Throughout the decades, there have been countless Native American musicians, composers, instrumentalists, singer-songwriters, and composers who have worked hard to used their gifts, skills, and voices to make beautiful art as well as to bring cultural awareness to traditional ways of life.
Today, we’re honoring the old, the new, the traditional, and the contemporary as we take a look at our list of 10 of the greatest and most famous Native American singers. Let’s get started.
1. Jim Boyd
Up first, Jim Boyd was born in 1956 and had a colorful career spanning four decades with membership in several bands, including Winterhawk, XIT, and his own band, the Jim Boyd Band.
Boyd enjoyed a lot of success at the Native American Music Awards through the years, including for AlterNatives in 2001, Going to the Stick Games in 2005, Them Old Guitars, and a Best Short Form Music Video award for his song “Inchelium.”
In addition, Boyd was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award due to his outstanding contributions to Native American musical heritage.
Away from his successful music career, Boyd was a chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State.
2. Chuck Billy
Next, we have Chuck Billy, who was born and grew up in Oakland, California. He is best known for being the lead vocalist in Testament, a popular thrash metal band that got its start back in 1985.
He started singing metal as far back as his teens. Billy has been with Testament since its inception (when it was still called Legacy) and is one of two original band members still playing and touring with the band.
Billy is proud of his Native American heritage and has written several songs inspired by it, including “Trail of Tears,” “Native Blood,” and “Allegiance.” Besides his vocal work with the band, Billy has collaborated with other groups, including Sadus, Metal Allegiance, and Sepultura.
Interestingly, Billy is featured in the National Museum of the American Indian in its exhibit entitled Up Where We Belong.
3. Mildred Bailey
Jazz singer Mildred Bailey hailed from Tekoa, Washington. Her mother was a Coeur d’Alene, and Bailey grew up on the tribe’s reservation in Idaho.
Bailey enjoyed considerable success during the 1930s, leading to her being acclaimed as the Queen of Swing, among many other nicknames. Her most successful hits included “Please Be Kind,” “Says My Heart,” and “Darn That Dream.”
During the height of her career, Bailey refused to hide her identity and credited the songs of her upbringing with influencing her involvement in the jazz genre.
4. Joanne Shenandoah
Born in New York State as a member of the Oneida Indian Nation, Joanne Shenandoah was a prolific singer and composer who played many different instruments, including the cello, flute, piano, guitar, and, of course, her own voice.
Since the Oneida Nation is matrilineal, she and all her siblings were considered part of their mother’s Wolf clan rather than their father’s Beaver clan. She grew up on the Oneida Reservation playing all sorts of instruments. She was given the tribal name Tekaliwhakwah, which means “she sings.”
Shenandoah has won 14 times at the Native American Music Awards, more than any other artist. In 2012, she performed an original musical composition in Rome to honor the canonization of the first Native American Catholic saint, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. That same year, she received recognition for her climate change activism in the form of an Atlas Award.
5. John Trudell
From Omaha, we have John Trudell, who was of Santee Dakota descent. He was perhaps best known for his political activism as the spokesperson for the Indians of All Nations’ occupation of Alcatraz, the former high-security prison.
After the 1979 murder of his three children and pregnant wife, he used writing and music as outlets. Trudell’s debut album, AKA Grafitti Man (released with the misspelling), was well-received by critics and listeners alike.
His lyrics frequently touched on his upbringing and activism, with many songs offering listeners a visceral glimpse into his experiences.
6. Buffy Sainte-Marie
Canadian-American Buffy Sainte-Marie is an indigenous singer-songwriter and musician with a career spanning an incredible six decades.
Sainte-Marie was born in Saskatchewan and was abandoned when she was an infant. She was soon adopted by parents of Mi’kmaq descent in Massachusetts.
The singer has received dozens of awards, honors, and accolades, including at least ten honorary doctorates. During her career, she has released 17 albums, the latest being Medicine Songs.
In the 1970s, Sainte-Marie was blacklisted from American radio stations for her involvement in the Red Power movement.
7. Dawn Avery
A member of the Mohawk Nation, Dawn Avery is best known for her work as a cellist and composer, but she is an exquisite vocalist as well.
She is a professor of music at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, and her World Music program earned her the Maryland Professor of the Year award in 2012. She holds a doctorate in ethnomusicology.
Avery explores her indigenous heritage and her intense spirituality through musical meditation experiences and by holding performances and ceremonies in Iroquois longhouses. She is a passionate advocate for cultural and linguistic preservation.
8. Patrick Vegas
Patrick “Pat” Vegas was born in Coalinga, California. He got his start when he formed Redbone with his brother Lolly in 1969.
They had been performing in clubs throughout Southern California for ten years before receiving a record deal.
“Come and Get Your Love” is their unmistakable smash hit and has made a comeback due to its appearance in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 soundtrack.
His brother, Lolly, died in 2010, but Vegas still performs and maintains the band. Redbone was the first Native American group to have a #1 charting hit in the US.
9. Buddy Red Bow
Warfield Richards Red Bow, who went by the stage name Buddy Red Bow, was a Lakota Sioux hailing from South Dakota. He was adopted and lived on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Red Bow left high school to pursue a career in acting but eventually served in the Vietnam War as a US Marine.
He released several country tracks in the 1980s and 1990s, the most prominent being “Run Indian Run.” His music drew inspiration from his heritage and the experiences of Native Americans.
After his death in 1993, the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame inducted him in 1998.
10. Samantha Crain
Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and a member of the Choctaw Nation, Samantha Crain earns her place on our list as a contemporary folk singer-songwriter with a prolific body of work and a host of awards and accomplishments despite being a younger musician.
She started writing songs and playing guitar when she was young was already touring by the time she was 19. After this, she created Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers, which disbanded in 2009.
She won two Native American Music Awards in 2009: Best Folk Album of the Year and Best Songwriter of the Year. Thus far, Crain has released seven albums and one EP.
A Small Death, her latest album released in 2020, was written after she survived three car accidents within the space of only three months.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Native American Vocalists
And there you have it, readers. These Native American singers have left an indelible mark on popular culture with their amazing works of music.
Besides the varied artists listed in this article, many other Native American singers and musicians are waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.
However, this list is far from complete. Who did we miss off this list? Let us know, and we’ll add them in!