Hadassah 'Hazy' GreenSky is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and visual artist based in the Metro Detroit area where she was also raised. She is a member of the Waganakising Odawa peoples from the lands now referred to as Harbor Springs, Michigan. Like many other young Indigenous women in the midwest [and across the Americas], GreenSky was subject to cheap ill-mannered name-calling like “Pocahontas” by non-Indigenous people when she was growing up. Her personal experiences of racism is a condition of systematic structures and barriers held up by white supremacy all throughout North America.
Speaking to GreenSky, she shared with me that the area we now call ‘Detroit’, was originally named Waawiiyatanong by the first peoples of the land. The name translates to “at the curved shores”, as it was a place for trade and supplies. "Oftentimes the Anishinaabe peoples passed through on their migratory routes. Wild rice was grown in the river, fishing was also a big part of our lives, and many plants and animals lived in the lush green forests along the banks", she tells me.
GreenSky was raised in a working-class family but at 17, she found herself homeless and was unable to return back to her childhood home. Not long later, her father passed away. Attending the local public university at the time, she found herself enrolling in music classes as a way to process her grief and loss. What was initially a coping method became a guide to music school [at the New School] and a key that opened her heart to healing herself and others.
Today, GreenSky’s artistic practice is predominantly a mix of dance, music, and visual work --all as a means of healing; for herself, for her community, and her ancestors. Her music taps into Native American legacies in jazz as much as it is informed by her upbringing which was rooted in Motown, and soul. GreenSky also devotes time organizing with Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence, a movement committed to uplifting original Native structures and protocols that honor the sacred relationships to the land and creation. Additionally, she’s been seriously involved with Black Lives Matter community movement since 2016 in Detroit and New York City.
In the United States [much like many colonized lands of the west], monuments and statues serve as glorifications of white men, commissioned by white men, and primarily created by white male artists. Black, Indigenous, other people of color, are almost entirely non-existent both as subjects and creators of memorials in this nation. Among several areas across the U.S., the Southeast is particularly peppered with effigies of confederate soldiers. These brass and bronze creations are living demonstrations of racism, colonization, and patriarchy. It’s no wonder that people are tearing them down with their bare hands. GreenSky has been a part of a collaboration project with the artist Rosa Maria Zamarrón that challenges the broadly accepted and narrow understanding of these figures. This past summer, July 4, 2020, a photoshoot she was involved in went viral. With this heightened response , GreenSky has increasingly become a pictorial presence across the internet. This is an important assertion of the unending beauty and continuation of First Nation peoples and their vibrant cultures into the minds of the broader publics. I was able to be in conversation with GreenSky about her activist work, Indigenous Futurism, and it’s intersections with the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It’s pretty simple: There are stolen people on stolen land. There are many similarities between our cultures and stories. We’re not free until we are all free. It’s Indigenous people for Black liberation. "
What first drew you to learning, then practicing jazz music as well as making visual art?
Jazz music has been a part of my life for a very long time. My mom listened to jazz because her father was a jazz trumpeter. I fell in love with the audio-visual colors of jazz and decided to pursue it in college. Before that, I was always a visual artist. I could draw before I could talk. I can pick up almost anything and create. I am a fast learner and I believe it really is a gift for my community. There’s a saying that goes, “You are an answer to your ancestors’ prayers”, and I think that idea influences my work quite a bit.
Is there a history of Indigenous figures in jazz music that has been erased?
Pretty much. The singer Mildred Bailey is one of the few who weren’t erased. I also cannot discount the Afro-Indigenous people in the scene, like the bassist Oscar Pettiford. Jazz, oftentimes, is a Black and white world and many forget that, as American music, it also drew influences from Native ceremonial music. I always joke that the real reason I love to play swing music is because of the “swing” in our social round dance songs. That stuff's banging!
What do you hope your music and visual art bring to light? Do the two overlap or do they offer different things to the world?
I want to work on multimedia crossovers and develop some new video and visual art skills, as well as work on sound design. I have some ideas for the future. But I also realize that I can dip my hand into a lot of different pots. I am an Indigenous futurist and I hope that, beyond visibility and awareness, Native peoples can truly restore culture and art and its impact on American life.
