Bridging Worlds with Music and Native Identity: A conversation with Mali Obomsawin '18

By Maeve Fairbanks '22 and Abbi Fitzpatrick '22

In advance of the Kennedy Center's Arts Across America event, a collaboration between the Hop and the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts celebrating Indigenous and immigrant heritage, we spoke with one of the event's featured artists Mali Obomsawin. A member of the acclaimed folk band Lula Wiles, an Abenaki artist and a Dartmouth alum, Mali shares how she advocates for Native, Black and transgender people as well as other marginalized groups through her music and activism.

Can you tell us about your work with the Arts Across America event?

I am playing some new songs that I've written and explaining their back stories. In all of these songs, I draw from my lived experience, which happens to be an Indigenous experience. My lyric writing uses a lot of the imagery of colonialism and the anti-colonial struggle. I use abstract imagery and metaphor; that, to me, feels very Indigenous. It's funny to me that non-Native people love to latch on to Native American proverbs, which taints it a little, but in my culture, we value metaphor and we learn a lot from metaphor. We see the world through various forms of metaphor. We learn things from animals and we learn things from plants and we learn things from the metaphors of the way that the universe circulates. As a writer, I draw from that. A lot of the things I say in my songs make more sense to an Indigenous listener than to someone who's not from that background. 

One of the songs that I will be playing on Indigenous peoples day is a new song I wrote after I watched a movie about James Baldwin, one of my favorite artists. In the movie, he talks about a John Wayne film where a group of Indians gets shot at on horseback. He relates to the Indian; he says, "I realized when I was watching that that we [Black Americans] are the Indian." We are the butt of the joke, used in this way for the drama. So I wrote a song called "In Dreams" and it's inspired by that comment. It's about shared struggles under colonialism and capitalism and the legacies that white America inherits.

How do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has opened a discussion for Native people?

I'm an activist and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I'm grateful because I've noticed that at a lot of demonstrations, the BLM movement creates spaces for Indigenous people to talk about colonialism and our common struggles. The BLM movement doesn't have to do that. Native people are not entitled to that space in this moment. I've heard land acknowledgements and Black Native people uplifted — an intersection that is too often erased — and ultimately the power of the movement has made room for Native voices to break through some of the silence surrounding our struggles. I'm such a strong believer in solidarity among colonized and marginalized peoples. There's so much violence against Black and Native peoples here and there's so much that we can learn from each other and we can empower each other. It would be a huge disappointment if we weren't all working towards that solidarity. 

You've emphasized the importance of solidarity among marginalized groups of people. How is this sentiment reflected in your activism and your art?

I listen to other people and take their experiences seriously. It's not the oppression Olympics. Colonialism relies on that kind of competition among people who would otherwise be allies. If we fall into those traps, it's just us being duped yet again by colonialism. We have to be smarter than that and we have to work harder than that. As we envision Indigenous futures, we have to include Black people as well. I have talked about this in some of my articles. They are here, they are a part of our land and they have relationships with this land that are true and deserve our respect as Native peoples. There's a lot of talk sometimes about who's a settler and who's not a settler, but there's no room for the argument that people who were brought here in chains are settlers. When we imagine our futures, we have to be inclusive – just as BLM has been inclusive of us and our struggles. 

I try in my work to not exclusively speak of Native oppression as if it's the only oppression that exists in this land. We cannot talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two spirits without talking about brutality against Black men, women and transgender people. We need to stand up for other folks who are victims of racist state and citizen violence. I try to always contextualize and understand the culture we live in as within settler-colonialism and white supremacy. In my music, I'm really trying to communicate across or through that context. I also try to recognize the influences and know the history of the music I play. There is not American music without the immense contributions of Black musicians. Native people have also contributed a lot to American music. It's important not to erase anyone or whitewash history.

What was your experience at Dartmouth, and how did that affect your art?

There's so much appropriation of Black and Indigenous musicians and imagery and I didn't start to see that until I came into my own at Dartmouth. To be honest, for a lot of my life, I wasn't fully taking myself seriously as a Native woman. The Native community at Dartmouth helped me realize my own self-suppression and change that. Professors like Dale Turner and Bruce Duthu made me feel seen for the first time in classes, like my thoughts were valued. I resisted taking Native studies classes at first because I thought, "I'm an Indian anyway, so why do I need to learn about being an Indian?" I took my first Native Studies class at the end of my second year at Dartmouth and started radicalizing – I was so empowered. 

I'm still in the phase where I really want to be writing about politics. I have faith in the power of words and the power of melodies and the aesthetic that makes people want to listen. I think that for myself I was so much less healthy when I was more colonized, but the second I started to decolonize my opinion of myself and my world, certain dynamics became really hard to ignore. Now, it feels disingenuous to try to write as if from some vacuum where colonialism does not exist.

As Native people, our identities don't exist because of colonialism. We're not Native because colonialism happened. We are Native because we predate colonialism. As an artist you have to decide what kind of mark or contribution you want to make to the culture that you're working in. What I want to share with the world that is full of all kinds of identities is critiques of colonialism, windows into experiences that aren't comfortable to acknowledge or part of the white mainstream fantasy. What I want to share within my own community is stuff that has nothing to do with colonialism because that is who we really are. It's like living in two different worlds and I feel like music and activism are the bridges between them.

Arts Across America: Celebrating Indigenous and Immigrant Heritage will be presented on Monday, October 12th at 4pm ET.  Visit our webpage to find out more and to tune in. 
Funded in part by the John M. Tiedtke 1930 Visiting Performing Artists Fund and the Lewis Crickard Visiting Performing Artists Fund.