In “Prayers in a Song” Minneapolis based hip hop artist Tall Paul (Paul Wenell Jr.) raps about his struggle to learn his indigenous language, Anishinaabemowin, and his journey toward a deeper understanding of his Native identity. Speaking of the harsh realities of growing up in a poor urban landscape, Tall Paul raps in both English and Anishinaabemowin.
Tall Paul is an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, in Northern Minnesota, which is one of the six members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe recognized following the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Tall Paul, however, grew up in Minneapolis. He says in his rap, “I feel the latent effects of assimilation / inner city Native, raised by bright lights skyscrapers.” For many young American Indians, especially those not raised on a reservation, there exists a tension between their inner city upbringing and a desire to learn their Native language and customs.
From the early days of European contact, Native people endured destruction of language and culture due to removal from their lands, relocation, and forced assimilation. As late as the 1950s, Native children were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where they were forced to learn English and stop speaking their language and practicing traditional ways.
Loss of language and culture stems from American Indian relocation of the mid 20th century. Due to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which encouraged Native people to move into cities, large numbers of American Indians moved from reservations into urban areas. After the relocation program was abolished in the 1970s, some Native people moved back to the reservations, finding urban life didn’t have all that was promised.
Today, two-thirds of all American Indians live in cities. In Minneapolis, where Tall Paul is based, American Indians comprise 2 percent of the population, as compared to 1.1 percent in the Minnesota as a whole, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Like Native people in other urban areas, American Indians in Minneapolis face difficult issues, such as 25 percent unemployment, and 27 percent of families making less than $10,000 per year. In Minneapolis, 43 percent of Native families and 65 percent of Native single mothers live in poverty. Unfortunately, in urban areas, Native people often don’t have access to the tribal and federal services provided on reservations. American Indians living in cities face issues of higher poverty rates than the general population, less accessibility to health care, and a staggering educational achievement gap, where as few as one in 5 American Indian students graduate from high school.
For the past two decades, Native language revitalization has come to the forefront of American Indian education across the United States and Canada. Tall Paul says he was inspired to write the lyrics to the song after attending Ojibwe language coursework as student at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate.
In recording "Prayers in a Song", Tall Paul reflects on his experience. He recalls struggling to grow up in an environment of “ash trays and beer bottles”. His music speaks to both the challenges he's faced growing up in an urban context and the benefits of the spiritual support and resources of his extended family and community.
Tall Paul currently works for the Division of Indian Work in a community led initiative to close the achievement gap for American Indian students. Aided by deep appreciation for language and culture, Paul shares his education and experience with students at the Anishinaabe Academy, a K-8 Minneapolis public school. He records and performs with the group Point of Contact in his continuing quest to explore the complexities of language and culture in relation to his own identity.