What does Indigenous Futurism mean to you? How does it show up in your work?
Indigenous Futurism, for me, embodies the “what if.” What if colonization never happened? What would the art and music look like in 2020 if there had been no contact with the colonizer world? What spiritual power would that art have? I make art that explores these questions.
How are things in Detroit in terms of “inclusivity” in the art community?
It’s complex. Detroit is a majority-Black city. They've got a lot of history here from the underground railroad to the ‘68 riots. But even to the Black community, I am invisible most times. For a long time, I felt I was too white to hang out with Black people and too brown to hang out with white people. But as I got into the art scene, I noticed there are spaces of white gentrifying artists, Black artists and Latinx artists. There isn’t really a space for Anishnaabe people in Detroit yet. But I am always appreciated when I am in creative spaces. This can lead to tokenization too, so I’m just tired of being tokenized.
Has any of the access you’ve received in the art community substantiated and/or tested how you feel about your work?
Definitely tested. It’s hard to fit in a black and white world. We [Indigenous peoples] are still here, the minority of the minorities. I went through a couple identity crises, even depression from the immense weight of colonization and its erasure. I used to wonder if I was doing enough to be heard. Now, it also feels like the first time we’re being heard due to accessible media, and people taking control of their own narratives, and it’s happening on a global level.
You mentioned earlier, that Detroit is a majority Black city and you’re an activist. What is the relationship between Black Lives Matter and the Indigenous communities in Turtle Island?
It’s pretty simple: There are stolen people on stolen land. There are many similarities between our cultures and stories. We’re not free until we are all free. It’s Indigenous people for Black liberation. We are all victims of colonialism. The second wave of colonialism has occurred in Detroit through gentrification.
What are the changes you’ve seen in terms of gentrification in Detroit? Has it increased police presence and violence?
Absolutely. I could give one example: Belle Isle, on the east side. It’s a beautiful island in the river, bigger than Central Park and it’s actually designed by the same guy. It was known as a place for gatherings since its original name was ‘waabizi’ which means white swan. In recent years, it was a place for Black barbecues and graduation parties and after-church summer meet-ups. As more white people and gentrifiers have come to spend time on the island, there has been a gradual presence of more state-police and border control. Canada is only 500 feet away from the island. Friends have gotten harassed by border control and police. Some days the island is so packed that it has to be closed down. That’s something that never used to happen. Cass Corridor, a once historically Native neighborhood, now is always swarming with police cars now.
Hadassah stands in the center in traditional jingle dance garb to call attention to a Detroit Black Lives Matter and Indigeouns People's protest on July 4, 2020.
Photo By: Rosa Maria Zamarron
HadassahStatue: Hadassah atop of a statue basin in Detroit, Michigan. Photo By: Rosa Maria Zamarron .
Indigenous People for Black Liberation March, July 4, 2020 Photo By: Rosa Maria Zamarron
You were a part of a protest visual that went viral on July 4th this summer. Can you describe the details surrounding it and how it came about?
On July 1st, my cousin, a couple of friends, and I, who are jingle dress dancers, took a photo at the base of what was known as the Christopher Columbus statue. The photographer was my friend, Rosa Maria Zamarrón, who is an artist of Mexican heritage. She’s a professional photographer who runs La Sirena Studio in southwest Detroit.
We posted the image at the Columbus base the next day. It was both part of a photo project and to highlight the coming action on July 4th. That day was probably one of the most incredible days of my life so far. We held a healing ceremony in downtown Detroit in Campus Martius. It was a place for public lynching back in the day. It was important that we heal that space. We collaborated with Frontline Detroit. They held a rally up Woodward Ave and marched down to Campus Martius to meet us. Everyone entered the circle from the east and were smudged upon entering. We held a pipe ceremony and a jingle dress healing ceremony back to back. After the ceremonies, we marched to the river and did African Ase Liberation and Anishinaabe water ceremonies. The jingle dress dance was originally a healing dance and I’ve been doing it since I was 12 years old. That July 4th action felt like one of the most spiritually prominent times for the Indigenous and Black communities in Detroit in recent history. There is much healing that needs to be done in BIPoC communities, and defunding the police is the start of that healing.
