Joe Rainey is a Pow Wow singer. On Niineta, he demonstrates his command of the Pow Wow style, descending from Indigenous singing that’s been heard across the waters of what is now called Minnesota for centuries. Depending on the song or the pattern, his voice can celebrate or console, welcome or intimidate, wake you up with a start or lull your babies to sleep. Each note conveys a clear message, no matter the inflection: We’re still here. We were here before you were, and we never left.
Rainey grew up a Red Lake Ojibwe in Minneapolis, a city with one of the largest and proudest Native American populations in the country. The Red Lake Reservation sits five hours to the North, a sovereign state unto itself, but Rainey grew up down in what Northerners call “The Cities,” in his mom’s house on historic Milwaukee Avenue on Minneapolis’ South Side. He was raised less than a mile away from Franklin Avenue, the post-Reorganization Act urban nexus of local Native American life, a community centered in the Little Earth housing projects and the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The neighborhood still serves as a home for both the housed and the un-housed, and the don’t-even-wanna-be-housed Native. It is the birthplace of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the pioneering grassroots civil rights organization founded to combat the colonizing forces of police brutality. Rainey came of age in the heart of this community, but always felt like he was living in a liminal space—not that he was uncomfortable with that. “Growing up, knowing that you weren’t from the Rez, but you were repping them, was kind of weird,” he says. “But I liked that.”
Rainey became interested in Pow Wow singing as a child—at the age of five, he started recording Pow Wow singing groups with his GE tape recorder, and his mom enrolled him in a dancing and singing practice with the Little Earth Juniors soon thereafter. As a pre-teen he began hanging out around The Boyz (a legendary Minneapolis drum group) at a house some of them stayed at in the Little Earth projects. “They knew me as a Little Joey,” he remembers. “As in, ‘Hey I tried to get Little Joey to sit down and sing, but he’s too shy.” By the time he was a teenager, however, he had found enough courage to help start The Boyz Juniors, his first drum group, before going on to sing with Big Cedar, Wolf Spirit, Raining Thunder, and Iron Boy. Eventually, his voice grew strong enough to sing in Midnite Express, a new drum group featuring some of The Boyz themselves. They were professionals, city Indians travelling all over the north country, repping their reservations and their neighborhoods on every side of every conceivable border—competing for cash and cred, carousing, providing the beat to the grass dances, always striving to capture that “Pow Wow feeling” of togetherness. Rainey was always just as much of a fan as he was a participant—when he wasn’t at his own drum, he was recording other drums, then studying the tapes when he got home, admiring and cataloging the different singing styles, whether it was Northern Cree, Cozad or Eyabay. Now with an upgraded workhorse Sony tape recorder, he was a student of the game, a maven, a bootlegger extraordinaire.
On Niineta, Rainey finds himself in between cultures again. This time collaborating with the producer Andrew Broder, who brought his multi-instrumentalist, turntablist sensibility to the project. The two of them first met backstage at Justin Vernon’s hometown Eaux Claires music festival before encountering each other more frequently through Vernon and Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s 37d03d collective—both contributing to the last Bon Iver album before broaching the possibility of working together sometime in the future. “At first I didn’t know what I could add to Joe’s incredible recordings,” Broder says. “But eventually I came to understand everything is rooted in the drum—even the songs on our record that have no drum, they’re still rooted in the drum.” So each song started with Broder’s beats, the two of them experimenting with various sounds and tempos, before bringing in other 37d03d collaborators to orchestrate and recontextualize the ancient Pow Wow sound in strange, new in-between places. The album pulls from Rainey’s vast sample folder of Pow Wow recordings, layering and remixing slices of his life of singing in venues across the upper Midwest and Canada.
Rainey got his title, Niineta, from his drum brother Michael Migizi Sullivan, who suggested a short version of the Ojibwe term meaning, “just me.” But he’s using the term only in the sense that he’s taking sole responsibility for its content. Rainey is protective of Pow Wow culture—which was outlawed by the United States government for a generation, defiantly maintained in secret by Native elders he deeply respects—while trying to figure out exactly where he fits into it and how he can fuck with it on his own terms. “These are all my creations, but they’re Pow Wow songs, and our language is sacred,” he says. “And I was like, okay, I understand that, so our album is only vocals. I’m not recording when we’re not supposed to and I’m not giving our shit away.” He uses the analogy of working the hotel room door at a Pow Wow. “If we are partying with one of our older bros, he’d always make me in charge of the fucking door,” he says. So Rainey would like you to conceptualize this album as him working the door at a Pow Wow after party. “You can think of this like, hey man, if all these people are going to be fucking knocking and I’m the one answering the door, you’re going to realize that I’m not the only one in this motherfucker. There’s tons of people in here. So if I’m answering that door, I want to be like, hey, yeah, come on in. There’s fucking tons of us in here. It ain’t just me.”