Being a rapper and actor ("Indian in the Cupboard," "Adaptation") has brought the Bellevue artist Litefoot (also known as Gary Paul Davis...
Being a rapper and actor (“Indian in the Cupboard,” “Adaptation”) has brought the Bellevue artist Litefoot (also known as Gary Paul Davis) fame and success.
Now, says the 35-year-old Cherokee and Chichimecca tribe member, it’s time for him to give back — to struggling Native American youths across the country.
“We educate our children and fill their minds up with everything that we think they need to achieve in this world,” Litefoot says, “but what good is that if their spirit’s dead? You’re filling up an empty shell. It’s obviously not getting it all done.”
That’s the motivation behind his Reach The Rez tour, a caravan launched this fall, which he hopes will reach 211 American Indian reservations in its year on the road, including the Tulalip and Muckleshoot reservations in Washington state.
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“Each day, our children and culture are being lost,” Litefoot said recently. “American Indian reservations place highest among all minorities concerning suicide, crime, high-school dropouts, early pregnancy, substance abuse, gang activity, AIDS — and the list goes on.”
Listen to Litefoot
Litefoot is already plenty busy with a healthy acting career that includes appearances in movies like “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and TV spots on “CSI” and “Any Day Now.” He also has recorded 11 albums on his own label, Red Vinyl, which he runs out of his home.
Litefoot has quietly grown a big fan base among kids on reservations, says friend and fan Derek Matthews, 54, founder of the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in New Mexico.
“He makes a point of going to as many Native locations as he can every year,” Matthews says. “The kids don’t get anybody else. The kids come out to hear him, they purchase his CDs, they wear his clothing lines. Those are good indications that they are listening.”
Inspiring kids on the rez
Others are listening too. Members of tribes impressed with Litefoot’s commitment have helped financially back the ambitious Reach The Rez Tour.
“His message is good for our youth, so I help him out on the road every chance I get,” says fan Jeremy Whipple, 23, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut. “It’s keeping me out of trouble.”
Whipple believed so much in Litefoot’s vision that he helped persuade the Pequot to donate $250,000 to the tour.
Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, 44, councilwoman of the tribe, explains: “All of our youth look up to him. He has a unique and inspiring way of speaking to them.”
Another who was inspired is Winter Benton, 24, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “All of my friends are either dead or in prison out there,” he says of the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Wisconsin where he used to live. Benton first heard of Litefoot while going through rehab on a North Carolina reservation. “I had hit rock bottom in my life and was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I started listening to his music … Litefoot taught me to be positive and proud of who I am.”
Modestly, Litefoot takes no personal credit: “I try to make them understand that they do have a purpose here on this Earth and that it will be enhanced, it will be fed, it will be brought into existence every single day through their prayers,” he says. “Whatever ‘prayer’ means to them, they need to have that communication with their Creator.”
As the first commercial American Indian rapper, Litefoot says he always saw music as the perfect tool to reach young people. But despite his hopeful outlook, his music has as hard an edge as any in contemporary rap.
“As the original people of this land, to speak and tell our story that you can’t find in history books — it might be the only true education of what it is that our people have gone through,” Litefoot says. The challenge: “Where we go from here, and how we make it better.”
A recurring topic of his newest album, “Redvolution,” which came out last year, is Outkast’s performance at last year’s Grammy Awards in front of a smoking teepee and girls grinding in buckskin outfits. Litefoot was by far the most outspoken critic, asking for a formal apology from the group — an apology that hasn’t yet been extended.
“Sinéad O’Connor’s career has pretty much been nonexistent after she ripped up a picture of the pope. Well, these guys get up in full headdresses and, just because people don’t know it’s wrong, nothing is really done about it. We have to say: ‘This hurts me, and just because it hurts me, it should make you stop hurting me,’ ” says Litefoot.
“We’re still one of the very few races of people [who] have our sacred and holy things denigrated and disrespected. I truly believe this was done out of ignorance, but I think that we need to correct that ignorance.”
Litefoot’s wife, Carmen Davis, 25, agrees.
“Mainstream society doesn’t know that a lot of the reservations are worse than Third World countries,” says Davis, who is president of the Reach The Rez effort and from the Makah, Yakama and Chippewa Cree (Montana) tribes. She will be on the tour with the couple’s home-schooled 6-year-old son, Quannah.
Take the message home
The scope of the tour has meant more than just the right ideals. Donations and sponsorships from tribes and corporations have brought it to fruition.
The most visible contributions: a $500,000 custom-built tour bus with 14-foot trailer including gas costs for five years donated by the Seminole tribe of Florida; a truck with a 48-foot trailer that will sleep the 12 crew members, bought with the $250,000 donation from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; and a brand-new SUV, donated by DaimlerChrysler.
At each stop of the tour, Litefoot will give a free concert and motivational speeches as he has for a decade, but this time there will be other elements as well:
• A documentary will be filmed of the tour as well as interviews with reservation inhabitants, and will be distributed to schools and other organizations in the United States and Canada.
• A radio show following the tour’s progress is planned for broadcast on public radio and will be available on the Reach The Rez Web site.
• The organizers hope to launch later this year a Web site/chat room, www.globallodge.com, where Native youth can meet, learn, and give each other support.
Litefoot and his supporters hope the message of support and community will last beyond the tour.
“His message is very inspirational,” says Cori Silvey, 17, head of the Suquamish Tribe’s Youth Council. “The situation here is not as bad as some reservations,” she says, “but it’s hard to get the youth to participate in activities and Youth Council because you have to be drug- and alcohol-free.”
Ernest Stevens Jr., 46, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association and member of the Reach The Rez advisory board who lives in Washington, D.C., agrees.
“A warrior is someone who’s a leader, who conducts himself in appropriate ways, respects his elders and the youth, and lives life to help people. Litefoot … is a modern-day warrior who’s doing what he can to change American society, to appreciate the goals our ancestors set for us, but at the same time, accepting and embracing what today’s culture brings to us. We need more Litefoots. We need more warriors.”
Kriss Chaumont: firstname.lastname@example.org