June 20, 2023

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Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

From heavy metal to Native language robots, áyA Con showcases Indigenous creatives

KUNC | By Emma VandenEinde

As the opening guitar riffs rang out at the Levitt Pavilion just outside Denver on Friday night, eager heavy metal fans lined the barrier, cheering on the Arizona band Merciless Indian Savages as they kicked off a new Indigenous comic and arts festival.

The bands performing at the Rez Metal concert were among the many artists participating in áyA Con, an event designed to celebrate indigeneity and showcase Indigenous creators, similar to the Indigenous Pop Culture Expo, or IndigiPop X.

The word “áyA” is from the Lakota language, meaning “to change, to become.” The goal is to expand the notion of what art from Indigenous communities looks like, according to Kristina Maldonado Bad Hand, the director and co-founder of the three-day event.

“We have powwow dancing and we have a lot of our culture presenting, but we have toys up there,” Maldonado-Bad Hand said, motioning to the McNichols Civic Center, which hosted the event. “We've got comic books, there's anime stuff, there's horror stuff. It's really broadened.”

Performances ranged from stand-up comedy to poetry to heavy metal.

“People think it's nonsense, but we’re spitting some knowledge that people are unaware of,” said Corey Ashley, the vocalist for Merciless Indian Savages. “Metal’s the perfect canvas to do that…Natives love metal and we’re no exception to that.”

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Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

Along with lyrics about addiction and death, their songs often reference cultural genocide and traumas inflicted upon Indigenous people. One of the songs is titled “Kill Man, Save The Indian,” which references the “White man came across the sea” lyric from Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills,” a song about killing Natives.

“So originally everybody knows, obviously, 'Kill the Indian, save the man,'” Ashley said, referring to the quote by Captain Richard H. Pratt, a soldier in the U.S. Army who wanted Natives to assimilate. "But we're like, you know, f— that. We want to empower our people and we want to denounce this way of saying it.”

Other bands that played Friday night explored similar themes. The all-female group Suspended, from Albuquerque, N.M., played an instrumental track titled “Murdered and Missing,” after the thousands of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“I had tried to write lyrics several times, but I think it ended up just being an instrumental because I think the music just really speaks for itself,” said Amanda Castillo, a guitarist and vocalist with Suspended.

Ruben Dawahoya, Merciless Indian Savages’s bass player, said he wants to show that Indigenous people belong in the heavy metal space, too.

“We're just turning the tides, basically, on everybody else, saying that we can evolve and we can do the things that everybody else can,” he said.

That message reached audience members like Chelsea Kaiah, who was head-banging in the front row.

“I think Denver and Colorado in general have a very romanticized version of what Indigenous people look like and how we are and what alternative cultures we participate in,” Kaiah said. “Supporting organizations like this is super important because they're seeing us for us and what we love and what we support, and the amazing people that create the bands that we listen to.”

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A woman watches as an artist works on a piece live at the áyA Con festival in Denver. Vendors sold a variety of things at the festival, ranging from beadwork to body care. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

After Friday’s concert, the áyA Con event continued into the weekend with several panels and vendors spanning two buildings, with vendors selling things ranging from body care products to theater masks.

Some of the performers hew to more traditional Native American art, including dancer Rhyia JoyHeart who is Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone and part of the group United Indigenous Dancers. She performed the Jingle Dress Dance. It’s based on a story where an Indigenous girl fell ill and her relative had a dream about four women that gave instructions on how to make a healing dress.

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Rhyia JoyHeart and Mercedes Archuleta with the United Indigenous Dancers stand outside the McNichols Civic Center building where the áyA Con festival was held. JoyHeart danced the Jingle Dress Dance and Archuleta danced the Fancy Shawl Dance at the festival. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

“[The relative] brought it to their people in a drum ceremony, and they expressed how the dance was, how the dress was to be made, and how it was supposed to be danced,” she said. “Once [the four women] were dancing, the young girl went from laying to sitting to standing to then joining the circle with the women.”

JoyHeart said she's proud to express her Native traditions and identity through dance

“There's so much – so much – beauty in our people,” she said. “We might not be rich in money and wealth, but we're definitely rich in culture and love. So to be able to have these platforms is truly an honor.”

