Nicholas Galanin is a man of creative motion. In some respects, the Sitka, Alaska-based artist and musician’s work has evolved like twists and turns of a Rubik’s Cube, progressing with purpose while producing colorful new landscapes with every crank and spin.
His latest development arrived last month when Ya Tseen, the band he anchors with guitarist Zak D. Wass and Seattle multi-instrumentalist OCnotes, released its riveting new album, “Indian Yard.” It’s a new chapter for the highly collaborative crew, after releasing a pair of albums as Indian Agent, the name referring to the federal agents charged with forcing the U.S. government’s agenda on Indigenous communities.
“It was a shift away from what the Indian Agent project was in a lot of ways,” says Galanin, an Indigenous artist of Tlingit and Unangax descent. “To me, [Indian Agent] had its time and purpose. I think that even the term and the title of that project, [the purpose] was to bring light to a history [many people] don’t speak or know of, but it’s a heavy history.”
The new moniker is taken from part of Galanin’s Tlingit name, Ya Tseen, meaning to “be alive,” which he explains “translates loosely and openly to everything — who we are, how we move in the world, how we share love with our children.” It also coincides with the band signing with Seattle-based Sub Pop, giving the ardent supporters of the Land Back movement, which aims to return colonized land to Indigenous communities, a wider platform. “We’re real serious about opening people’s eyes to realities,” says OCnotes, a former KEXP DJ and member of Seattle experimentalists Knife Knights.
Galanin’s no stranger to opening eyes and sparking conversations through art. Earlier this year, Galanin, who spent part of his childhood in Federal Way, drew acclaim with a piece he contributed to the Desert X exhibition in Southern California. With the piece titled “Never Forget,” Galanin erected 45-foot letters spelling out “Indian Land” in the same font as the famous Hollywood sign. His previous work includes digging a fake grave in the shape of a statue of a controversial colonial British Navy captain (“Shadow on the Land”), and a New York subway map — marking sites of police violence committed against Black youth — painted on a deer hide (“Land Swipe”).
“For me, there’s power in creating visual art that carries conversations that I don’t have to be there personally to uphold every day to the audience,” Galanin says. “That saves energy, that saves time and still delivers a message I believe in, and communities can come through and access it if they want. It’s doing the work for you in that sense and I think that’s important when you come from a community where our voices have been removed and our histories have been twisted and homogenized.”
With “Indian Yard,” Galanin — who previously recorded as Silver Jackson — tightens and brightens the amorphous sound he’s cultivated over several projects with a network of all-star Pacific Northwest collaborators, including Portugal. The Man, Iska Dhaaf and Seattle hip-hop dignitaries Shabazz Palaces and Stas THEE Boss (Galanin and OCnotes’ mates in the Black Constellation art collective).
The breadth of the sonic palette is as astounding as it is cohesive, with Galanin and crew dipping their brushes in psychedelic pop, head-swimming hip-hop, electro-pop, classic funk and soul, and downtempo beats that play like an audio fog machine. For casual listeners coming in without context, the social or political may not seem as overt or confrontational as some of Galanin’s visual art (save for songs like “Gently to the Sun,” its beats laced with defiant avant-raps from Seattle rapper/producer Tay Sean). But make no mistake, it’s music with a message — one that’s rooted in, and meticulously crafted with, love.
“What I hear, what I feel, what I get through that record, is I see and experience the love that we have in our families, that we share and pass on into the community amongst a world that’s violent towards us,” Galanin says, noting President Biden had just proclaimed the day of our interview Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. “That is a major reality in our community. … Statistically, these communities are at higher risk towards violence, sexual assault in a settler post-colonial world, which is what we live in.”