Nicholas Galanin is the force behind musical projects Ya Tseen, Indian Agent, and Silver Jackson. Based out of Sitka, Alaska, he creates art – both musical and physical – from and for his Tlingit community.
Nicholas Galanin is the force behind musical projects Ya Tseen, Indian Agent, and Silver Jackson. Based out of Sitka, Alaska, he creates art – both musical and physical – from and for his Tlingit community. Continuum is core to Galanin’s being. Being of both Tlingit and Unangax̂ heritage, Galanin’s work is concerned with serving his community and creating space for their voices, art, and culture in a world that has intentionally tried to strip it away. His collaborations as part of the Black Constellation represent an important statement of solidarity between Black and Indigenous artistic communities.
In this episode, we journey with Galanin through his numerous musical projects, his HomeSkillet festival and label, and some of his various exhibits and large scale art installations, like the “Never Forget” piece that saw him placing the words “INDIAN LAND” in Palm Springs in the style of the Hollywood sign. Galanin’s work is a mirror to the past while reflecting toward the future.
Listen to a playlist of music from the episode below.
Support the show: https://www.kexp.org/fresh
NICHOLAS GALANIN: Sometimes work is created because things need to be seen or revealed to the world. Sometimes it needs to be created because it is the only place I have voice in a world that has actively sought to erase, sometimes it's great responsibility and sometimes it's just out of necessity and need to, to bring something to the world or to envision something or help like to show people, that ah, there's other ways.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “At Tugáni” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY MIZELL, JR.: Welcome back to Fresh Off The Spaceship. I’m Larry Mizell Jr. – DJ, writer, and your guide in this podcast.
MARTIN DOUGLAS: And I’m your co-host, Martin Douglas. Back from outer space.
LARRY: We’ll also be joined this week by KEXP DJ Gabriel Teodros, who you’ll hear from later on. Gabriel is a DJ who does The Early Show. He's going to be in conversation with us as well as doing one of the interviews. Through each episode of this podcast, we’re delving into the story of the Black Constellation. On the last episode, we shared the story of JusMoni. If you haven’t listened back to that or the previous episodes, clear some space out and check those out.
MARTIN: On this week’s episode we’re digging into the work and life of Nicholas Galanin – conceptual visual artist, activist, and the musical force behind projects such as Ya Tseen, Indian Agent, and Silver Jackson.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “You Free” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
LARRY: Now, if you’ve been following us through this series, you’ve heard the phrase “continuum” mentioned again and again. An idea that carries on forever, from generation to generation, from artist to artist, into infinity. Continuum isn’t just something that happens, it’s something that’s carried. Sometimes that manifests itself in tradition or passing down stories and talents.
LARRY: For Ishmael Butler, it comes through in how he fostered artists in his community, many of whom would become part of the Black Constellation. For Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, it’s accepting you are part of a confluence – aligning the future with the past and vice versa. JusMoni experiences continuum by literally serving as a vessel for her ancestors through her performance.
LARRY: For Nicholas Galanin, continuum is core to his being. // Being of both Tlingit and Unangax̂ heritage, Galanin’s work is concerned with serving his community and creating space for their voices, art, and culture in a world that has intentionally tried to strip it away.
LARRY: Now, most of the stories you’ve heard on this podcast so far have grounded themselves in the city of Seattle. But to really tell this story, we’ll need to go up further along the Northwest to Nick’s home of Sitka, Alaska.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Wild Women (live)” (single) ]
LARRY: In the year 2012, a group I was in called Don't Talk to the Cops got booked for the festival HomeSkillet Fest based in Sitka, Alaska, curated and organized by Nicholas Galanin. A whole contingent of us from Seattle arrived in Sitka and decamped from the hotel, checking out the town and the grounds where the festival would be going on. It was overcast. The air was crisp. The water was cold. Really beautiful place. Striking. True northwest. Felt unspoiled in a way that I don't feel in Seattle. On that trip, there was Mad Rad, Kingdom Crumbs, I know DJ Astronomar, who was based in Seattle at the time but is from Juneau, was there.
NICHOLAS: I loved just what was happening with all the music coming, coming from the, from the community, and it, and for me, it was just really uh... A time where I got to appreciate all that and try to like just, just um, you know, not only getting artists up to, to our community, but to create a space to share and bring people together surrounding that.
LARRY: Gabriel Teodros, one of many of the Seattle artists who have made the trip to Sitka, described his experience at HomeSkillet as a testament to Nick’s generosity.
GABRIEL TEODROS: I met, I met, Nicholas Galanin, in 2007 for the first time. He flew Abyssinian Creole, my first group to do the HomeSkillet Festival in Sitka, Alaska. And I had no idea who this guy was. Every single year he brought up different hip-hop artists from Seattle and my first impressions of Nicholas Galanin are something that I still think about when I'm listening to his art today. Right? He was so open, he was so giving. He was one of the kindest, most thoughtful festival organizers I'd ever worked for. This is a story I have never told anyone, but there was a member of one of the bands who will remain nameless that was upset about, I can't remember if they were upset about the time of this stage that they were on or something they were they were upset about something and because of this, something that had happened, they weren't able to sell any of their merchandise. Nicholas Galanin and his family bought all of their merchandise and all of our merchandise from us, even though we weren't tripping, and then ended up giving it away for free to people in the community.
