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Beyond Reservation Dogs, Mato Wayuhi Shares His Ever-Evolving Artistic Adventures

by Robert Bordeaux

Photo Credit: Byron Banasiak
In the past year, Mato Wayuhi has performed at music festivals, participated in panel discussions, and judged a poetry competition in South Dakota.

The Oglala Lakota artist from South Dakota has been touring the country, while connecting back with his roots through community events and music festivals in the state.

Mato Wayuhi, a multidisciplinary artist hailing from South Dakota, continues to grow his garden of artistic endeavors. From his composing and acting work on FX’s critically-acclaimed television series, Reservation Dogs, to his recent tour with environmental activist and hip-hop artist, Xiuhtezcatl, Wayuhi continues to explore what it means to be an artist in today’s creative landscape. In an email interview with writer Robert Bordeaux, Wayuhi reflects on his practice, creativity, and Indigenous representation.

I know here in South Dakota, a lot of people know you as that “Lak̇ot̄a wiċaṡa from SoDak doing BIG things.” And then a lot of folks know your work on Rez Dogs [FX’s critically-acclaimed television show, Reservation Dogs] and also know your music. So setting all those lenses aside, who IS Mato Wayuhi?

My relationship to place is evolving. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really embraced the state of South Dakota within my art. My Lakota / mixed identity was always at the forefront of what I was exploring, and so that kept me interactive with where my people are, namely Pine Ridge [one of the nine tribal lands that share geography with the state of South Dakota]— less so with other communities at large. These days I’m understanding how my art can impact and represent the entire state. Over the past year I’ve done some music festivals, panel discussions, even judged a poetry competition, all in South Dakota. It’s beautiful growing up and returning to where the healing can take place. That’s all to say that Mato Wayuhi is an artist from SOUTH DAKOTA. I have an album coming out soon that explores the place of my becoming. 

Photo Credit: That Sounds Decent / Ethan Wiese
Mato Wayuhi performing at That Sounds Decent, an annual music festival in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Being a multidisciplinary artist, with acting, composing, performance musician (and more) on the list of your endeavors, what’s that process look like incorporating those disciplines into your performances?

My showmanship incorporates those elements of my artistry. I like my shows to be theatrical and immersive. You’re gonna feel what I went through while making these songs. That’s in my demeanor, the stage design, the lighting, all the things. People paid/traveled/committed to come see a performance, so I always try my best to leave it all out there on the stage. I love breaking the fourth wall too. I didn’t realize how comedic my shows are until this tour. We played LA and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “I’ve never seen someone blend music and comedy as well as you do.” At first, I was kinda put off by this because I thought I wanted to be taken super duper serious as a musician — draped in moody colors while expertly playing a grand piano, or strumming an acoustic guitar. But that’s not me and I’ve learned to accept that. I love singing my heart dry…

You recently just finished your tour with Xiuhtezcatl, I’d love to hear about what the energy and spirit was like at the shows, and any highlights of that experience.

Touring with Xiuhby-Dooby-Doo was a wonderful time. He and I had that in the works for over a year, so to see it come to light and to connect with fans and communities around the country was such a blessing. Energies were vast and vibrant, the love was ample. Our crew was fantastic. DA, Sam, Basi, Itzcuauhtli, Feather. Some of the best times of my life. A major highlight for me was to find rhythm in the rigor. Touring as an indie artist is a very hands-on operation with several moving parts that X and I were in charge of running. So getting that groove down was neat. Learning as I’d go. I’m glad people had a good time, that’s really important to me. Xiuhtezcatl has this puppy dog enthusiasm and inquiry for life and culture and donuts which helped keep my spirits high on the road and in our friendship. He’s real solid, that fella. 

Video courtesy Mato Wayuhi.

I’m curious if you have any stories of interactions and conversations you’ve had around your art that have stayed with you if you’d be willing to share. Or you can offer what the spirit is you offer through your music and art, and what you hope people get from it.

I just try to make what is true and exciting to who I am in that moment of creation. That can lead to mixed results and I’m okay with that! Failure is worth exploring if you have the privilege to do so. I’ve spoken with some folks who’ve shared some beautiful moments they’ve had listening to my music. Someone recently told me that they had their first kiss to one of my songs, which made me melt. I was so honored to soundtrack a romantic moment like that. Overall though, I’m grateful for how people interpret what I do and don’t let it impact how I create, at least consciously. 

As you continue your artistic career and endeavors, considering your experience working on Reservation Dogs and being involved in this growing representation of Indigenous people in media, do you think we are in a good place and heading in the right direction of representation? Where are there possible shortcomings that you’ve seen that western media outlets, Hollywood, etc. need to work on or be accountable for?

I think we’re heading in the right direction. I’m gonna go esoteric here for a sec … Sometimes I wonder if we put too much emphasis on mainstream “representation” as an integral component to what it is we want to achieve — decolonization, landback, sovereignty, equity and justice for women, etc. Conflating representation in western media with absolute progress as a people is not the cutest mindstate to me because we’re still operating within the lens of an entertainment industry that made its mark by disenfranchising us.

Motion pictures began right around the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), and some of the first literal moving images were of tradish Lakota dancers who were on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (1894). The parallels between colonization and Hollywood fascinate me. So yeah, TV show awards don’t save us. But who knows! We’re still in the middle of it all and I’m honored to have even a small part in us telling our own stories.

I still wanna be an EGOT despite all that I’ve pondered because of the avenues it could open for the next generation of storytellers. I don’t think anything going on is a bad thing, I just like to zoom out sometimes. I’m really proud of us. I majored in film/media studies at University of Southern California — after I have a few kids and my knees give out I’m gonna create an Indigenous Film Studies program at USC where we can continue this conversation.

A person of medium skin tone wearing green cargo, a white tank top, and an orange bandana on their head walking in a forest area.
Photo Credit: Byron Banasiak
Oglala Lakota artist and musician, Mato Wayuhi.

What message or advice would you offer to a young Lak̇ot̄a artist about your journey? Or, what is something you wish you could encourage and share with your younger self?

Honor every fragment of your being, even the parts of yourself that you’re scared of. Define your own meanings of who you are within our Lakota way of life. Focus on making art that you’re in love with, and make a lot of it. Also, be really kind and compassionate because you don’t know what other people are going through. Don’t be acting all somehow.

What’s next for Mato?

There’s a lot of neat happenings but let’s just focus on this weekend. In a few hours I’m gonna go babysit my younger cousin, probably watch a movie. Tomorrow I’m gonna go help with the sound engineering at this music venue in Pomona. My friend DA works there. Then on Sunday … my relative is throwing a beading party, so I think I’ll attend that. I’ve never beaded before! One of my goals for this year was to get out more, expand who I interact with, etc. I’m a hermit so it’s good that I make an effort to see the world outside of my mind. 

Video courtesy Byron Banasiak and Travel South Dakota.