REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: The art of cultural resistance

History lessons, humor mark high-energy performance of Native rapper Supaman
Joseph Bullington —
Friday, August 3, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Joseph Bullington

Supaman, aka Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, performs on Saturday on the Main Stage of the Red Ants Pants music festival in White Sulphur Springs.

Welcome to Indian land.

That’s how the rapper Supaman, aka Christian Parrish Takes The Gun, likes to start his performances — with what he calls some basic facts.

That’s not the kind of thing people are used to hearing in White Sulphur Springs, where Supaman performed last weekend on the main stage of the Red Ants Pants music festival. But if he was daunted by that reality, he didn’t show it. And if the mostly white audience that packed around the stage in the noonday sun was unreceptive to his words, they didn’t show it, either.

Takes The Gun is, after all, Apsáalooke — the true name for the Native tribe that the white man calls the Crow — and the Smith River Valley and Shields Valley are Apsáalooke country. (Takes The Gun said that the Pikuni, the tribe known to the white man as the Blackfeet and historical enemies of the Apsáalooke, would probably also claim that territory, but both claims are likely true.) 

The Crazy Mountains, only a couple dozen miles southeast of White Sulphur, in particular, are important to the Apsáalooke. In the old days, many traveled in those strange and beautiful mountains in search of visions, notably a young Apsáalooke chief named Plenty Coups, who related his vision to Frank Linderman in the book “Plenty-Coups: Chief of the Crows,” and the Crazies remain sacred to the tribe to this day.

Takes The Gun refuses, as best he can, to be a stranger in his own country. The man carries himself with a calm pride that is as rare as it is disarming — the kind of hard-earned but humorful dignity that inspires people to listen, and laugh along. That is his gift: He knows how to confront people with difficult truths without making them feel trapped.

When people leave his shows, he hopes they “leave with a different perspective — maybe some stereotypes were broken in the process.” 

“And still everybody leaves with a good feeling,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s a damn good rapper. Anyone who thinks his style seems kitschy or preachy should listen to him freestyle. 

And he knows how to work an audience — a skill that passes almost unnoticed when it’s done well. Takes The Gun has a particularly hard line to walk.

For example: “This country was founded on the genocide of the Native peoples,” he declared from the stage during his show. And he went on to explain the enduring and devastating impact that legacy has had — is having — on Native communities in Montana and across the country. It was a somber moment, and the crowd was quiet. A few minutes later, though, he invited some people from the audience on stage to help create a song. He assigned roles: One man was to whistle, one woman to hum, a young girl to belt out a bass line, which he recorded and looped. And the last man, Takes The Gun explained, was to “say something positive to the people — you know, ‘love one another,’ or ‘give the Natives their land back.’” And the audience erupted in laughter.

His music blends traditional Apsáalooke drumming, singing, and language with lyrics that draw on hip hop culture and his experience growing up on Crow Agency. The result is songs that sound at once ancient and avant-garde. 

“Natives, early on, were drawn to hip hop, because of what they were talking about. It was the voice of the oppressed,” he said. Still, “hip hop always starts as fun.”

In 2016, Supaman joined Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas to create the song and music video “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL,” on which he raps in his native Apsáalooke language. The video won an MTV music video award in 2017.

The arts, he said, have given him a platform he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

“It’s very important to me to use that platform to educate with some basic truths about this country,” he said.

* * *

But teaching history to the descendants of settlers is not Takes The Gun’s only — or even his main — mission. He is out to save the culture and, literally, the lives of his people.

“This is suicide prevention, right here,” he said, indicating his clothes. He was backstage after his show, and he was still decked out in the full, traditional Apsáalooke fancy dance clothing in which he performs. His wife sewed it for him, inscribing prayers and stories into the beadwork.

The suicide rate is far higher for Natives than the rest of the nation, he explained. Native American teenagers, in particular, are 1.5 times as likely to kill themselves as the national average.

“That tells you the relationship America has with its Native people,” he said.

“My own father ended his life that way,” he said, explaining why it is so important to him to address suicide in Native communities.

“The systems that were built against us are still intact,” he said. “We gotta do everything we can to combat that in our own lives.”

Takes The Gun thinks that traditional Native culture is the most — maybe the only — effective weapon. To understand the importance of cultural preservation, he said you need only look east, where some tribes “are in a state of emergency when it comes to preserving their culture.”

“Since the beginning of contact, the colonialism has been tearing us down,” he said. “Our strength is in embracing our culture, our language, our prayer — it becomes that weapon.”

“Once you know who you are,” he continued, “you become more connected to the land, to where you came from. That connection allows you to live in a good way.”

As a rapper, Takes The Gun carries that message wherever he can — performing at festivals, at powwows, at public schools both Native and white.

“I always felt I had a responsibility to uplift the people, because we been through so much hardship already,” he said.

It was this work that first took him to Standing Rock, some eight years ago now, to work with the youth there. It is a little-known fact that the mass uprising against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and 2017 started with a youth group

that formed to fight the epidemic of suicide on the Standing Rock reservation.

“The youth started that movement, that was very encouraging,” said Takes The Gun. “When the movement was going on, I felt ‘that’s my people there.’”

Takes The Gun began making regular trips to the anti-pipeline camps.

“As an artist, I wanted to see what I could do,” he said.

He put on rap shows and worked to use his platform to build awareness of what was happening at Standing Rock.

Takes The Gun thinks that such a large gathering of Native American tribes has probably never before happened in this country, and so the camps were about more than stopping a pipeline — a sort of Indian renaissance broke out on the North Dakota plains, sharing traditional songs and language and stories.

Historically, the Apsáalooke were the enemies of the Lakota — the true name for the tribes that the white man calls the Sioux — including the Standing Rock Lakota. However, when the camps started, the Apsáalooke tribe sent loads of buffalo meat, said Takes The Gun and the elders of both tribes smoked the pipe together.

“To see the unity,” said Takes The Gun, “that was one of the most powerful things I remember.”

* * *

The Red Ants Pants music festival, held annually in White Sulphur Springs, began in 2011 and usually features country, Americana and bluegrass music. This year, the festival set an attendance record at over 18,000 people — up significantly from its first year attendance of 6,000.

“The systems that were built against us are still intact. We gotta do everything we can to combat that in our own lives.”
Christian Parrish Takes The Gun