LARRY: To be honest, I was expecting, like some superfan type dude who loved Seattle hip-hop. You know what I mean? Because usually you get those guys and it's like, No, no knock on anybody who's supportive. But it wasn't like that. Like, this guy was cool. And and just loved and wanted to support and bring that that vibration now to his community and show people what was going on out there. I didn't even realize he was such a deep artist. I thought, this is a guy who's been running this label, has this festival going, and he's been holding it down where he's from for years. And I had a beautiful time there.The community, the people that came out there was an artist from Hawaii, and they were just kind of talking about that Hawaii Alaska connection. Hmm. And that kind of gave me this idea of continuum between these indigenous communities. Mm hmm. And it just they were just all these experiences I had in a couple of days. I was there. They just kind of opened me up a little bit bit by bit and we all had a fantastic time, everybody who came out that year, my understanding of his generosity and his well of of of inspiration are drawn is profound. When I talked to him, but yesterday, the day before he was, you know, he was like, you know, that wasn't a job, wasn't making money on that. Literal labor of love.
GABRIEL: I don't think he could have with the way he bought all of our merch.
LARRY: Otis Calvin III, known to many as OCnotes, also has fond memories of visiting Alaska for the festival.
OCNOTES: Never been to an Alaska music festival. Come on. You know what I'm saying? So I went. And it was so fun, like I had the time of my life man. It was just. Oh, man. You know. It just was magic for me, dog cuz like, you know, I'ma, in my family, we got Muskogee Creek native roots down there. And uh my indigenous people. Are very important to me and um. I'd never take for granted any time I'm allowed to be embraced in anyone's culture. You know what I'm saying? But when it comes to like cultures of indigenous natives of any land, it just means a lot to me. To be embraced, you know what I'm saying? And so when I went there, I realized just how much they were doing for us, bro. And uh even now man, chokes me up. It was special, bro. And Alaska is like, its magic, Sitka's magic, it's everywhere. I never been around so many bald eagles in my life. Ravens, I've never, size of cats. Going on boats, seeing fish jumping out the water, you know, just like I just immediately wanted to live there. And uh he was just like, you know, "come back any time". Like for real? So, yeah, so I took him seriously. [laughs]
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Spring” from Thought I Found Gold ]
LARRY: It’s not just the festival that’s so compelling, but Sitka itself. Something Nick holds closely.
NICHOLAS: It's not something I can look and hold and say, this is what it is. It's just it's like a understanding. And it's, it's um, a connection. That, is felt. It's a connection, it's understood. It's a place. Um, I think of it in ways where it's, you know, like amongst everything in this world is a place that brings a closer sense of all of that than anything else that could get like anywhere.
NICHOLAS: This place, the power of it, the land, the sea, all of that stuff. And, and for me, that's like true connection, we come from it. We're part of it, you know. So.
LARRY: Through events like Homeskillet, Nick has been able to share some of this majesty with his fellow artists and Black Constellation cohorts. Even outside of the festival, Nick has been known to invite friends to come spend time with him at his home for musical collaborations, but also to just experience his daily artistic practice.
OCNOTES: Our routine in Alaska is like, you know, a wake up bang. We're doing some sort of art stuff then like whether it's music nowadays, he's really active with the carving. So he'll be out working on a canoe. There was a time when he was doing a totem pole, isn't, you know, I've been out there and then come back working on music. And at night bro, we're cooking food, having a fire, just chilling out, drinking some beers. Man like this is the life dog. Go on a boat. You feel me. Might be out with some folks. What are folks doing? Might pull out a guitar playing some songs, man like- *laughs*
GABRIEL: Yeah, I remember my impressions of Sitka were like, This is what the Northwest. This is what Seattle would be like if white people never really touched it right and it had bald eagles the way we have seagulls and they had ravens, the way we have crows, right? And I remember Khalil and Waylon. You know, once we caught up, they were just telling me about their day, they were like, Yo, this brother, they brought us here. His family has been on this land for 10000 years, literally. You know what I mean?
LARRY: While Nick’s homebase is in Sitka, Seattle became a natural gateway for him as he expanded in his work.
NICHOLAS: Alaska, to go anywhere in the world we generally have to fly through Seattle. That's our like, it's our, that's our, you know, that's the first city, that we have access to, like the rest of the world through, especially out of like southeast Alaska.
NICHOLAS: Also, you know, it's still northwest.
NICHOLAS: We still share like indigenous cultures that have traveled down the line of these coastal communities.
NICHOLAS: Um, there's a lot of familiarity to those cultures, even though they're different communities. You know. We share similar visual languages and evolutions of that and even how we sustain ourselves on the land.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “From Another World” from Starry Skies Opened Eyes ]
NICHOLAS: I come from a lineage of artists, so my father, my uncle uh, And then just my culture. My great-grandfather was a carver here in a time when carving was not necessarily allowed in our communities. Or you know, it was heavily purposefully removed as a language from our hands.
LARRY: Nick’s grandfather was master carver George Benson. His father and uncle worked with jewelry and metals. It was in the tradition of his elders where he began to learn the skills he would refine as a visual artist.
NICHOLAS: My father, he taught me what love for music was like. It was his thing. I sensed importance from music by, you know, seeing how much it meant to his life. And so he bought us all guitars at like 13, something like that. And then the art side of things, too. I came up just studying cultural art form and the visual language through my family, like through my father, my uncle.
LARRY: From his father he learned not only artistic practices, but a spirit of generosity and moral support.
NICHOLAS: We just had my father's life celebration here, and it was so wonderful to hear people talk stories of how he impacted, you know, others. And what, you know, I saw some of the things here, like he was a generous man, like always. And I feel like this was just kind of an aspect of that. And not only was he a generous man, he was also supportive throughout being like, I had an idea or something, he'd be like, Do it. You know, he wasn't a parent that's like shutting shit down or like trying to be pessimistic about whatever. Or, you know, he just he says, Yeah, you could do that. And that was, you know, in light of even saying how while I was studying in New Zealand and that feeling of mentors wanting you to succeed and stuff was important. But his generosity was definitely, I feel like what had lived on.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “Light is All I Have” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
MARTIN: Parenthood is more or less an extension of how our parents raised us, or how they didn’t raise us. Sometimes it’s an extension, sometimes it’s a reaction. Nick became a father while he was running a label, curating a music festival, and traveling all over the world. Throughout the challenges of having a such busy lifestyle, Nick was still able to raise his kids with love and an ability to support their curiosity.