How do you understand the position of defunding the police?
It has to do with prioritization. A city’s budget shouldn’t prioritize the police above community investment and social services. Defunding the police means reduce money given to the police and start investing it equitable ways. For instance, there is a huge desire for urban farming and sustainable living in Detroit. I believe the city would be wise to invest in green and sustainable energies for individual homes, communal spaces and businesses. Detroit could really be a driving force of green energy while also investing in the community.
How is defunding the police not only a Black issue but an Indigenous one?
The history of police actually comes from the days of slaves running to freedom. Slave patrols and Night Watch were the foundation of modern police departments. These early policing methods were solely created to control the behaviors of minorities. The police were in charge of catching slaves and killing Indians when folks either tried to run free or when Native people wanted to keep their land. Police, FBI, BIA, they’re not interested in BIPOC. With a violent history in the foundation and the structure of policing, the whole system has to be dismantled.
Having followed you on social media and looking into your advocacy work, I understand that you’re a proponent of the Land Back movement. Can you describe what Land Back means to you?
It means we’re not going to accept capitalistic baiting, we’re going to get our actual land back. It is not going to be rewarded. It is going to be returned. That needs to be made clear. I think the movement encompasses a wide array of actions from public acknowledgments of historical mistreatment of Indigenous communities to returning land to tribal ownership.
Do you think defunding the police could lead to the Land Back Movement becoming a reality?
Absolutely. Ending modern-day policing will liberate Native folks but the Land Back Movement is already becoming a reality. The reason Oklahoma was returned was because of a murder trial. There was a Native man who said that you could not convict him on Native land. They looked into the laws and treaties and he was right. It will mostly likely go into the hands of the tribe now. Sometimes police are in charge of enforcing the “laws of the loopholes” on marginalized communities. The rich often use loopholes to their advantage and are celebrated for it.
I’d like to address the bedrock of these laws, and that is Native Land and we are going to get it back.
I saw on Instagram that you were in South Dakota, collaborating again with Zamarrón. What draws you towards collaboration?
Rosa Maria Zamarrón and I continue to collaborate. We drove out to South Dakota to photograph Natives in light of the recent event that had taken place in the Black Hills. The Trump rally and protests created a national conversation alongside everything happening this summer.
We’re creating a visual to return to the way it should have always been for Native people here. I love collaborating because I feel like collaboration can really eat away at the root of capitalist individualism which leads to white supremacist displays of entitlement.
What are some Indigenous art spaces and collectives that you admire or are a part of?
There aren’t really that many spaces in the city dedicated to Native art but there are a few groups. The Aadizookaan is a phenomenal group. They are a business that uplifts Native artists through design, art, music, and storytelling. So, any video, photo, design needs can be met through them. I currently facilitate a council of womxn, Indigiqueer and two-spirited folx at the center of a movement called The Waawiiyatanong resurgence, which aims to resurrect culture, language, and stories of the land while investing in solidarity for Black liberation.
What are you working on right now? What’s in store for your creative practice in the future?
Some of the activites Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence movement is working on is to rename the historic neighborhood Indian Village and its newsletter Smoke Signals. It is a majority white, upper class neighborhood filled with around 7-bedroom mansions on prime real estate next to the Detroit River. It was created 120 years ago as a fetishized, exotic marketing scheme to sell houses. In 2020, it’s a surprise the name still exists. The word “Indian” in Native culture is much like the n-word in Black culture. They are both reclaimed words that should not be used by those that aren’t of that culture.
Within our own group, we are analyzing white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and how that is still very ingrained in our own lives. Fighting these things is a daily battle. It takes communal support and patience. Egos must die, misogyny must die, before a truly safe space can exist. You must look at yourself every day and think about how you perpetuate colonization before you try to fight it outside yourself. I express much of these findings in my organizing and artistic work.
Basil Soper is a man of transgender experience, multi genre writer, photographer, and activist currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Editorial Support by Minh Nguyen.
First Top Photo: Trever Bennett
Special thanks to Hadassah 'Hazy' GreenSky for her time and for engaging generously in a conversation with us.