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Indian rocker finds it hard to be heard

By Annie Baxter

Minnesota Public Radio

ONAMIA, Minn. -- It's a sunny afternoon on the Mille Lacs reservation. Robby Romero is in town visiting from the southwest, where he lives.

Romero puts on some music he's working on with his band Red Thunder. Folk rock guitar riffs blend with traditional instrumentation.

"My music is a woven blanket of traditional instruments with contemporary instruments," Romero said. "It doesn't start with traditional and fade out into the contemporary. I call it native rock."

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Romero has forged an identity as a native artist. He distributes and performs almost exclusively in Indian country -- that's a widely used term that signifies the homelands and reservations of native peoples.

"The term Indian country probably came from the Department of War for enemy lines. You crossed into Indian country. But Indian country today is the reservations, the tribes that do not have ratified treaties with the United States -- that are landless. We're a band that comes from Indian country," Romero said.

Romero is Apache and comes from New Mexico, but he spent a good chunk of his childhood in Hollywood. His dad worked in film and his mom was a dancer. She appeared in several Elvis Presley movies.

As a kid, Romero was surrounded by artists, including the actor and director Dennis Hopper. On the shores of Lake Mille Lacs, Romero tells the story of a concert he attended with Dennis Hopper as a young teenager. He said a band called Xit opened his eyes to musical possibilities and to ways of being Indian.

"They started the set with this traditional pow-wow drum, traditional singing," Romero said. "And they were all very much dressed in a contemporary Native way."

Romero said he never forgot the band's set.

"I knew then I wanted to take it to another level," he said.

But Romero wasn't making "native rock" from the beginning. As a teenager, he played guitar and wrote original songs. He toured with artists like country singer Ronee Blakely and blues musician Paul Butterfield. He'd open for them and sometimes even played in their bands.

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Then drug addiction landed Romero in treatment. He turned to his roots and traditional ceremonies to get better, which launched him on a new path.

He became active in the American Indian Movement. He began making films about sacred sites and the environment and started his native rock band, Red Thunder.

Romero and his band have reached wide audiences. His 1998 film "Hidden Medicine" premiered at the Sundance film festival and played on the Sundance channel.

Red Thunder has played international gigs at United Nations summits and the Kremlin. But still, the band hasn't quite penetrated the mainstream. Romero thinks that's a problem with the industry itself.

"I think the mainstream's ready for a lot of things that they don't have access to. I think there are some wonderful native artists out there that the mainstream would love," he said. "The music industry kind of categorizes artists as artists by race."

And that has a strange consequence. Because Romero's music is closely identified with the category "native rock," it isn't always heard by Native American people.

At a grocery store on the Mille Lacs reservation, local band members say they didn't know Romero's music. They listen to more mainstream radio fare.

And over at the tribal school, principal Rick Gresczyk said he doesn't know Romero either. Two teenage girls are standing nearby as he speaks. They've never even heard of native rock. Grescyk explains how some contemporary native music is what you hear in the soundtrack of movies like "Skins" or "Pow-wow Highway."

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"When it's not pow-wow music it's a lot of times like Indian folk music," Gresczyk said.

In the meantime, he continues to work on film projects, which he hopes will expand his audience.

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