LARRY: Talk to me about being a dad. When did you become a father?
NICHOLAS: Nova was born in 2006. Supernova turns, gets a driver's license next month, so.
LARRY: What was going on in your life?
NICHOLAS: That was right when HomeSkillet was starting and stuff. So Nova, Scarlett, Elliot grew up in a time where I was traveling all the time too, like and I was on the road almost every two weeks sometimes, you know, for speaking, teaching or whatever. And I realized how much travel had been taking place especially after COVID hit really put a slowdown on that right? And it's been two years and I've traveled away less. I like staying put, even though it's good to get out every now and get things done in the space. But yeah, being a parent was huge for me. Responsibility and love, understanding, understanding what that, the importance of everything for me is, you know, and to these children and what they are able to, you know, carry. And also, you know, absorb or catch from the work that's happening, they've been around all this stuff forever and they're allowed to like come in post up in the synth space station and power up the synths and drum machines. They're allowed to come pick up a carving knife and, you know, do those things. So they make jewelry. So they’re just surrounded by these things and it's not pushed, pushed on them. In a sense, it's like it's here. It's here, though. And so that's really. It's great to see.
LARRY: Does that kind of mirror how it was for you growing up?
NICHOLAS: Yeah, definitely. You know, it was, you know, my pops would let us sit at his jeweler's bench when I was 14 and make my mom some earrings or something for whatever, Christmas or, you know, so. But there was a lot of lessons happening in that time. There's a lot of like, you know, my other mentors, my uncle, Will Burckhardt, who I still work with and learn from. And, you know, I don't think this is, you know, just learning the, you know, learning in this practice and you're not learning a process. You're learning, you know, other things like why and connections and you know, you learn about the world you're learning about beyond the world, even in Tlingit culture, supernatural and connections, the place and histories. So, you know, you can travel through forward and backwards in time with work and I think that's what's really being conversed and shared.
LARRY: Yeah, that really reminds me of something MAB said when we were talking and that was in the episode we did with him. We talked about the purpose of all these things, and I think it was in context of kind of some of the Black sovereignty movement his parents were up in. The purpose of these things is to give us a more realistic and holistic understanding of who we are. Right?
NICHOLAS: Yeah. Yeah. And for me, it's not to take from something, it's to give to it, to contribute to it. And it continues through those teachings with, you know, with children and with students, whatever. So.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Requiem - Things That Moved We Killed” ]
LARRY: I think I've told you this before, and this is such a tiny, mundane detail, but it really made me understand the scope of the context that you provide your family. You were smoking something. I mean, like some meat. You know what I'm saying? And yeah, you had, you know, like the stickers they have in the grocery store, like pork, chicken or whatever, a little orange sticker. But you had them. They were in Tlingit, I believe.
NICHOLAS: Oh, yeah, yeah, I had those made up. So living here, we process and, you know, harvest a lot of what we eat. So that means my children butcher deer and they filet fish. You know, all these things and we put them away. And yeah, so those labels were, you know, the Tlingit words. So I don't speak the language, didn't grow up speaking it. My father understood it and was in an era, came from a time where it was, you know, his grandparents said, We don't want you to speak this. All you need to know is your grandparents' clan crests, where they come from, and their names and your name. He had memories of understanding the language as a child. And then it just kind of, you know, that was taken, that generation from us. So for me, even understanding how connected all this is, how connected language is to everything, I do take time and effort to integrate it into some of my work, even as a form of learning, you know, for myself and my children, too. But yeah, yeah, it's what we do.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “We Drowned in Our Own Love” from Starry Skies Opened Eyes ]
LARRY: Do you love having this big pack?
NICHOLAS: Oh yeah, it's wild. It's really wild because they're growing up like they're just big, think of adults and filling the living room, right? They're all helpful. They all like, wake up and, you know, do whatever they need to do around the house without even being asked. They all come out and help with, you know, if we're doing fish or any of that stuff. So they're capable, they're really capable.
MARTIN: As someone who came from a modest economic background, Nick understands the importance of being able to provide for his children. But raising his kids is about much more than just making sure his kids are taken care of financially. There’s the notion of being present, both emotionally and physically.
NICHOLAS: We grew up, you know, raised by wolves. You know, we didn't have much, we had like mixed milk and cornflakes, top ramen. Just didn't have much at all. But more importantly, I feel like than any type of you know, material or anything, I think is giving them an understanding that they can, you know, grow and be what they need to be in this world without like, you know, without me making it any harder for them or without any of like that sort of thing. And then just providing you know, a home and a space where they can access things, so yeah. I also realize the challenge of that a lot of, working in this world might bring into conversations like this, and for me, it's like time, it's like, All right, how much time, how much time are they going to be able to, you know, have with you when you're out here. Traveling the world, traveling the globe, or doing these, you know, these things and then obviously it's different for everyone's family situation. But if you throw in custody or any other sort of conversations, time gets cut in half immediately if you're lucky. Goes quick, man.
LARRY: Fatherhood being a powerful motivator, Nick has learned a very important aspect of preserving his time and energy as an artist.
NICHOLAS: I don't know if we get better at being a little more graceful and those, graceful with our time, I suppose. I'm so optimistic to a fault. But yeah, I can do this. Yeah, I'll get it. I'll get that. You know, for sometimes, you know, it's a luxury to be able to say no and then learning to say no to projects and the things your time also is something that's, you know, important.
LARRY: So, very much so super hard lesson for me, man, I had to learn because I yessed myself, damn near the off the off the building, you know what I'm saying?
LARRY: For Nick, his art isn’t just about self expression. It speaks to and for his community.
