A story of family origins, music, and activism.
From the West, from the North, from the East, from the South, the medicine tribe is gathering. They are rising up in unity, in resilience, and with the intention of creating new paradigms on the planet. They’re a group of young people being awakened into action by the music of a messenger. The messenger’s name is Nahko Bear and if you haven’t heard of him yet, you will.
Nahko Bear sang in support of candidate Bernie Sanders for a rally during his 2016 presidential run in San Diego. He marched for Climate Change with the 400,000 who could not be silenced outside of the United Nations. Nahko was part of the digital revolution that saved the sanctity of the Hawaiian Volcano Mauna Kea. He cleared passage ways for salmon to swim up the California Coast. And Nahko stood in solidarity with the thousands camped at Standing Rock to block the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Sacred missions may be in his bloodline.
Nahko’s paternal grandfather was a Filipino lawyer who successfully protected a local village from Shell Gasoline pillaging it. Two days after the agreement was reached, he was shot and killed. Nahko’s grandmother fled to safety. Her sons were already serving in the Philippine Navy. One of them met an indigenous woman in a bar in San Diego, California. That woman arranged for her fourteen-year-old daughter to be in relations with the sailor for two weeks. Nine months later, baby Nahko was born. His name has been changed as many times as his family structure, but even when adopted by Caucasian Republican Baptists he kept the middle name Nahkohe-ese. It means “Little Bear” in native Cheyenne language. Its abbreviation, “Nahko” is now chanted by the medicine tribe at protests and concerts from coast to coast.
“It took me years to tap into tribal community. I searched for many summers just looking for native people to connect with,” recalls Nahko. After 17 years spent outside of Portland, Oregon, being raised “in the irony of what I didn’t like about America,” Nahko took to the road. He traveled from Alaska to Hawai’i, California, Washington, Idaho, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. He soaked in hot springs in national parks, and slept under the stars with his guitar.
“As I drove around, I was learning the history of the country by exploring it, and as I did that, I was writing a ton of songs, and gaining my own ideals of the United States…. The first elder that really saw me was Winona LaDuke. I was a fan of her work for a while, and she was the first person to take me under her wing, who saw me for who I was, and accepted me into her community.”
LaDuke, the revered environmental activist and executive director of Honor the Earth, is a native Anishinaabe of the White Earth Reservation. She successfully stopped the Sandpiper [Enbridge Oil] pipeline and is now firmly footed at Red Warrior Camp outside Standing Rock. Nahko is enamored by how she harnesses her heroism saying, “One of the most beautiful things I feel right now, is that you see these amazing, empowered women who are stepping up and really reminding us young men, and men in general, that our role is to let the women lead, and yet, we’re their protectors and we stand side-by-side, but the women are supposed to lead with their hearts.”
Shifting out of the patriarchy and into a maternal “equal and free” society is something Nahko hopes to be a part of in his lifetime. On concert stages in front of thousands and in private conversations alike, he refers to God with the pronoun “She,” makes a point to do a daily ceremony to Mother Nature, and relies on a management and tour staff of badass women. In addition, Nahko’s personal council of elders includes the aforementioned Winona LaDuke, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe Caleen Sisk, and “Auntie” Pua Case, founder of Hawai’i Warrior Rising.
Chief Caleen Sisk’s Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s territory is along the McCloud River watershed in Northern California. They are committed to protecting the cleanliness and availability of water, clearing passageways for their “relatives” the salmon, and maintaining indigenous spiritual life.
Pua Case guided the #WeAreMaunaKea movement that protected the Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Kea Mountain from being desecrated from a proposed 1.4 billion dollar telescope to be built in the name of tourism and technology. The would-be demolition and construction site was planned on ceremonial land where native Hawaiians worship Wakea; Sky Father and where they dance, chant and commune with their ancestors who are buried there.
Winona, Caleen, Pua, and Nahko first stood side-by-side in New York City, of all places, at a fundraiser in the home of Peter Yarrow. Peter and his 60s supergroup, Peter, Paul & Mary were known for their flower child fight song, “We Shall Overcome.” That evening in Manhattan, Nahko became known for singing solo on a piano. From his track, “The Wolves Have Returned” his velvety, symphonic sound filled the philanthropists’ living room:, “Spruce tips and cedars now free up them rivers / the salmon will run / no dam can hold / Uniting the nations/ it’s gonna take some patience /so unzip your sheep skins the wolves have returned.”