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Shaun Beyale, a Diné multimedia artist, stands behind his art booth at the áyA Con festival. He grew up reading Marvel comics and later was able to contribute to Marvel’s Heritage Voices comic book.Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

The festival also featured creatives like Shaun Beyale, a Diné multimedia artist who contributed to Marvel’s Heritage Voices comic book.

“I grew up on Marvel Comics,” he said. “For them to come and reach out to me, you know, that made that little rez boy in me happy because I never thought that would be something possible.”

He also helped design the Marvel character Spider Weaver, based on a protector in Navajo culture called Na’ashjeii Asdzáá. She wears a turquoise necklace and other pieces of cultural attire along with the famous spider logo. Beyale believes it is possible for Indigenous artists to embrace the contemporary without forgetting their ancestral roots.

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Shaun Beyale shows off Spider Weaver, a character he helped design for Marvel Strike Force. It's based on a protector in Navajo culture called Na’ashjeii Asdzáá. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

“We do live in modern society, but at the same time, you know, we do hold onto our culture and we do appreciate that,” he said. “I was just a rez kid that didn't have electricity. And I had to draw at night with kerosene lamps. And now here I am, getting to work on video games, comic books, and get to promote my culture.

“I think by harnessing the power of technology, we can still move forward without forgetting who we are.”

Danielle Boyer, a 22-year-old Ojibwe engineer, also presented at the festival. She made a talking and singing robot, called a SkoBot, that looks like a tiny, colorful minion with cat ears. It helps preserve four endangered Native languages: Ojibwemowin, Diné Bizaad, Taíno and Apache.

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Danielle Boyer, a 22-year-old Ojibwe engineer, also presented at the festival. She made a 3D-printed, talking and singing robot -- called a SkoBot -- that helps to preserve endangered Native languages. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

“They are wearable language revitalization robots,” she said. “Basically, they sit on your shoulder, sense motion and help protect endangered Indigenous languages."

For example, she said, it’d say a phrase like “Boozhoo. Hello,” and ask the child to repeat it back.

She also created the STEAM Connection when she was 18 to help teach Indigenous youth about robotics and provide some building kits for free. It’s served over 800,000 youth so far.

Her idea came out of the discrimination she faced when she tried to join robotics clubs in high school and college. She hopes Indigenous youth will still pursue what they want to pursue, even when these spaces are predominantly white.

“We've always been scientists, we've always been inventors, we've always been creating really awesome things,” she said. “I want to show our students that opportunities are available and that we can create things for our communities basically built by us, for us. And we can be innovators now and forever.”

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Danielle Boyer holds up a Skobot, a robot she designed, during a panel at the áyA Con convention. The robot can say phrases in Ojibwemowin, Diné Bizaad, Taíno and Apache. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

That’s the main reason Maldonado-Bad Hand wanted to create the convention – to show that Native art and culture is much more than the stereotypes of feathers and ancestors. She shared how when she invited some of her friends to present their anime work at áyA Con, they questioned if anyone would like it. "

“I was like…’Why would you question whether you belonged somewhere because you had something that was likable for the rest of the general public and assumed that it wouldn't be likable for Native people?’” she said.

She hopes it allows participants to bond through their shared connections and expand perspectives of what Native people engage in and enjoy.

“We really wanted to encourage that connection while also sharing our culture,” she said. “You can celebrate over fandoms and everybody can be nerds together and kind of celebrate that way.”

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Amanda Castillo, Channing Concho and Autumn Concho of the metal band Suspended pose for a photo backstage at the Levitt Pavilion in Denver. Amanda and Channing started the band back in 2003 when they were in high school together, and now they play ADHD riffage and melodic, thrashy death, according to Castillo. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC
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A guitarist and vocalist from the band Heart Museum performs at the Levitt Pavilion in Denver. The lyrics of their songs often reflect on topics like pain, death and violence. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC
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Sage Bond sings and strums her guitar as she performs at the Levitt Pavilion in Denver. She said she is influenced by bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Arch Enemy.Emma VandenEinde / KUNC
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Tyson Evans leans up against the barrier as he waits for the next performer to start at the RezMetal concert at the Levitt Pavilion in Denver. He said Indigenous people have been a part of heavy metal since its origins with artists like Slayer. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC
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Supporters and heavy metal fans spread out across the Levitt Pavilion lawn watching the RezMetal concert. The five artists that performed at the concert were Sage Bond, Merciless Indian Savages, Alliance, Heart Museum and Suspended. Emma VandenEinde / KUNC

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.