GABRIEL: What do you hope people get from your, from your art more than anything else?
NICHOLAS: Mmm. I mean, there's so many different... Types of work that come through creative, creative uh, process.
GABRIEL: Mm hmm.
NICHOLAS: Um, you know, some of this work is, created for the community like my community here, strictly for it.
NICHOLAS: Whether it's ceremonial use, whether it's uh, cultural use. Um, and within that aspect of the conversation um, it's a, say this, canoe, for example? You know, I'm learning, I'm learning and participating in something that's very specialized in process and understanding of, you know, working with material in this case, a tree, red cedar tree that's older than America and, and creating, working closely with it over the course of a year to transform it into a vessel that carries our community that is powered by a community that is um, you know, and that's just the, that's just the actual use of it.
NICHOLAS: But if we talk about the tool making the stories, the uh, involvement of even bringing elders into the conversation surrounding the process in the work and become, opens up a whole other thing. And alongside that, training apprentices to, do the same again is is all, you know, deeply wrapped up in this.
GABRIEL: Do you do you ever receive like any, I guess, like pushback from your community?
NICHOLAS: Sure, sure. I mean, who doesn't, I suppose?
NICHOLAS: And if you're not receiving that, what are you doing? *laughs*
NICHOLAS: Like going with the flow ?
GABRIEL: Yeah right. [laughs]
NICHOLAS: I don't know about that. Yeah. I don't want to go with the flow. Look where it's at, look where it leads you, so like look what world it generally shapes and creates like. Um, so yeah, I think it's all part of it.
LARRY: He also felt pushback in his academic pursuits. Traveling abroad to study fine art in college, he received his Bachelors of Fine Arts in jewelry design and silversmithing at London Guildhall University — and would later earn a Masters of Fine Arts in Indigenous visual art from Massey University in New Zealand.
NICHOLAS: I was in London and they legitimately told me, “You can't do this work here.” “It’s too literal,” they said [about] the native language in that space. And yeah, it's like alright. I kept like a sketchbook of ideas on work and never brought into my mentors and school program at the university there. Wasn't for them. I opened it up when I went to New Zealand and I was in a space that was like, Yeah, this is OK, I can do this stuff here. Yeah, but that's an extension. That's an extension of, it's literally an extension of residential schools, of not being able to carry any of your culture into that space, you gotta hang it up at the door.
LARRY: While in London, Nick also received a more affirming cultural education through its music.
[ MUSIC CUE: Dizzee Rascal - “Fix Up Look Sharp (instrumental)” ]
NICHOLAS: I lived in East London, in Hackney, and I would always tune in to the pirate radio stations. You would just be driving and you'd hear it here like the airwaves take over and this was like, probably, you know? Early, Dizzee Rascal before Dizzee was even on the scene or anything.
LARRY: When Nick left London, he made his way to New Zealand and encountered a far more supportive environment, willing to engage with his calling to preserve his culture through art.
NICHOLAS: I left uh, and went to New Zealand, where I studied on a program for uh, it was Maori visual arts. And so now it was, you know, led by a Maori um, Robert Yankey, who's been, you know, a bridge to culture and institution in contemporary art, in contemporary forms and ways of thinking. And, and for me, that was really uh, you know, a lot changed, I felt like I was supported. I felt like I was in a space where they wanted me to succeed, you know?
NICHOLAS: And I was able and allowed to pursue these conversations that are, you know, now foundational to a lot of the practice I continue to do still in these spaces, so as as a lot of the art I do create now, so
GABRIEL: Yeah, that's beautiful, man like even even connecting like with, you know, Maori to y'all up in Sitka, like that's a dope connection.
NICHOLAS: So, yeah, like I'm saying, though, we have we, you know, we speak about the Constellation and we speak about these things. We have, you know, we can, we can go to a lot of places. You know, our, our indigenous communities across the globe have faced a lot of, a lot of the same challenges that capitalistic colonial worlds, you know um, placed on to us so.
LARRY: Now that Nick’s art has gained broader notoriety, he’s found himself entering spaces that previously neglected to properly acknowledge indigenous communities – ivy league schools.
NICHOLAS: There's so much engagement in institutions here that we do that. You know, initially they wouldn't have us. And now we're the, you know, part of, now we're invited to speak to their students and their, you know, so it's, there's a lot of irony in some of that, especially in the education system. I feel like with higher education, the politics and issues and the histories of even whose land and how that land was acquired. But how, what's being taught in, you know, those systems. So it is important to be in that space and to have a voice in it. But it's also, you know. Yeah, I didn't go to Ivy League school. You know, the curriculum so like, and it's not the necessarily the historical curriculum that we were before through anthropology. So you know, the now so.
LARRY: After a short break, we’ll explore how Nick’s art contributed to one of the most pivotal moments in the Black Constellation’s history.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Constellations Shine” from Starry Skies Opened Eyes ]
LARRY: When the Constellation took form, the union was solidified in 2014 by a monumental exhibition at the Frye Museum in Seattle, titled Your Feast Has Ended. It featured striking, emotionally significant visual works from Nick, Maikoiyo, and Nep Sidhu, capturing the poignancy of their respective bodies of work in a way that equal parts majestic and confrontational.
NICHOLAS: A lot of things were changing in the, in the world and in the, even in the, you know, especially even Seattle art scene. And I think that for me felt like a real pivotal moment in a lot of ways. With our collective voices and work and collaborations. And um, it just kind of kept going from there. We weren't done with our work that we have to do. And um. It's expanded as it needs to.
LARRY: Martin, Gabriel and I sat down to discuss the impact of not only the work featured in the exhibit, but the very idea of taking over the museum space.
GABRIEL: Coming from where I'm from, I didn't always have a positive association with museums. Some of the earliest museums I went to were not contemporary art museums. They were places that just felt like theft, like- This is a colonizers hall of things that they've stolen from all over and particularly with indigenous folks from up north.
