Goodbye Native Grammy: NARAS dumps hard earned category

By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country June 2011

 Keith Secola
Ten years ago Robbie Robertson and Val Kilmer handed out the first Native American Album Grammy to winner Tom Bee of Soar Records on live TV.

In early April, in a major act of “restructuring” the Grammys have eliminated the Native category. It will now be folded into the Best Regional Roots Music Album that includes former categories of Hawaiian, Zydeco and Cajun music.

When I wrote about the nominees for last year I noted that it was time to expand the category as it had stagnated by being so limited. But as the economy goes, so goes the category, and instead of expansion there is reduction and elimination.

Felipe Rose of the Village People and an award winner of several Nammys says  “It figures... this is why I’ve stopped recording Native contemporary dance/music, it seems that with so many of hundreds of thousands of Native Artists putting music out, mainstream America and the Grammy’s/music industry are NOT and will never embrace Native music! And so it goes...”

Keith Secola, who won a Grammy as part of a compilation album says: “I was a voting member but dropped out partly because of misrepresentation (on several levels) of the award in the Native category and failure for the academy to acknowledge Native musicians and grow into a real category. A category that would benefit the story coming from our people and assist as professional musicians. Not only did they freeze us in the ethnocentric past but they put us in the New Age freezer to sell in the frozen music section in the discount aisle during the red light special. Also the Beatles never won a Grammy.”

 Bill Miller
In an interview with  The La Crosse Tribune three time Grammy winner Bill Miller said: “The Grammys help everybody's career out. The first one I won in 2005, it seemed to do nothing. The second one started a little bit (of a buzz). But the third one took it over the top for some reason. It started to help in my bookings. It’s a door opener.”

“The importance of these little categories were that they were getting recognition,” Miller said. “Now, it’s almost like saying, unless you're selling three times platinum or you cuss every other word and you're a gangster... we can't use it anymore. I don’t like that mentality. The good news is they’ll never be able to take them away from me.”

 Joanne Shenandoah
“I think that’s a sad thing,” said Joanne Shenandoah to the Syracuse press.  The native of the Wolf Clan of the Iroquois Confederacy, who won a Grammy in 2006 for her work on the Silver Waves Records collection “Sacred Ground: A Tribute to Mother Earth.” Shenandoah was nominated for a Grammy in 2001, the first year Native American music had its own category, and twice more.

“There are so many qualified and wonderful (Native) musicians but she also felt the category was “very limiting.”

“Unless it’s your typical stereotyped drums and rattle, Native language album, we’re not going to consider it,” she said of her perception of the Grammys.

“This is really disappointing,” said Harlan McKosato of Albuquerque in an interview with the Sante Fe newspaper. McKosato, who writes a column on Indian issues for The New Mexican but is best known for hosting the syndicated radio show Native America Calling, has served on the committee that screens entries for the Native American Grammy.

“The Native American category was always in peril,” McKosato said. “A major problem was that sometimes there were barely enough entries in a year to qualify,” he said. (The minimum was 25 albums.) Only “traditional” Native music was eligible, so Indian rock, blues or jazz bands didn’t qualify.”

“I saw the writing on the wall in 2005,” says Micki Free of Native Music Rocks Records. Free won a Grammy in the 1980s, way before there was a special Native category. “I was invited to LA to be on the board of governors but I asked them why there was only a traditional category. They flat out told me there was not enough representation of the Native members to sustain anything beyond the traditional category, and even that was endangered. The community never really stepped up in large enough numbers to show them there was support, and support is a voice as well as money.”

“But it’s a Catch 22 all around – why should they support us when we weren’t supporting them? You honestly can’t expect powwow music to carry the whole load. It’s what’s going on across the board in music – everyone is cutting back. We are only making singles deals for new artists, but we get them maximum exposure for it.”

There have been a few other changes in the way the Grammys are set up, but it does seem as though they have lost the all-important clout they had years ago with so many other award shows and so much music available online. The death of the record store and overall decline in music sales in all genres is indicative of the way things are going.

It’s not all doom and gloom, music will still be made and performed. But the ten year window Native music had on the Grammy world stage has now closed.