It was a prophetic performance that would inform Nahko’s ongoing path to protect the planet. He describes the scene saying, “Everyone was crying. It was the most beautiful moment, and I realized I wanted to go work with Caleen somehow.” He was soon called to California’s Mount Shasta to be in ceremony with the chief. Within the wise woman’s smokehouse, they hatched a plan to unblock local waterways in service of her beloved upstream swimming salmon.
September, 2016, after a hectic festival season tour schedule and significant time spent at Standing Rock, Nahko, Caleen, Pua, Pua’s daughter Hawane, and a group of indigenous water-keepers began a 300-mile trek titled RUN4SALMON. This two-week active prayer forged a clear current for salmon to swim from the Sacramento—San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem’s McCloud River. In addition, it raised awareness about Big Ag’s irrigation plans to further thirst the California Coast by building another dam in the area, depleting natural resources and those that depend on them.
Nahko reflects soberly, “I’ve dropped into a deeper way. It takes a lot to change. To be accepted into ceremonial life, especially because I didn’t grow up in a tribal community. They’ll look right through you to see if you are ready or not. Being able to come into that walk, and let go of a lot of other things that are going on, so I could actually show up in a way that was humbled, stripped of my ego, and be able to just be of service.”
A big part of this sheepskin-shedding came when Nahko felt compelled to confront the circumstances of his conception and to clear his familial line. After re-establishing a relationship with his birth mother and his indigenous grandmother who trafficked her, Nahko sought out his biological father. Like his Filipino lawyer father before him, Nahko’s dad died by the gun. He was murdered in California, on Christmas Eve 1994. A few years ago, the man who hazily pulled the trigger was up for parole. Nahko was asked to testify at the hearing; to remind the judge of all he had lost without a father figure to lean on and learn from.
“My uncle called me, he’s like, ‘Hey the guy who killed your dad is going up for parole for the first time in 19 years. Do you want to go with us? What happens is usually we write letters, and then we testify, and then it puts him back into jail’.”
Nahko contemplated the impact that could have, and realized, “I’m not necessarily even mad at this guy, because I believe so strongly that everything happens for a reason.” He began researching the possibility of an in-prison visit. “I knew my family would not be down for that, but maybe that’s what I need to do for me, because I was a different part of the story.”
It was Thursday of Fourth of July weekend, and Sunday he would be leaving on a rock n’ roll tour with Xavier Rudd. Nahko thought, “You know what, I’m just going to go.” By Saturday, he was standing in the visitation line at San Quentin State Penitentiary. The governmental staff who hadn’t responded to his visitation application online were far more accommodating in person. A kind-hearted guard noticed “Hawaii” on his ID, assumed he had traveled a long way, and knew he had only this one day. She worked the system, and granted him a pass. Moments later Nahko came face-to-face with the man who had murdered his father. A man of similar facial features, whose first words were, “Whoa, are you my long-lost brother?”
Nahko said, “Yea kinda, but not really,” and thought, “Fuck it, here we go.” He says, “I started from the beginning of how I was born. That when my uncle met me, he told me that somebody had shot and killed my dad. Homie was so calm and zen, and then his whole thing changed, he was like ‘Oooh….you’re his son,’ and then he started crying, and I started crying, and he just kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for taking your dad away from you,’ and I was like, ‘That’s why I’m here, I’m here to tell you that you are forgiven’.”
It wasn’t a premeditated move, but an outcome that lifted the heaviness of that lineage. The inmate went on to express the hardships of prison life, the daily death-toll, and his shock that he had lasted in there, unharmed for so long. He vocalized that if his destiny was to die in San Quentin, then so be it. However, if he were to be released, he would return home to the Philippines to ask for forgiveness from his own dying father, whose body was filled with cancer and whose heart was filled with his son’s shame.
Some of the final words the prisoner said to his very first visitor were, “If I ever get out of here, I want to take you fishing because you never got to do anything with your dad. That’s what I would do with my dad.” Nahko responded in kind, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen when you go face my family next month, but I encourage you to speak from your heart.”