GABRIEL: and stepping into the Frye, Your Feast Has Ended. Just seeing like this beautiful conversation of Black, Indigenous, South Asian art that went against colonization in many different forms. And it was the first time I ever saw a museum that can also be a place of healing, you know?
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “A Feeling Undefined” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: I was absolutely. Taken aback. Incredible stuff, really powerful, really wry and lyrical. You know what I'm saying? The way he would title stuff like, he's got that one thing that I believe if I'm not mixing them up, it's the bearskin rug. It's about air inside. That's its claws. And its teeth are bullets. Right? And it's it's it's got is it like it's part of it, an American flag? I want to say
GABRIEL: I remember seeing something like that.
LARRY: Yeah, and it was. It was called The American Dream is Alive and well. I'm reading that and I was like, hello. And all of this stuff is titled so coldly. We just like bars. So he just brings this really wry, sharp thing. But he's not like some. You know, cutting sharp or no, he is very sharp, but he's not like a he's not dick. That's great. He's very gentle, deep. Mm-Hmm. Like. Genuine, tender, dude, who's just a really, really honest shit and that there isn't a single piece of art I've seen Nicholas make that didn't shake me up to some degree.
MARTIN: Yeah. What I will say is that some of the most tender, gentle, kind people in the world save that sort of energy for these systems that oppress us as people.
GABRIEL: Yeah, yeah. I see that in his art, for sure. Mm hmm. The thing I always remember about Your Feast Has Ended being greeted with those arrows when you walk in. Yes. Those were hard.
LARRY: And I mean, what a statement in that. Yeah. Arrows pointing at you when you walk in. Yeah. And just. The the like, the punk rock kind of spirit of subversiveness in his work, the the police armor and the crucifix with the like, the Starbucks cups that like looks like they've been filled with blood kind of in a pilot at the feet.
GABRIEL: The statement like “your feast has ended” and we're walking in and these arrows are coming at you. Mm hmm. And like, it was like, like, I get goosebumps, like thinking about it, you know what I mean? Like that was that was the very first time, and I told Maikoyo back in the day, too. That was the very first time I felt like there was a museum exhibit that. They just entered us like it felt like it was for us, like as people of color in the world. You know what I mean? And it was it was profoundly healing like to have to be able to go to a museum and not feel like we're on display in some fetishization. You know what I mean? Like, which is is normally what happens? I'm sure this is this is some of the illest art you've ever seen from black folks, from South Asians, from indigenous folks. And it's a clap back against empires. You're clapping against colonization and white supremacy and all this shit. And we're centering everything that's beautiful in our culture in the ways that our cultures interact. And yeah, it's just it's just it was just one of the most fire things I've ever seen in a museum.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “You Free” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
LARRY: In speaking of Nick, Nep, and Maikoiyo, curator, writer and healer Negarra Kudumu expresses a point that shines through in the work of all three artists.
NEGARRA KUDUMU: But you know, the one thing I have to say, particularly about these three: they're not afraid of the hard conversations. They're not afraid of the hard conversations. They can speak very resolutely and very calmly and will go toe to toe with you about both the aesthetics and the conceptual aspects, but then also they will have a glass of champagne with you at dinner.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Knives” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: While Nick was garnering acclaim for his visual art, he was also creating music. Always one to take things into his own hands, he slowly built out what he calls “the spaceship.”
GABRIEL: I've seen pictures of the spaceship, as you call it, your studio.
NICHOLAS: Yeah. *laughs*
GABRIEL: You got a lot of-
NICHOLAS: It's a spaceship.
NICHOLAS: It's a spaceship. Because once you get in there, you leave, you leave this world in a different way. Like,
NICHOLAS: Your access to sonics and the sound and time is not a, time can go, be an abstract thing in that place.
OCNOTES: I definitely think the evolution of the spaceship is huge. Just being up there most recently and seeing it, there's so much to learn, and it has such a huge effect on the creative process, you know what I'm saying, because those devices aren't just pretty objects that are expensive, like they really... When you connect them and learn about them the way that you're supposed to and apply them, it really changes the game. So, it actually is important, at least to me. As you know, applying what you say about going forward like to be up there and using those things, using those tools because they're massive tools, you know, you feel me. It's like trying to build a rocket with fucking, the shit you supposed to use to build a rocket or using just some Dewalt shit you bought from Home Depot, a little kit like, I want the rocket builder shit, you know what I mean.
LARRY: The spaceship itself is symbolic of Nick’s process and ethos he brings to his music. Always changing, always growing, and always defying boundaries.
GABRIEL: I think we feel similar about labels and genres. We don't really need them yet. But I'm curious for people that wonder, like, how would you describe your music? Because I feel like it is hard to classify or put in a box? You know what I mean?
NICHOLAS: I mean, that's one description.
GABRIEL: Yeah. *laughs*
NICHOLAS: *laughs* If we, we can start there.
GABRIEL: Word. *laughs*.
NICHOLAS: Yeah, that's probably one of the better descriptions of it, I think so like it's free. I always think, like for me, the term that I like to use is like "sovereign creativity". Where it's this, this uhm, you know? Not being reactionary and not moving to fill a certain genre or this or that, but just doing what needs to be made and what comes through. Um, and with that, I don't know what the next project will sound like. That's all right. I don't know what the next visual art project is going to be, and that's OK.
LARRY: In 2008, he started his first official project under the moniker Silver Jackson.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Fire She Burnt” from Silver Jackson (self-titled) ]
LARRY: The earliest Silver Jackson recordings began as acoustic, meditative folk songs. But you could already hear him taking the genre and breaking it apart, fiddling in the studio and layering his vocals. And with each new release, he’d venture out further into the ether. Bringing in new voices, instruments, and ideas.
