North Star Journey

Lakota vinyl collector revitalizes Indigenous music, language one record at a time

Brokenrope's seen during his DJ performance
Justis Brokenrope's seen during his DJ performance at Barely Brothers Records on March 1 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Justis Brokenrope has collected vinyl by Native musicians for the past decade. Now he shares that music with the digital world. 

“You can listen to music nowadays without ever touching a CD, a record, or a tape,” said Brokenrope, who is Sicangu Lakota. “It’s just so digital and ubiquitous all the time. But to hold the physical thing and then to see yourself represented in that, and to see your community, your people, your family represented in that, I think that’s just so important for us.” 

A self-described shaggy-haired kid, Justis Brokenrope started collecting vinyl records near his hometown in rural Nebraska. As a young musician, he played in punk and metal bands touring the U.S. and Europe.

Brokenrope holds a copy of LP
Justis Brokenrope holds a copy of Winterhawk's "Electric Warriors" Native vinyl at his apartment in Minneapolis on Feb. 1.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

He was in a record store in Providence, R.I., about ten years ago where he found a compilation record consisting of Indigenous North American music, and inspiration struck. 

“I’ve heard a lot of powwow music and ceremonial music. But then to know that there were these artists back then, pre-social media, internet, everything, obviously, just in their really, sometimes small and very isolated communities,” explained Brokenrope.

“They got a guitar somewhere or traded something for a guitar, and then their music was documented by something like the [Canadian Broadcast Corporation]. And so those records exist. And then that was just like, mind blowing to me,” said Brokenrope. 

Brokenrope holds a cassette album
Justis Brokenrope holds a vintage Vincent Craig cassette album at his apartment in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Now, an entire wall of Brokenrope’s Minneapolis apartment is dedicated to his record collection. Some of that music is being heard again for the first time. And he says he’s collecting for more than the sake of collecting. He wants to re-introduce the music he’s found back to Indigenous communities. 

“A lot of people obviously don’t have the time to go dig through a bunch of thrift stores in the Southwest,” said Brokenrope. 

When he finds those rare records, he posts them to social media. Curated music sets go to YouTube, and photos of album covers are posted to his Instagram page, Wathéča Records. For him, accessibility is a way to build community around music.  

Brokenrope prepares to play a vinyl record
Justis Brokenrope prepares to play a Native vinyl record at Barely Brothers Records.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

He estimates he has a collection of about 300 records by Indigenous artists from various genres— mostly country, folk, rock from the 1960s through the late 80s. 

“These records can have life again and reach the people that maybe forgot about them or lost their copy. Or those folks who made them have journeyed on, but their kids are still around and remember their dad or mom playing guitar and singing.” 

Brokenrope says for him artists like Buddy Red Bow, a Lakota country singer who was recording in the 1970s, is one example of the kind connection a person can make through listening. 

Brokenrope browses through albums
Justis Brokenrope browses through albums from his Native vinyl record collection at his apartment in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“As someone who works a lot with language to hear him speak or sing a song in Lakota and English and then to hear his dad on the recording as well singing in Lakota or speaking ... it’s just so moving and just a beautiful thing to experience.” 

Translating Analog to Digital 

Collecting vinyl brings Brokenrope into conversation with a lot of fellow record collectors. It’s an opportunity to build a network of people who share his passion. 

On a January evening, Brokenrope met with a fellow Indigenous collector, David McCloud, who is Anishinaabe from Minegoziibe First Nation in northern Manitoba. 

“When somebody asks me, ‘How do you collect Indigenous records?’” said McCloud to Brokenrope. “That’s years and years of building relationships.” 

cassette album collection is seen
Justis Brokenrope's cassette album collection is seen at his apartment in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The two compared notes during their virtual meeting about their shared passion. The conversation included their mutual appreciation for music and much more. Both described years spent digging for vinyl and multiple acts of converting analog music to digital as a method of translation between generations.

They also talk about the ways Indigenous musicians have busted through the myths of Indigenous people as the vanishing American and the ways artists have subverted stereotypes and found self-expression. 

Brokenrope's seen during his DJ performance
Justis Brokenrope's seen during his DJ performance at Barely Brothers Records.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“Our people were supposed to disappear,” said McCloud. “If you look at the history of it, since the possibility of recording began, Indigenous people were there, right up until now.” 

McCloud motioned to his own collection of recordings and shared a piece of wisdom. 

“You never finish. You never know it all. You’re never gonna have it all,” McCloud said. 

DJing in the Dakota language 

On a Friday evening in early March, Brokenrope plays a set of deep cuts inside a St. Paul record store. DJing has become another way Brokenrope shares his love for vinyl.  

Music lovers will recognize Link Wray and His Ray Men covering Dylan’s “Girl from The North Country.” Fellow collectors may know Karen Dalton’s bluesy “Something On Your Mind.”

Lots of people will hum along to popular Redbone refrains. The powwow crowd will sing every single word of Keith Secola’s “NDN Kars.” 

Brokenrope prepares to play a vinyl record
Justis Brokenrope prepares to play The Chieftones' "The New Smooth and Different Sound" Native vinyl record at Barely Brothers Records.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

And it’s the dollar bin gems — the stuff lots of people may have heard years ago or may have never heard before — where his collection shines. 

Brokenrope’s collection reflects years of digging for rare vinyl recordings. In his set, A. Paul Ortega’s powerful singing on “Chicago,” Arliene Nofchissey Williams & Carnes Burson performing the bridge on “Go My Son,” and Morris Belknap’s “On That Dusty Road To San Carlos,” give listeners a sense of the themes important to Native musicians over decades.  

While connecting the tunes during his DJ sets, Brokenrope adds another act of translation. 

As an educator, Brokenrope has been a part of a growing language movement to revitalize the Dakota language.  He often DJs his sets in the Dakota language. 

Brokenrope poses for a portrait
“That was just like, mind blowing to me,” said Brokenrope about discovering Native music on vinyls.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Sharing music of from his collection in Dakota is an invitation to Indigenous people to be in conversation with one another in a digital world. 

“To be able to use my tribe’s language and be able to create more content in it,” he said. “And have that represented more, just felt really in line with the kind of music we’re playing.” 

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