples Fund, which works to bolster the careers of Native artists, awarded Running Crane a fellowship.

“I been kinda looking at it as a paycheck,” he said.

He’s taken the opportunity to write songs, tour around, and use the fellowship money to fund his forthcoming record, “Dog Winter,” which he hopes to press to vinyl and release in September.

A single released ahead of the album, called “Imitaa,” the Pikuni word for “dog,” is a story told from the perspective of a homeless person who finds companionship and protection in a street dog.

In Browning, Running Crane said, there’s not a lot of money for animal control so there are a lot of unwanted dogs on the streets. There’s also a lot of unwanted people on the streets.

“They have nowhere else to go and neither do the dogs,” Running Crane explained, “so they end up cohabitating.”

Traditional Pikuni culture has deep reverence for dogs, he said, because, before horses arrived on the plains with white colonization, dogs were the peoples’ primary means of transportation and protection — dogs pulled the travois, dogs guarded the camp.

In the friendship that sprung up between the street people and street dogs of Browning, Running Crane saw “a really interesting take on a traditional idea.” He saw it, he said, as “a form of resilience by people who refuse to be shoved into the pages of history.”

He wrote the song “Imitaa,” “transposing traditional values into modern times.”

As part of his fellowship, Running Crane recently traveled to a convention in Phoenix, Arizona, where he got to know other Native artists from across the country.

“DIY music is a small world, but so is Indian Country,” he said — so he found he had only one degree of separation from just about everyone at the conference.

There, he said, he felt part of a community and found some good conversations with others struggling to figure out what it means to be a Native artist in the midst of a culture hungry to appropriate Indigenous traditions and pigeonhole Indigenous artists.

In a conversation, Addison Karl, a native muralist and sculptor who works a lot in Europe, said something that struck Running Crane: “If you’re Native and you’re an artist, you’re a Native artist. I don’t need to wear a feather in my hair and say, ‘Indian over here!’”

“I am really, really cautious about commodifying or commercializing things that are, for lack of a better word, sacred to me,” Running Crane continued, adding that even the song “Imitaa” was borderline. “I can’t get rid of my name, nor would I wish to, but that’s as ‘Indian’ as I want to get with (my art).”