By LARISSA COPELAND Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
“When the police kicked in my door I thought they had the wrong house,” tells Jesse “Red Eagle” Robbins, a 25-year-old Choctaw from Oklahoma City. That wasn’t the case though and it was in fact Robbins that the police were after.
He was 20 years old at the time and had been on the wrong path for several years prior to that. “I got a felony drug charge, my first criminal charge ever, for dealing drugs,” said Robbins. “I was given five years of probation and 100 hours of community service. But by the time I got busted I’d already ‘woken up’ and finding my Choctaw culture is what saved me.”
The charge was for something old that he had done (at age of 18) but it didn’t matter in the eyes of the law. “I still got it and I’m going to use it for good,” said Robbins.
He does this by reaching out to the youth who may be on the same negative, confused path he went down as a young teen. “I travel to middle schools around south Oklahoma City to speak to the kids about anti-gang and anti-drug activity,” he says. “I speak to them from experience. When I was their age, I was so lost. I try to get to them in middle school. You have to catch them young or it’ll be too late.”
Robbins knows this first-hand. He began to go down the wrong path around the age of 15. “I’ve never drank alcohol and I’ve never smoked or done drugs in my life because I’ve seen what it’s done to our people. I didn’t want that. What I did though was get involved in gang activity.
“I was confused about what a warrior was,” he said, explaining the attraction he felt. “Gangs provide a false sense of belonging for kids. But they don’t protect – they destroy. They provide a false sense of identity. I thought I was being different but I was conforming. Gangs take you outside your culture. I’m Choctaw but I was with mostly Hispanics. They were my clan. I was striving for a tribe, an identity, a warrior role. A gang provided that, or so I thought.”
It was around the same age when Robbins was looking to gangs for acceptance, he was also turning to a more creative outlet for his thoughts – writing poetry.
“When I first started visiting the schools I’d read my poetry but the kids couldn’t really relate to that so I turned to music,” he says, “and I can’t sing or play guitar…so I guess you could say hip-hop chose me.”
Robbins has had much success spreading his message and connecting to the kids through his music. “I represent a bridge,” he says. “I do music to connect generations. I take the elders’ message and put it in a form the youth relate to and understand. They don’t speak the same ‘language’ anymore. I get to play coyote, be a trickster. The Choctaw culture is so dope (cool). When kids hear it in the music, they hear how cool the culture is.”
He thinks that it’s someone like himself who is best suited for reaching this group of kids too. “They want to hear me say it, not some 50-year-old they can’t relate to.”
Another thing he tries to impress upon the youth he visits with is the power of an education, as his father did to him. His father, Dr. Rockey Robbins, is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma in the educational psychology department. His focus is in multicultural counseling and according to Robbins, he has always instilled in him the importance of education. “Education is a ladder. My dad taught me that early on,” he says. “I tell that to the kids too. I say to them ‘go to college.’ Some kids never hear that word at home.”
This is something Robbins took to heart himself. After graduating from Little Axe High School in 2004, he enrolled in Oklahoma City Community College. He plans to transfer to OU in Norman in Fall 2011.
Beyond setting the groundwork for his culture and education, his father has been at his side during his hard times. “I’m lucky because my dad stands by me,” said Robbins. “But I did come from a broken home. I think that’s another reason the kids can connect to me. Not all these kids have a great home life either. I get that. I want my music to be a positive message in the ears of those kids with their headphones on, their heads bobbing up and down, while their parents might be in the other room fighting.”
Robbins never had a relationship with his mother. He was born in Durant but soon moved to the Kickapoo Reservation in Kansas where his father was a teacher at the time. He lived there until he was about five years old, and even spent a short period of time in foster care, until coming back to live with his father. He considers Oklahoma City and Norman home. His siblings are Tiffany York, Seth Fairchild and Cheyenne Murray; two of these three he didn’t even know until he reached adulthood.
“My family life was part of where my rebellion started,” he admits, “but my culture is what set me straight.”
He considers himself fortunate for being raised by a father who immersed him in the tribal-cultural ways of the Choctaw at an early age. And those roots stayed strong. His Choctaw name, “Onse Homma” or “Red Eagle” was given to him during an old Choctaw traditional naming ceremony; a ceremony that Robbins fears is being lost through the generations. “My grandfather gave it to me when I was five years old,” he said. “He walked out into the woods and when he came back he told me that was my name.”
From the time he was a young child the ways of the Choctaw always had deep meaning to him. Though he took a slight detour from these ways during his late teen years, he soon realized the greatest limiting factor to his connection to his tribe was himself. “Now, I do what I can to keep our old ways and our ceremonies alive. I want our people to speak our language. I speak Choctaw, play stickball, go to the stomp dances.”
Robbins was also part of the Choctaw Nation stickball team that played in the 2010 Stickball World Series in Mississippi.
Today, Robbins considers himself an advocate for Native Americans everywhere and he uses his music to get his point across. “Native Americans need a voice,” he explains. “I’ve been backed into a corner. I am a warrior and I will fight for our culture. Peace and love scare people but a warrior is peaceful. Music is a form of protest and I use it to be an activist for the tribe.”
Robbins considers himself a modern day storyteller. “Music is breath to me,” he says. “This is more than a hobby. Every song is catered to Native Americans. It’s an opportunity for me to reach kids, to tell them you can get through hard times, to turn to the old ways. It’s my opportunity to give the youth a voice, to just lend a hand to this generation and help revive a youth appreciation of our culture,” he says.
In addition to visiting middle schools and visiting with youth, his music has created many other unique opportunities for him. Most recently and according to Robbins, one of the most interesting, was being invited in February to present in New York City at Columbia University’s prestigious 28th Annual Cross-Cultural Winter psychology roundtable, themed “Privileging Indigenous Voices.”
A Native American professor at Columbia heard his music and enjoyed the message it sent, leading to his invitation to the university. He led the youth plenary session, opening the meeting by leading the group with a Choctaw snake dance. He then performed half his presentation by reading his poetry and half by performing his hip-hop music. A large photo slide show was projected on the wall behind him during his presentation, displaying numerous images of Choctaw people during various stages of history. He received a standing ovation from the students and faculty in the audience.
In addition to radio airplay on numerous radio stations, Robbins performs his music live whenever possible. He was also honored to have been offered a position to play at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, N.M., in April but was unable to attend this year. He performed on May 14 at Jones Academy and was joined by fellow Choctaw hip-hop artist Chris Taylor and Anthony “DJ Pyro” Mnic’opa, a Dakota/Seminole. Together they make up the group “Native Nation.”
Robbins has put out several mix tapes over the years. He recently released a mix tape in New York entitled 1491 and is currently in the final stages of another album. He’s also in the beginning phase of producing a poetry album. His music can be heard on his Youtube page, onsehomma21, or his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/JesseRobbins405.
Just a few of his Native American themed songs include “Seventh Generation,” “We got that Swag,” Women,” “Ain’t Your Mascot,” among many, many more.
As heard in the lyrics to “Seventh Generation,” it’s easy to know he walks the talk when he says his music encourages his people to stay connected to who they are:
“Keep the shells Keep the songs Keep on stomping all night long Keep the dance Keep the drum Keep the language on your tongue,”
He takes that to heart and lives it. By being someone the kids can relate to, Robbins plans to continue using his music to inspire and encourage the youth to soar above negative influences.
But he doesn’t want people to think that because his subject matter is serious that his music is all somber and solemn though. “Humor is a huge part of my music,” he says, “and it just might make you dance!”