Talon Bazille Ducheneaux, 22, sits in a conference room at the University of Pennsylvania's Greenfield Intercultural Center. Born and raised in South Dakota, he identifies as Lakota and Dakota. He remembers that, in his boyhood classrooms, "they start indigenous history at 1492."
But Ducheneaux is writing his full history, in rap.
On Saturday, the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which, fittingly enough, was built on Lenape land) will present "Modern Native Voices: The Medium of Hip Hop New Music with a Distinctly Native Beat." Ducheneaux is one of the key organizers. The event brings together some of the country's most prominent rappers of indigenous descent, including Tall Paul, Frank Waln, Def-i, and Wake Self to perform and share stories.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, only 0.8 percent of Philadelphia's population identifies as Native American, compared to Ducheneaux's native South Dakota, at 8.9 percent.
This is one of the reasons Ducheneaux, a senior and psychology major at Penn, chose this university, as he says, to "build upon the Native voice in Philly."
He was in seventh grade when he moved to a reservation and began to think more about his identity.
"The reservation is a beautiful place, with beautiful people," he says. "At the same time, one can't take a blind eye to a lot of the poverty, the addictions, substance abuse, and violence that does go on there.
Ducheneaux lost cousins and friends to suicide, and he knows many, including himself, who deal with depression.
He began rapping at age 9, at what he says was a "Cat in the Hat skill level." But it was through hip-hop that he found a way of handling those issues and speaking out.
Now, as BazilleDx (his rap moniker), he has released more than 20 hip-hop projects. His latest is a 51-track homage to those he has lost, called Sake, which means "Talon," his name in his native Lakota language.
At first, not everyone was happy about his affinity for rap: He was either laughed at or chastised. Many objected to what they saw as the exploitative nature of hip-hop, especially sensitive, he says, since exploitation is "what happened to our people for so long."
"In hip-hop," says Ducheneaux, "not only are we here in the present, but we can dominate, succeed, and excel in a modern art form," too.
For Ojibwe rapper Tall Paul, from Minneapolis, transparency and authenticity are everything: "The reason a lot of Natives listen to it and are active in it is because we all relate to hip-hop, whether we're on the reservation or in the inner city."
In "Protect Ya Spirit," Paul warns against assimilation into the dominant culture via public education:
God forbid our kids go to school to learn from fools
The melting pot's already injected 'em with rules
Daughters gotta be Barbies to get in with the cool
Fellas wanna be like fathers that they never knew
I'm not saying every teacher isn't worth their pay
I'm simply saying most of them don't know of colored pain
Hip-hop both heals and humanizes. "It brings us in the modern light," says Ducheneaux. "A lot of news-media sources don't feel comfortable doing a Native American story unless my hair is longer and braided. For some reason, me dressed like this" - he gestures to his outfit, with gray cardigan and button-down shirt - "still doesn't suffice as being indigenous."
Not only that, rapper Frank Waln says, the media "never [show] how beautiful we are or how strong we are. They never show the full story."
Waln, from the He Dog community, was born and raised on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota and went to the same high school as Ducheneaux, whom he considers a little brother.
He literally stumbled on hip-hop at age 12, when he found a scratched copy of Eminem's smash hit The Marshal Mathers LP on a gravel road. Waln says he "connected with the emotion and felt like he was telling my story." But it was when he heard Nas' "One Mic" that Waln knew he wanted to be a rapper. Now, the 25-year-old declares on his song "AbOriginal": "I got this aboriginal soul/ I got this aboriginal flow." Waln says he is placing a mic in front of voices that have been suppressed.
The hip-hop event is part of the Penn Museum exhibit "Native American Voices: The People - Here and Now," which opened last year. Lucy Fowler Williams is curator. "For a long time," she says, "we've had a difficult history with Native America. Our history has been to remove Native people and have them stop practicing their traditional ways and cultural practices - and turn people into American citizens instead of appreciating Native identities and perspectives."
Waln is one of several indigenous artists featured in MTV's Rebel Music. The docu-series centers on using art as a form of resistance. Music journalist Tom Barnes of Mic.com called Native rap, "the most authentic rap we have today," saying it stays true to the roots from which hip-hop sprouted in the late 1970s, demanding visibility and respect, challenging injustice, and holding out hope.
Waln, who has composed songs such as "Oil 4 Blood," protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, says his music will "be political whether I want it to or not, because as an indigenous person, our lives and reality has been shaped a lot by U.S. policy."
"I want my family to be happy, healthy, and respected," says Waln. "If people label that as protest music or activist music . . . what are we saying about society?"
Ducheneaux has two circles tattooed on the outside of his wrists, symbolizing "tribal and personal ideology." They are a tribute to bygone family and friends and a reminder that "we all come on this earth equally and leave equally."
"Hip-hop is more than struggle and poverty, and it's more educated than people think it is," he says. "So is indigenous life. It's such a beautiful blend."
Modern Native Voices: The Medium of Hip Hop New Music with a Distinctly Native Beat
3 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St.