Indigenous icons Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Nathan Apodaca captivate the nation

Jessica Hoppe is In The Know’s Culture Contributor. Follow her on Twitter here.

“With this I leave a piece of me with the road,” said Seth Cardinal Dodginghorse last week before cutting off his braids to disperse the strands of his hair across a new portion of the Ring Road in Calgary now desecrating his family’s land. During his speech at the opening ceremony, he held dirt from his former home, along with shards of trees bound in embellished burlap, which he explained would help him survive and endure the loss. 

In the United States, Indigenous youth have similarly held demonstrations to defend Indigenous sovereignty and to petition for the protection of our environment — arguing before federal courts that a safe climate is a civil right — and to officially instate the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While the federal calendar still upholds Columbus Day, more than 100 cities, towns and counties including the nation’s capital commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day today. Advocates first made their case for a federal change at a United Nations conference in 1977, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the first state, South Dakota, made it official. 

Though the petition has been controversial, a desire to confront our nation’s genocidal history by acknowledging the true first inhabitants of North America and heal centuries of colonial oppression — the effects of which continue to this day — has become a growing trend across the country. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a Mexica descendant and former Youth Director of Earth Guardians, has been instrumental to the visibility, preservation and progress of these initiatives and continues to reimagine the narrative of what it means to be an activist. At 20 years old, Xiuhtezcatl has become a fixture at the United Nations, having addressed the General Assembly; he was recently named in TIME magazine’s Next 100; and he just released the lead single off his new EP “El Cielo,” a bilingual record addressing the complex ordeal of family separation in the United States. 

The therapeutic power of art has been proven and in these unprecedented times, Xiuhtezcatl is determined to be of service by sharing the message of his Indigenous roots, while leveraging art in order to challenge systems of injustice and re-envision the future. His ties to Mexico are anchored in the song’s message of love transcending man-made borders. Amidst the current political moment, plagued as it is by headlines of human rights abuses and anti-immigrant sentiment, the song reveals the fear that many families with undocumented members know well. The independent artist’s melodic, lo-fi production sets the stage for the story — “Mi gente tryna get by / How we gon’ live right? / We didn’t come here for free / We’re still paying the price, paying the price.” 

“‘El Cielo’ is an invitation to my music and culture as it weaves between the languages that I was raised on. Though I wrote this song reflecting the experiences of people I know, I think this moment is showing us that family separation and state violence impacts so many of our communities — whether it’s ICE agents raiding homes and caging children, state-run schools taking Indigenous youth from their homes to erase their culture, or police killing and locking up unarmed Black people. Time and time again, we resist these systems through love — it’s that love that holds us together in the face of so much fear,” explains Xiuhtezcatl. (The artist’s full mixtape, “Runway Tapes,” drops Oct. 16.)

Credit: Josué Rivas

The communal, interconnected nature of Indigenous culture is one Xiuhtezcatl puts into practice with each new project — uplifting fellow voices and collaborating with artists such as Emily Pound, aka Nimetztli, and recently spitting verses from “El Cielo” with viral sensation Nathan Apodaca, aka @doggface208 on Instagram. Apodaca, 37, a self-described cholo of Mexican and Arapaho descent, captured the nation’s attention cruising on his longboard, casually sipping Ocean’s Spray cranberry juice from the bottle and lip-synching to Fleetwood Mac en route to his job after his car had broken down. 

Apodaca’s joie de vivre punctured the calamitous news cycle, providing sweet escapism and a good laugh. “I’m happy that I could chill the world out for a minute,” Apodaca told The New York Times. His rendition of the song sent streaming for “Dreams” soaring (8.47 million streams in the United States) and won the attention of Ocean Spray’s chief executive, Tom Hayes, who sent Apodaca a cranberry red Nissan pickup filled with jugs of Ocean Spray juice as a gift. Since his newfound fame, Apodaca has taken time away from the potato warehouse where he worked, gotten an agent and recently gave Xiuhtezcatl’s new jam “El Cielo” his blessing, engaging over one million views with his signature shtick. 

Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The celebration of the contributions of Indigenous people cannot be solely reserved for this day, nor can it be made an empty gesture. The preservation of our nation’s rightful origins has been under attack since the first European encounter influencing the treatment of non-white people throughout our history. Whether through comedy, art or activism, the descendants of our original ancestors remind us of the need to rectify the past in order to move forward — to find a truly moral ground upon which to build a harmonious future.

If you enjoyed this article, check out this article about First Nation TikTokers sharing knowledge of Indigenous culture on the app.

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