A few weeks later, Nahko’s aunt called. Though some in his family were furious, the story had resonated with his biological brothers and sisters, who, at the parole hearing, pardoned the prisoner. Exactly 20 years after the shooting, on Christmas Eve 2014, the man was released and deported back home. When asked about this before a show in San Luis Obispo, Nahko cheerfully chirped, “I’m hoping he’s alive and well because I want to go find him and go fishing.”
While freedom can be found in forgiveness of the living, it can be more challenging to make amends with those no longer walking the Earth. Nahko felt his backstory included a few more people to make peace with. The healing came in the form of a phone call from a stranger who is able communicate with those who have crossed over. She said, “I talked to your dad, and he’s really sorry for what he did. I talked to your [indigenous] grandma and she’s gathering the nations for you. It is written don’t push your destiny. Just let it happen.”
And it is happening. In each state where Nahko Bear and his band Medicine for the People travel for concerts, they are greeted by the state’s own “medicine tribe.” These tribes have come together by a love for Nahko and his music, yet there’s more to it. As Nahko explains, “Every state has a Medicine Tribe page on Facebook, and they’re basically taking the community aspect of the music outside of the band’s interest. They’re really creating alliances among themselves. They’re saying, ‘Let’s have a community meeting and share.’ That’s super special and I had nothing to do with that. They had their own festival last year in Indiana and 900 people came. We’re just planting the seed and everybody is just doing what they’re doing with it. I don’t have to question [our message] being sustainable because I can see the fruits of the labor being grafted.”
With each new tour and album, their message is becoming clearer. The latest LP is entitled Hoka, the Lakota word that Crazy Horse would cry out before going into battle. Essentially, it means “a call to action.” True to its title, the album contains tracks with names like “We Shall Overcome,” “All Can Be Done,” “We Are On Time,” “Build A Bridge,” and recent fan favorite “Make A Change.”
Nahko is backed by one of the hardest-traveling bands in the conscious music movement: Justin Chittams, Patricio Zuniga, Tim Snider, Chase Makai, and Max Ribner round out the reggae-inspired, ancient, tribal, rhythmic, revolutionary, rap, and rock n’ roll sound. This group of guys are more than simply bandmates; they are true brothers, supporting a massive mission. Across the globe they step on the stage and sing, “I can make a change.” The audience responds by chanting the same. Soon groups of thousands are saying, and shouting, and thinking and believing in themselves, reaffirming, I CAN MAKE A CHANGE. The energy is always palpable, leaving each individual inspired to do their own work in the world.
Nahko clarifies, “Even though right now you could look around and go, ‘Shit is so bad’ with the distractions corporate media creates to alter our focus, the election, our water crisis; whether it’s a drought or our polluted drinking water, or bottled water companies owning rivers, or military policing and protecting corporate interests, I still look at it in a way where it’s actually a really exciting time, because not only do smart conscious people thrive in this environment, but it’s getting so bad that we are actually collecting more people to wake up to the reality of the situation. We’re getting more people from a neutral place, or a passive space, into an active space, and that’s cool because they’ll arrest Hollywood actresses, or [film director] Josh Fox, or they’ll try to silence reporters, like [Democracy Now’s] Amy Goodman, and they think it’s going to deter people from sourcing information, or showing up and standing there. However, it’s only going to create more opportunity to make the world aware. Because sooner than later, ‘we the people’ will take back Turtle Island and reclaim it as a free and equal society, bound by our watersheds and bioregions. We will reclaim democracy as the Iroquois meant it to be. I believe in those good things coming.”
Nahko’s beliefs have radiated into the bodies, minds, hearts, and voices of the thousands globally who have been woken up by the “Little Bear” who came to the planet in this time, in this way, with this diverse backstory to serve this mission. “Something that I had to come to terms with at Standing Rock was believing in myself, and believing that I am here for a greater purpose,” reflects Nahko.
It is written.
For more information about Nahko
For more information on Nahko Bear, his music, and his activism, visit: nahko.com
Amy V. Dewhurst is the President of Sense + Color. She has spent more than a decade, building brands, creating content, and ensuring success for projects, and personalities globally. Learn more about her at @sense_and_color