Rock on the Rez 

Forget about lilting flutes and earthy drumming. The latest generation of Native American music rocks.

The first time Jon and Scotty Gardipe organized Thunderfest, an all-day rock festival at Evaro's Mule Palace last fall, they spent more than a month on the logistics-what bands they would invite to play, which family members would act as security, how much they would charge, and lots of other details.

What they didn't realize was that they scheduled Thunderfest for the same day as The University of Montana's Homecoming football game and the huge concert in Caras Park that followed. Plus, the already mottled gray October skies began misting, then drizzling as the temperature sank, so that only the hardiest fans stuck it out.

Thunder, composed of Jon Gardipe, Junior Green, Ray Finley and Jim Morigeau, have been making music for over two years. You can catch their jams at the Four Star Bar in Ravalli.
Photo by Chad Harder

But still, almost everyone who was there danced. A cluster of boys sporting black Marilyn Manson T-shirts and flannels banged their heads and pumped their fists during the performance of the band WarCry, while only a few feet away, a woman who looked to be in her 60s spun and dipped and shook her body to her own rhythm. A middle-aged woman with dark violet hair joked with friends and sipped Keystone Light. Another contingent watched the show huddled on the bleachers under umbrellas.

"This is a good start," Scotty said at the time to his son Jon.

Both Gardipes, along with Jim Morigeau and Junior Green, are members of Thunder, an all-native rock band from the Flathead Reservation that is Thunderfest's namesake. Forget about the lilting flutes and earthy drumming of stereotypical Native American music-bands like Thunder and WarCry simply rock. They are part of an emerging trend of contemporary native bands in the Northwest who sing about reservation life and political turmoil, along with some of the more standard hard-rock fodder. Acceptance by non-native audiences is not unilateral, but it's growing. For their part, WarCry celebrates the release of their new CD at Jay's Upstairs Friday, February 12.

Both bands believe that being in a native rock band is not too different from being in a non-native one. But after just a few minutes of hearing them at work, it becomes clear that bands like Thunder and WarCry have something to say-that their songs are informed by the experience of living in Montana as a tribal member at the end of the 20th century. And what's more, it's just as clear that what's currently happening in each of their careers is only the beginning.

Hearing Thunder

Scotty Gardipe doesn't play an instrument, but he acts as the band's manager and booking agent. During the summer, he travels to powwows with his food concession trailer, selling things like Indian tacos. Jon Gardipe, meanwhile, takes care of the "loading and hauling and rounding up," as he puts it. Meeting with both of these guys at the Down the Hatch bar in Polson, it's obvious from the number of relatives and friends who stop by the table to chat that both men are well-liked.

With matching black baseball caps emblazoned with the word "Thunder" in a gothic script, Scotty exudes warmth and good humor, his eyes crinkling often, while Jon seems a bit more serious. Scotty tells me with pride they are both the great-grandsons of Chief Charlo.

Despite his fairly soft spoken and easygoing manner, Jon clearly states his goals for the band.

"Actually, we'd like to get a hit song," he says hopefully. "We've got some awesome ideas for videos for our songs. Like 'One Eyed Ford.' It's about a guy who bought a one-eyed Ford back in '82 from a man who was a Chippewa-Sioux."

In addition to more than 50 cover tunes, Thunder's song list includes a handful of originals, with titles like "Teepee Creeper" and "All Indian Band," which Scotty describes as songs for his fellow tribal members.

"We call them rez songs," he says. "They're for reservations; they're for Indian people to have fun with. Most non-Indians can't understand the irony of the songs."

“We’re all either tribal members or descendents,” says WarCry guitarist Buck Morigeau. “We have to keep our culture and our spirituality, but we also have to live in this world.”
Photo by Chad Harder

"Yeah, they're supposed to be fun," Jon adds. "But sometimes people look at them and say, 'Oh I can't believe you guys are singing about that. You should do this, you should do that.' Almost anytime we play, anywhere we go. We choose not to sometimes, especially off the reservation. Sometimes we go straight to cowboy central. We wouldn't sing 'Teepee Creeper' there."

One of those times Thunder chose not to play their originals was when they made a trip down to Hamilton not long ago. Soon after they arrived at the bar they were scheduled to play in, patrons started making jokes about how they must be having a powwow.

"After we got on stage, everybody shut up," Jon says. "By the end of the night, the bar was full, and even the mayor was there. They danced all night. We let a girl get up on stage and sing. We made up a song right there on the spot and she sang along. We get there and start playing, and they realize we're normal people."

Jon and Scotty say some of their songs reflect experiences like that, but usually, they're about better times. "Teepee Creeper," for example, is about sneaking into a tent at a powwow. "One Eyed Ford," meanwhile, is an old "49 song," sung at the outdoor parties held at night during powwows.

"Forty-nine was the 49 states," Scotty says. "A person from each tribe in each state got together and formed a big circle, and each one played a song from their own tribe until everybody knew it. Then they went out in the bushes and had a 49. It was drinking and that-a fun time."

But then there are Thunder's more somber tunes. "Strangers in the Night," for its part, tells a painful story of displacement. "It's kind of a Custer's Last Stand song-how the old settlers came in and took everything over," Jon says.

Usually, Thunder plays these songs at the Four Star Bar in Ravalli, where they know plenty of people will be on hand to appreciate them. After all, that's where the band first began "petering around" three years ago. Today, though, Thunder is focusing on accumulating more equipment and increasing the band's name recognition.

"We've got kind of a little following," Jon says. "Lots of family and stuff."

The Fury of WarCry

Jim Morigeau, who writes both the words and music for all of Thunder's originals, is the father of WarCry member Buck Morigeau. WarCry is another native band, but their musical style is mostly raging speed metal. Not surprisingly, their lyrics are darker and more political. Anyone who has ever seen them play, especially at Jay's, knows that their ripping guitars and lightning-fast drums can work the crowd into a moshing lather like few other bands.

