Indigenous metal band riffs on issues affecting Native people

Three men pose outside.
With the music scene rising again after it was nearly extinguished by the COVID-19 pandemic, M.I.S. looks forward to performing together more and playing their debut album, “Kill the Man/Save the Indian.” (Jacob Stepetin)

Jacob Tix̂lax̂ Stepetin remembers growing up in his aunties’ and uncles’ homes, listening to Metallica.

“Aang, Tix̂lax̂ asax̂takuq. Unangax̂ akuq. Akutanam ilan angix̂takuq,” Stepetin introduces himself in Unangam Tunuu. “My name is Jacob, or Tix̂lax̂, my Unangax̂ name. I’m from Akutan, which is a village in the Aleutians on Akutan Island. That’s where I grew up most of my childhood. So that’s home for me.”

Stepetin said heavy metal was popular when he was growing up in the Unangam village of about 100 people

“As a kid, that was just one of the types of music that I was surrounded by, and I latched on to that,” he said. “I would spend a lot of time at my cousin’s house and my older cousins were all into metal, they all played Metallica, they all played instruments.”

Stepetin started his music journey at the age of 12 and has been dialing in his metal riffs ever since. In 2014, he began playing music with his college roommate, another Indigenous metalhead.

Together, they founded the Indigenous heavy metal group Merciless Indian Savages. Stepetin plays lead guitar. The band’s music addresses a lot of heavy topics, some that come from their own experiences. They have song titles like “Pseudo Savior,” “Manifest Death” and “Kill the Man/Save the Indian.”

The song titles grab your attention, but Stepetin said the point is to create an opportunity to talk about Indigenous issues.

“I think our lyrical content focuses a lot on things that make us angry about the Indigenous experience,” Stepetin said. “I feel like you could also write a lot of really positive music. But that’s the nature of the genre. You know, we’re metalheads, we’re passionate about metal. And so the nature of the genre isn’t really positive.”

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Each song that the band writes highlights an aspect of the Indigenous experience. But more specifically, Stepetin said, they want to call attention to “the histories and systems that perpetuate colonization.”

“In the Declaration of Independence, it calls the Indigenous people of the land, ‘Merciless Indian Savages,’” said Stepetin.

He said that racist language in the Declaration was included in a list of wrongdoings the king of England had committed against the United States.

“And one of those bad things [it says] is, ‘He has brought on the merciless Indian savages,’ and then says something about how they only know about war and death, or killing or something like that,” Stepetin said. “So it’s pretty brutal. And it’s obviously extremely racist, which is not a surprise for something that was written in the 1700s.”

The statement in the Declaration of Independence that Stepetin is referring to is this:

“He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

According to Stepetin, their band name is an educational opportunity to bring awareness to issues impacting Indigenous people of North America.

“I don’t think we’re trying to embrace this name as if it’s a valid description for who we are. It’s like an intentional misnomer,” he said.

After graduating college in 2019, Stepetin and his fellow band members relocated to Tempe, Ariz., the ancestral homelands of the Akimel O’odam people. With the music scene rising again after it was nearly extinguished by the COVID-19 pandemic, M.I.S. looks forward to performing together more and playing their debut album, “Kill the Man/Save the Indian.”

M.I.S. band members include Corey Ashley (Diné) on vocals/rhythm guitar, Jacob Stepetin (Unangax̂) on lead guitar, Ruben Dawahoya III (Hopi/O’odham/Yaqui) on bass, and Joseph Manuel Jr. (Hopi/Akimel O’odham) on drums.

M.I.S. played their second show earlier this month at the Navajo Nation Metal Fest in Gallup, N.M. You can listen to M.I.S. on all major streaming platforms or find more information on their website at mercilessndns.bandcamp.com.

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