Arts & culture, Humanities, People, Profiles, Research

‘Regardless of where I am in the world, Diné Asdzáán Nishłí (I am a Diné woman)’

When Ph.D. student Sierra Edd first heard the Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape in 2014, it changed her relationship to her research and to herself

portrait of a person smiling and standing outside

Sierra Edd is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

This I’m a Berkeleyan was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Sierra Edd, a graduate student in the Department of Ethnic Studies whose research focuses on Native American studies and music, and sound in politics.

My current academic career started when I first listened to the Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape in 2014.

I was an undergraduate student at Brown University in Rhode Island. One of my professors at the time — Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation) — introduced me to ideas around Native appropriations in art and Native representations in visual culture. I wrote a paper on the mixtape for her class, and it went on to inspire the research I’m doing now at UC Berkeley.

I am Diné, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. I grew up in a small border town in Durango, Colorado. As a young person, I always had in my mind that going to a big city away from the reservation was a way to be “successful.” So when I went to the East Coast, I thought that was going to be my experience of the other side of life.

When I got there, though, I realized I was missing home. Music that reflected my cultural identity, like the songs in Futurisms, became a way for me to hear myself reflected in the world. Indigenous music offered me the much-needed affirmation and comfort in being Diné.

In those years at Brown, I was feeling a lot of isolation and disconnection. I was trying to find my voice in a space where there were not many Native people.

So when I heard Futurisms, I felt a rejuvenating familiarity and connection through the music that reminded me of home.

Listening to the mixtape was special for me, as an Indigenous person. In hearing songs in Diné Bizaad (our language), I felt as if I was home, listening to my grandparents or relatives. This moment uplifted my Diné upbringing and values: Regardless of where I am in the world, Diné Asdzáán Nishłí (I am a Diné woman), and I carry my ancestors and way of being.

The Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape was produced by RPM — Revolutions Per Minute — in Canada. It’s an Afro-Indigenous collaboration, so it has a really wide group of artists included on the mixtape. My favorite track is “Speak to Me of Justice,” which is more of a spoken-word performance. There’s a woman’s voice talking about the regrowth of plants and the crumbling of factories in a post-capitalist world where industrial things are deteriorating. At the same time, she talks about the return of the buffalo, the return of our corn relatives, the return of stolen land.

In my research as a graduate student at Berkeley, I’m interested in how listening to Indigenous-produced music made for Indigenous peoples creates a sense of kinship and also helps Native people in diaspora feel connected to their culture, like Futurisms did for me.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I considered music as a space to learn and emphasize with scholarly research that left me often feeling disillusioned. As I learned more about the fields of sound studies and ethnomusicology, I realized these fields, like visual art and photography, originated from a Western lens. I think this context is really important for how certain Indigenous artists make music today — because they’re doing it for themselves, rather than being concerned with making their culture palatable.

Throughout my life, I’ve had conversations with my dad about Indigenous music — he talked about how we’ve always had Indigenous music-making practices and traditions within our tribes. Studying our music in an academic setting is simply another way to share that with the world and bring critical questions into why it’s important to revitalize our cultures, our languages. And also, it’s a way to challenge the idea that contemporary Native music is a new thing; we are continuing and transforming our practices in new ways.

Many of my Native studies classes have had an emphasis on visual culture, history or literary writing, and those are really great, but I was lacking a space to explore what it means to think through Indigenous music with sound studies with Indigenous studies, together?

four people stand next to each other inside a room with high ceilings and a stain glass window behind them

From left: Graduate students Sierra Edd, Everardo Reyes, Lissett Bastidas and Valentin Sierra are in the Indigenous Sound Studies working group on campus. Edd and Reyes started the group in 2020. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

So Ever Reyes, a graduate student in ethnomusicology, and I started the Indigenous Sound Studies working group. I’m also part of the Digital Ethnic Studies working group. They’re both part of the Center for Race and Gender. I really like these spaces because they’re student-driven and often very open. You can take the conversations anywhere, and you can read any text that you choose, which is a lot less structured than classes.

For the Indigenous Sound Studies working group, we’ve put on two symposiums — one on intergenerational sound studies and another on the politics of listening. The speakers were Dylan Robinson, Trevor Reed and Karyn Recollet, who are all significant sound studies scholars from Canada and the U.S.

Karyn Recollet’s work is really crucial for asking questions about solidarity with Black studies, thinking about shared ethics and moments of coalition and imagining. Trevor Reed is a Hopi author and a legal scholar. He thinks through what it means to have music, especially language and cultural knowledge, perform a type of politics, like sovereignty and keeping culture alive? Dylan Robinson’s work is about bringing the idea of non-extractive listening to music, so instead of seeing music as something we can own, Robinson looks at how we can learn from music without contextualizing it and taking it out of the place where it’s from.

Music has changed my relationship to both my research and myself.

After I graduate with my Ph.D., I will have achieved the dream I had as the teen who followed the steps of her parents and grandparents in going out to get an education. Along the way, I have realized that no amount of institutional recognition could ever replace the value of the lifelong journey into my cultural heritage, language and worldview.

I am constantly learning and seeking to know about what it means to be Diné, especially if it means forging a new path. This guides my research ethics, teaching methods and my regard for the larger world beyond academia and music.

My advice to other Native students interested in studying Indigenous music or topics unexplored in their department is to get started through collaborations and discussions with each other. The greatest motivation for my work is the support and energy of my colleagues, students and friends who share my interests.

for people sitting on rocks outside talking

In the Indigenous Sound Studies working group, “you can take the conversations anywhere, and you can read any text that you choose, which is a lot less structured than classes,” says Edd. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)