WarCry, which consists of Morigeau, Alvin Caye, Doug Papia, and brothers Raymond and John Gray, got their start about three years ago, performing first at parties in a coffin shop and later at Jay's Upstairs. More than one person has expressed fear mixed with awe when describing their somewhat menacing stage presence, highlighted by growled lyrics. Off stage, however, they seem unassuming, not to mention intelligent and thoughtful. Throughout the interview with the band at the Doubletree in Missoula, Buck continually gazes at the Clark Fork River and references the mountains jutting up from its banks. He considers himself a spiritual man, he says, and the admonition to return to old ways certainly permeates WarCry's music.

WarCry has been playing speed metal for over three years, getting their start at parties held in a coffin shop. The band believes they can provide role models for disenfranchised reservation kids, encouraging them to follow the medicine wheel instead of an upside down star.
Photo by Chad Harder

"We play metal and aggressive and all that, but the aggressiveness comes from the sadness in the state of the world," Buck says. "I mean, if you look around there's a lot of stuff to be angry about, and that's why the music is a little aggressive. But I don't want to put us into some kind of little box or anything.

"Songs that I write, they're mostly about-well, 'Scalp Hunter' is not pro-go-out-and-hurt-people; it's basically a reflection of my own anger. In that song I say, 'All your fears come back to you.' And that's kind of the point of that song, that the things you do wrong and you mean to do wrong by doing it, they'll come back to you."

Buck explains that almost all of the songs stem from a feeling of lost identity, of not knowing one's place as a modern native person in a nation where spirituality can be easily swallowed by satellite television and the fake ideals often portrayed on its channels. He believes in the importance of stepping outside and taking a deep breath.

"As far as the native influence, with us, we're all either tribal members or descendants, and we have to live in two worlds. We have to try to keep our culture and spirituality, but we also have to make it in this world. With the music thing, I think a lot of native people who play music really do have a message that could be heard."

He compares most reservations to Third World countries and says he's lucky to live on one that is wealthier than most. But still, he concedes that the difficulties on the Flathead Reservation are no different than they are in other places.

"All of the problems stem from a loss of identity as a people," he says. "Sort of like us-we're half-breeds and quarter-breeds and what have you. We really feel excluded from both worlds in a lot of ways."

Heavy metal is considered by many to be the domain of poor white kids, and while it's cool to like punk rock, metal's cousin, it is somewhat less acceptable in some circles to be a devotee of bands like Slayer or Megadeth. So it's interesting to see how WarCry has taken the genre and put their own decidedly tribal spin on it.

"We may have a few lines about Satan worshippers, you know," Alvin Caye says. "But it's not the thing to follow."

In fact, Buck hopes he and his bandmates can be role models to kids on the reservation, kids he sees as succumbing to the seductive gangster image that haunts disenfranchised young people of all colors.

"We're all rebels and they can listen to us," Buck says, "and then they don't have to follow some upside down star."

"They can follow the medicine wheel instead," Caye adds.

"They're going to pick up on the identities they feel make them bigger," Buck goes on. "Like our song 'Blah.' It used to never be about anything except yelling, but it really does make a point about TV and these things clouding our minds, making us think things we normally wouldn't. Like the poor Indian boys thinking if they got in a little gang, they'd be tough or something."

Buck points out that most of WarCry's songs are about change and a return to traditions of the past, while still surviving in the modern world.

"The song 'War Cry' is about finding your own way and your own relationship to the land around you," he says. "It's basically about how our connection has been broken, this is the war cry to set it off, to bring it back. This is us yelling, screaming it out, 'Find your way or lose.'"

The Right Kind of Label

WarCry's attention to both politics and messages of transformation are precisely why Chris Sanchez decided to record their CD on his new label, Fury Records. Plus, Sanchez notes, they are formidably talented musicians.

Sanchez met Caye at a community event in Elmo, where he was invited to hear WarCry practice. A member of a Kootenai tribe from British Columbia, Sanchez says he despises musicians who don't have anything to say. "A lot of native people are apolitical, which is really unfortunate," he says. "After 80, 90 and 100 years of the current political structure, they choose not to make a change. I know people who are very talented that just don't care. They get up and give the same old rhetoric from 1969. They stir the crap at the bottom of the pot, but they don't offer solutions."

For his own part, Sanchez plays in a band called Deadfall with his brother, as well as in Seventh, another native band on the Fury label. (Both Seventh and fellow native rockers DOD will help WarCry kick off their new CD at their release party this week.) Sanchez describes the sound of his bands as straight-edge hardcore, raucously espousing a philosophy of rigid sobriety.

Chris' brother Josh Sanchez says that he and Chris both share many of the same perceptions, but Josh is slightly more outspoken. A recovering alcoholic, Josh has been clean for a decade and says he hates drugs and alcohol and the corporations that produce them.

His songs, as a result, are sometimes critical of other Native Americans, he says, holding them responsible for what they continue doing to themselves. He himself overcame booze despite being a fifth-generation alcoholic, and he takes a hard line about the sobriety of others. "If I can do it," he explains, "I demand the same from my people."

Along with bands like WarCry and Thunder, the Sanchez brothers share a potent mix of pride, musical talent and the desire for more.

Until they reach their shared goals, though, the Gardipes are busy planning a second Thunderfest for July, and Scotty hopes to get his friend and Bitterroot Valley resident Huey Lewis to headline. Jon, meanwhile, is unrelenting in his desire to hit the big time, and Scotty says that when they do, they'll offer other local a bands a boost into the spotlight.

"We're still a real small-time band," Jon says. "You got to have notoriety, and that's hard unless you can play and show everybody."

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