ChangeMakers: Tufawon, music as an art of resistance

A man stands with arms crossed in front of a rocket ship sculpture.
Dakota and Boricua hip-hop artist Rafael Gonzalez, known as Tufawon, at Brackett Park in Minneapolis. Growing up in south Minneapolis, he would visit Brackett Park to climb on the sculpture.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Dakota and Boricua hip-hop artist Rafael Gonzalez, known as Tufawon, wants to hear Indigenous music on heavy rotation on every station. The 34-year-old grew up around south Minneapolis, frequenting places like Powderhorn and Brackett Parks and returning as an adult to record music videos

His music blends his experiences growing up and his visions for the future of Indigenous people. It combines the sounds of Minneapolis hip-hop with traditional sounds, while his lyrics cover themes like our relationship to food systems and resistance struggles of Indigenous people in North America.

Tufawon credits two of his high school teachers for opening his eyes to the history of Native Americans that is often overlooked in history education. 

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“Speaking from the Indigenous perspective, when growing up, we would have a chapter in history class about Natives, and it was very watered down,” he said. “It was almost like in high school, my teachers kind of gave me this awakening.”

Since then he has traveled as far as Switzerland and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, performing and making new music along the way.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

Right now it means many things, especially being Dakota from Minnesota. That truly means Indigenous, when I go down to the Navajo Nation, I just say I'm Native or I'm Dakota, but I am truly Indigenous to these lands. So I have a very strong connection to Minneapolis, the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota, really. We have ancestral sights [here]. Minnesota is literally in my DNA because I'm from here, our creation story is in Minnesota, and so to be Indigenous and to be Dakota in Minnesota is powerful.

It's also important for me to use my voice and to be visible during these times. Because [as] Indigenous people we face erasure wherever we go. The largest genocide in world history happened here in the United States, you know, on Turtle Island, or so called “North America.” Ever since the beginning of the colonization, settler colonialism taking over our lands, and white settlers taking over, we've been dealing with the same erasure and misrepresentation or no representation at all. So to be Dakota in Minnesota, and to have my voice heard, is super crucial in these times. 

This is just our fight, but it's now super important for us to bring our movements to the forefront. Using our skills and what we learned from being on the front lines, but also using our artistic side and our creativity, to bring awareness to our issues. And just to be able to showcase who we are and how resilient we are. Just to show you that we're dope, and we make really cool music, and we make really dope art. And we're doctors, and we're lawyers, and we're hip hop artists, and we're dancers and singers, and so much more.

What figures have shaped you?

I remember getting transferred over to Roosevelt High School and I had two teachers who really changed the trajectory of where I was going as a youth [by] being there for me and challenging me to want to do better, not only academically but just in general. [They helped me] to be more compassionate, be more loving. Delainia Haug and Jehanne Beaton, they're very helpful in that. So I have teachers and a lot of the women in my life, [who] were definitely there to help shape me in so many different ways, and teach me a whole lot. 

My teachers put me onto a lot of knowledge of resistance movements, and struggles and things like that. I didn't know about any of that stuff growing up, and a lot of our struggles are kept out of the education system. Not only as Indigenous people, but in general, as marginalized people.

It was almost like in high school, my teachers kind of gave me this awakening. They were the ones that wanted to teach it at the school that had a bad reputation, because they knew that a lot of other schools already had lots of opportunity. Teachers out there that are going to the most marginalized places and teaching and bringing quality education, I always have a lot of love for those teachers. Because those are the teachers that really taught me so much, and helped shape me as a person, and also as an artist, too. A lot of these lessons that I've learned, I incorporate into my music and into my art still. 

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

Land back, first and foremost. Acknowledging the land is only the first step. I hear people doing land acknowledgments and that's like, “Okay, we got to the place where people can say, yeah, we're in Minnesota, this is Dakota Territory.” This is our land, right? Then what does it look like beyond just the land acknowledgement. And so when I say, “We're talking about land back,” we're also talking about decolonizing spaces. We're also talking about the representation of spaces.

There's so many different levels to it, but one of them is media. I think it's important that representation for Indigenous people is thorough, it's honest, and it's real. I want to see, for Native people in Minnesota, I want to see us regularly there. I want to hear Native people in heavy rotation on all the radio stations: commercial radio [and] independent radio. If it's the first people of the land, there should always be that representation there. And it hasn't been there. When I look at the playlist of any radio stations, and I look at what's being played, I don't see enough of my people. 

What I see for Indigenous people is more representation through media, more representation through local politics and being at the table to be able to bring our voices.

Who do you see as a changemaker in your community, and inspires you?

The young native hip hop artists [that] I really like and the ones that I work with too, who are great. They're showing me and educating me in many different ways on how to expand my reach, and become more visible as an artist. 

Like Antoine Edwards, he is one of the people who has taught me a lot about how to be more visible on social media, which has been great. He's also a really amazing singer and an artist. He's been teaching me how to sing traditional Native singing styles, which is great, because that's a part of me that's a part of my identity and who I am. These Lakota and Dakota songs that I've been singing, he's been teaching them to me. It's all medicine. They've been bringing me a medicine and helping me heal my traumas. So, finding my voice to be able to sing has been great.

I'm also Boricua, and representing those different mixes in our identity is really special. It's really empowering to be able to have all of those different representations in the music, and then be able to blend it with ancestral music and traditional sounds. [And] taking those ancestral sounds, blending them with a new sound and creating something with that. 

Also using the art and the music to fight for causes, I think is really cool and inspiring and it makes me want to continue doing the work that I do. So seeing someone like Maria Isa, it's pretty amazing how she's a mother and able to do this and fight for our people to get medicine like insulin and fighting for affordable health care, fighting for Puerto Rico and fighting for the island. Our movement is inspiring. It's powerful.