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “It’s Glimmering Now” from It’s Glimmering Now ]
LARRY: When did you start making music as Silver Jackson?
NICHOLAS: Probably 2008 or so? I started just like, messing around the little home studio, and for me, I was just trying to figure things out, you know, like the ideas and the process I loved and I mean the process of, you know, building ideas. And yeah, just started from there. And, you know, it was highly collaborative always. I always feel like for me, music is. There's an alchemy that happens through collaboration that can't, really can't really happen without it, in a sense. So I feel like I'm always open to that. Like, I feel like it's a necessity of sorts. It would be harder for me to revisit a project if it was just my hands on it, only. Musically, in my voice or whatever. Bringing others into it is, I feel like it provides even longevity, at least for my eyes and listening to it again later. But yeah.
LARRY: Nick released the last Silver Jackson, Starry Skies Opened Eyes, in 2014. But it wasn’t the end of his pursuits. Nick morphed the project into something new as he linked up with musician Zak Dylan Wass and Constellation member OCnotes.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “We Move Lightly On Land And On Sea” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
NICHOLAS: You know, Starry Skies Opened Eyes was the last Silver Jackson record and I believe, I probably collaborated with Otis, OCNotes on a few records prior to that here and there, and just started going further into that space, and I don't actually remember how the initial project happened, I feel like we were just in the studio and we ended up like creating so much, so much like material and ideas that we were like let's, you know, let's put this out on a new project. And that's where, you know, Indian Agent at the time was more of a small, small run of bringing light to historical, the role of the Indian Agent historically, you know, they were like terrible, terrible enforcers of colonial government and we're, you know, part of it was bringing light to that, part of it was bringing people together, part of it was flipping that. So, yeah, some of the songs were definitely heavier, a little darker, I think.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “White Lies” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
LARRY: As you heard Nick allude to, the term “Indian Agent” was an appointed position by the United States government in the late 1700s for an individual to live among tribes to essentially guide them through assimilation into western culture. But really what they were was enforcers of oppression – overseeing the literal and figurative destruction of their culture and physical bodies. Nick and the group’s adopting of the name was intended to undo the pain the indian agents caused, and replace it with purpose and peace. But after releasing the group’s only album, Meditations in the Key of Red, Nick was ready to take the project in a different direction.
NICHOLAS: You know, Indian Agent was a very particular moment. It was very particular idea and, you know, we are always pushing forward artistically with our work, with our engagement in the world. Indian Agent was bringing to light some historical realities that our communities still face today, and it was, you know, bringing those conversations to this space of music and performance and gathering. You know, we still have those underlying political conversations in our work, in this music and in this record, we'll always have that voice. For me, I think it was important to not carry that name further. You know, we picked it up when we spoke about it and we did our project based on that and we set it down.
The next step for us was, you know, Ya Tseen Indian Yard, which is just speaking on a lot of different levels of how we... you know, how important love is, for one thing, to our communities and to our work. One thing I notice about the conversations in this record and stuff is that, you know, there's this idea of performative revolution to responsive oppression that certain communities expect us to be. As in. But the reality is, our revolution can happen, however it needs to happen when it happens in our own time, while we're caring for ourselves still, while we're caring for our families still, while we're nurturing and tending to those things. You know, so and I think that this record holds a lot of that.
LARRY: Nick began to transition the project away from Indian Agent and began work with a new name – Ya Tseen.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Light the Torch” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: The name translates to “be alive” and also references Nick’s Tlingit name, Yeil Ya Tseen. The project also marked the beginning of a relationship with Sub Pop, the same label that had put out records from other Constellation affiliated groups like Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. It was a move that was years in the works after getting connected with Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman.
NICHOLAS: And I met Jonathan Poneman at the Feast Show actually, it was an opening or something. My friend Skin introduced me to them and RSkin introduced me to JP, he's like hey, that's JP over there, wanna meet him? I'm like, sure. We go over there and like just start chopping up and. We stayed in touch, I gave him Starry Skies final, there's only 100 of those I don't know. I don't know if there's any around anymore. I'd like to find some. He said he wanted to do project that was in like 2014 or something, right? And fast forward to here we are.
LARRY: Ya Tseen released their first record, Indian Yard, on Sub Pop in 2021.
NICHOLAS: I kind of learned a lot on this last record. I always learn a lot on any project, I suppose in certain ways. And for me, it was, you know, it's always interesting in retrospect to look back at any musical project and, you know, visit how, what, what those songs might mean over time or what they, you know, how things distill. And I feel like that those sort of things shape the next project in ways that we don't really know yet.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Close the Distance” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: I peeped the Silver Jackson stuff and I was digging it. I picked the Indian Agent stuff and I was like, Oh, OK, I like where this is going. You know what I mean? And like you working with Otis and I was like, Wow, they have a really cool dynamic. And that Ya Tseen record taking to a whole other level in my appreciation of it is just deepening all the time. Like the kind, and it's ill because. Me thinking of Nick as this really ill. Subversive artist. You know what I mean? Not even subversive that that implies that you are centering this thing that you got to like, take out. Right?
LARRY: But musically, the art scene stuff, it's just I can tell he's coming from a place that isn't trippin on, you know what I mean? Empire, like we like we talked about. I mean, there's songs that address that, but it's like just a dope. Like rock. Pop, you know, whatever, whatever genres you classify and slotted into, it's it's extremely well written and produced, played really, really dope and. I remember thinking for years because there was this conversation, this understanding that Jonathan Poneman was very interested in what Nicholas was doing. And the Ya Tseen record, I was like, yes, this this is this is like a really. This is the fruit of the perfect fruit for them to be like serving to the world, it makes a lot of sense. It kind of reminded me of how, like Stas and Cat did these independent releases I always like when we do this record on Sub Pop, this is it's going to be like another level. Mm hmm. And Nicolas tapped into like a whole other thing. It's not. It's not a different thing for him. You know what I mean? But he surprised me, and he continues to surprise me. And that's what we want from our artists, right?
MARTIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yep. 100 percent. Yeah, like I think about the evolution from from Silver Jackson, which the early recordings, you know, sound like some folk rock straight off Ballard Ave, if you know what I mean. And then it and then it kind of it evolves into something different to where you get like this beautiful fusion of music and the Indian Agent record. And then Ya Tseen just kind of blows the roof off of like the whole. The whole catalog of what, you know, Nicholas has been doing as a musician. And the thing that strikes me about Indian Yard is the sequencing. It's beautiful because it starts off as like a pop record, right? And they're like, these shifts like it goes into like a really soulful song like Born Into Rain that, like James Blake, couldn't write, if you try to be honest. Right?
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Born Into Rain” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: I see Badu was was was stricken by and did that cover
[ MUSIC CUE: Erykah Badu - “Born into Rain” cover ]
LARRY: She's worn a lot of stuff that Nicholas has made and he's it is a collaboration because she's like, modeled some of these incredible new things he's been working on, like those silver nail covers inscribed so ill. Yeah. But yeah, there's there's incredible writing all over that record, I love the sequencing to Martin, the beginning of the record, it sounds like something that like. And I'm not I'm not saying this like. Like, it's not a dis when I say this, but it sounds like something The Weeknd could do, you know what I'm saying? Mm hmm. But absolutely with like a lot more heart and depth. Hmm. You know, and that's OK, because it's not easy to write some pop shit. Nah.
MARTIN: It's not. And then you go like. And then you go through the record and it's just beautiful and soulful, and by the time you get to the end, it's like, it's like, that's when the weird comes out. It's like they've got they've got ish and Stas on "Synthetic Gods." Yes, ripping it. And I like how I like how at the end of Ish’s verse like it is, this patterns get slower and more offbeat. I thought that was a really good touch.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Synthetic Gods” from Indian Yard ]
And then you got Tay Sean dropping bombs on "gently to the sun."
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Gently to the Sun” from Indian Yard ]
And oh my god, that final track where you know it's rapping in Tlingit, like, that's fucking crazy.
[ MUSIC CUE: Ya Tseen - “Back in That Time” from Indian Yard ]
LARRY: And putting it out on a high level in the in the music sphere via, you know this, this highly regarded label, obviously with the majors, resources and everything. What an accomplishment. And it feels like. That record, in particular, all those guests you just mentioned, it kind of it's like the trajectory of everything he'd been doing that I'd seen since I met him. People who'd been who he brought out to Sitka. You know, again. Yeah. Yeah. Are now on this record. It's a really beautiful, full circle kind of thing
[ MUSIC CUE: Silver Jackson - “Lanaalx” from Starry Skies Opened Eyes ]
LARRY: Whether it’s in his musical work, his community work, or his exhibitions, Nick’s work often intersects with his work as an activist. Most recently he made headlines with his Palm Springs installation at Desert X titled “Never Forget.” The project included huge 45-foot-letters spelling out the words “Indian Land” like the Hollywood sign.
NICHOLAS: That was a three year project. I feel like it's, it's ah, coming from the community in history that my culture and community ah, comes from in this, in this, in this space. Um, even living here in, in my, in my uh ancestral homelands is a form of ah, you know, it's a form of resistance because. If you look at all historical, colonial histories, documents, actions, we're not... They don't want us here, they didn't want us here. All of the system was designed to remove every aspect of our being spiritually, our language, our children, our land, our rights, um our a, you know, every form. And, and it's, and the, the receipts for that are everywhere. They're in these museum institutions still they're in our history books, they're in the language that we don't speak or we do speak. They're in the place names of, of that have been, you know, removed or replaced. Um so. The work I do when it's connected to any of that, it's going to come through at some point as, as of, you know, a surface of political or activism, et cetera. Um yes, some of it is utilizing ah, intentionally, you know, having a voice doing it out of responsibility for, you know, um being able to have a platform or space. Um, and some of it happens naturally.
MARTIN: Larry had the chance to head down to California and see the sign for himself.
LARRY: It's deep, this is how Nick works, everything is has got levels and yeah, I was out in, I think I went out to Palm Springs. It was after the opening. I wish I could have gone to that. But had you had to had you go check that out when out there? And I mean. Is big is really big, it looks big when you look at the photos, but when you're there, you're like, Damn, this is fucking huge. Imagine the labor, the materials, the planning, the licensing and all that shit that has to be involved with all that. Now I know he there's got to be people helping with that when you're in this kind of festival situation, but still it's a lot going into it. And yeah, Indian land splashed across this desert. And even that is a reference to, like you said, the Hollywood sign. But the Hollywood sign originally said Hollywood land, right? Hollywood land was a early planned community that was basically like for whites. I don't even know if they said it like that, but that's what it was for. Wow. So that that that level of reference in this stuff is, I mean, very typical for him. But but amazing as usual.
LARRY: So that was an advertisement. It was literally an advertisement real estate developers put there to get people to move to this. Probably not, explicitly said. But, you know, clean, you know, white American community. Hmm. Until that sign fell into disrepair, then they kept it. They kept the Hollywood part. You know, as an advertisement for our our entertainment industrial complex, but it's really interesting that that was an advertisement for segregation and you know escaping black and brown people. And Nick doesn't miss a trick.
GABRIEL: Hmm. You know? The clap back is, in effect.
LARRY: “Never Forget” is just one supersized example of what Nick carries over into all of his work. He’s all too aware of the structures and rewritten histories that got us to where we are now. His work is a reminder of what’s been lost and active participant in reclamation.
NICHOLAS: I feel like that's part of my process and sharing work and stuff is. It's so important to contextualize things I watch and witness, how detractive English language could be towards, you know, somebody that wanted to be through academia through reductive and so I feel like there's a battle of words and context, oftentimes and in ways of talking about this work, that's where it happens sometimes, you know, in that space, it's like, All right, no, we don't refer. We capitalize the word Indian, we capitalized the word Tling, Tlingit. You know, the first letters of those. So we, you know, it's these sort of things. They're subtle and they like, wear away at history and, you know, they contribute to other things. So being aware of that and witnessing it is. It's real like to see it happen and say, damn, this is how it is. OK. Let's fix this real quick, right? The red marker out.
NICHOLAS: The intentional amnesia towards history, erasure, even these like terms that are notoriously not used towards the building of America like genocide. So stuff like that.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “Can You Hang” from Meditations in the Key of Red ]
LARRY: There’s maybe a perceived notion that the artistic world is more progressive, outside of the toxic traits and histories of our governments. But obviously, that is far from the case and actively participate in this engine of erasure we’ve talked about on the podcast. When Nick was approacheed by the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, he quickly found hypocrisy deep within the institution.
NICHOLAS: I didn't know much about the Whitney, to be honest. Prior to being invited out there and then realizing like, Oh, people say, this is, you know, important and OK, so go through the motions and do the things and you know. What I was witnessing and seeing happen with the conversation surrounding, you know, that particular biennial on the board and the political climate of the current U.S., you know, at that time, everything was kind of aligned with each other in certain ways where candor is the board member that is in this space owns and operates and profits off of the tear gas that was being shot at one of the artists in the Whitney that was, you know, in Puerto Rico at the time or the women and children at the border, Mexico, U.S. border at the time or Ferguson. You know, all these spots and these tools that are, you know, people are clearly profiting on and then, you know, we're the recipients of that violence or oftentimes. And so for me, it was easy to say, OK, we don't have a lot. A lot of these spaces move slow. They're dinosaurs, they have institutional memory that just like cannot be swayed. You know, like generally speaking, the mechanisms are designed to continue that.
LARRY: Nick initially moved ahead with an installation at Whitney, his piece titled ‘Let them enter dancing and showing their faces’ was featured at the front of the building.
NICHOLAS: And yeah, so it was entering in and you know, irony is the work that I had on the outside of that biennial on the building near the entrance was pieced, had to let them enter dancing and showing their faces. And it was, you know, it's a mono print of ixht, which is a medicine man or woman who was a medicine woman. And but the idea of “letting them enter, dancing and showing their faces is,” you know, from Tlingit cultures, when you enter a space and then you slowly reveal yourself to, you know, who's in there. And I feel like this work does that. It reveals, you know, the visual work reveals the viewer's, you know, positions of where they're at in this world.
LARRY: Ultimately, Nicholas and seven other artists would remove their work from the Whitney.
NICHOLAS: You know, those conversations and letters being passed and all these like inactions that were, you know, people trying to impact this institution and the boards and nothing was really happening, you know, and I know how that goes, the government governance in these places. So the next thing was like, just pull our work. Four of us did, think four more followed. And you know, that was, you know, it happened quick. And then the next day, it's like even that the impact was like, you know, when the Fox News is trying to call your cell phone and shit, it's like
LARRY: Something's up.
NICHOLAS: I got a voice.
LARRY: Who's the guy with the bow tie trying to Facetime me right now, what's going on?
NICHOLAS: Yeah, it's wild, man.
LARRY: Whether it’s in his actions with the Whitney or just in the creation of his work, Nick is always concerned with speaking his truth and the truths of his community. His art is a corrective to the narratives and perceptions that get placed on indigenouus communities. Perpetuated false narratives or shallow understandings of his culture.
NICHOLAS: You know, we get placed, we get placed in boxes, we get boundaries placed around us that are attempts of defining, you know, not only who we are, who we could be, but also our history. And I was, you know, ultra aware of that as I studied this art form and continue to work within even my cultural side of the work I do. I started seeing all of these things. I started seeing stereotypes pushed upon, you know who or what is and what can be. Uh, I started seeing that impact, you know, everything around, and I wanted to work from a place that was honest and real and um, you know, revealing, revealing some of these things were also challenging them, and the challenging um side of it was through demonstration and like and being it and, and showing the... ah. Showing what's possible, I suppose, in a world that always tends to, um, detract from who we are.
[ MUSIC CUE: Indian Agent - “All over Town (Ear Dr.umz Rxndition)” (single) ]
LARRY: The world we live in moves rapidly, but often feels resistant to the change it needs. Nicholas’ work in every incarnation holds a mirror to the past while reflecting toward the future.
LARRY: Next time on Fresh Off The Spaceship, we look at the work of prolific producer, DJ, songwriter, and all around renegade artist, OCnotes.
[ MUSIC CUE: OCnotes - “Lately Times” from Dap Confuser ]
OCNOTES: The way I do music is 100 percent spiritual because at this point, I don't, I don't do things like, Oh, I want for a, for a reason of like wanting to get something. I do it when I feel it. And so I know that if I'm moving off of a feeling, it's something that isn't technically coming from me and I'm moving with the vibration and moving with, with um, other forces influence me to do this thing…
LARRY: This episode of ‘Fresh off the Spaceship’ was written, produced and edited by Martin Douglas, Janice Headley, Dusty Henry, Isabel Khalili, and myself, Larry Mizell Jr. Audio was produced and mastered by Julian Martlew, with additional audio editing by Janice Headley. We want to thank Gabriel Teodros for his many valuable contributions to this episode. We also want to thank Sub Pop and all the members of the Black Constellation for giving us permission to include their music. Lastly, we’d like to thank our volunteers, Alaina Clarke and Natalie Vinh, for their work transcribing interviews.