Unbound, the new album by Bizhiki, opens with a single, trembling chord that rises and descends before meeting a warm, beguiling voice, a voice singing in a tradition that’s been heard in this northern river country for millennia. The music that follows is a soulful dialogue between the ancient tradition of powwow singing and a contemporary musical palette. On Unbound, the powwow style is entwined with synthesized voice modulation, and hand drumming is accented with electronic samples and beats. The harmonies and resonances on this album are equal parts cultural and musical.

Many of the songs on this album go back to when the spirit of the Bizhiki was forged, nearly a decade ago, on the banks of Wisconsin’s Chippewa River. Dylan Bizhikiins Jennings, one of the two principal Native voices on the album, remembers getting an invitation to play the Eaux Claires festival in 2015. “I was driving up in Cornucopia, Wisconsin — way out in the middle of nowhere —and I got a call.” There was a festival being organized on the Ojibwe’s ancestral homelands, and the organizers wouldn’t feel right without the involvement of the land’s native communities. “I agreed,” he remembers. “And I told them I wished more people thought like this — that instead of reading from some land acknowledgement, that they would say ‘we’re gonna give your people space and just invite you to do what you wanna do.’”

Bizhikiins Jennings says the open-endedness of the initial invitation, “collaborate with other artists if you want to, sing some songs in the woods, sing some songs on stage, sing whatever you wanna sing, with whoever you wanna sing with,” isn’t necessarily the kind of invitation he was used to. “It’s in being told where we can fit and where we can’t that a lot of Natives get corralled into doing something that’s borderline appropriation,” Bizhikiins Jennings says, “or just romanticizes who we are.” Bizhikiins Jennings says that in this case, there weren’t any expectations at all, and this “let’s just do something together” spirit continues to inform Bizhiki’s process.

The first track on the album, “Franklin Warrior,” is addressed to the people living in an indigenous community on the Mississippi River, a community on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis that’s been here long before the avenue was named Franklin, or the place was named Minneapolis. The voice belongs to Joe Rainey, a Red Lake Ojibwe powwow singer from Minneapolis who now makes his home within his wife’s Oneida Nation on the shores of Lake Michigan. Rainey is soon joined, within the song and then throughout the album, by Bizhikiins Jennings, his adopted brother. Bezhikiins Jennings also grew up singing within the powwow tradition, around the Lac Du Flambeau and Lac Courte Oreilles reservations in Central Wisconsin. He now makes his home in Northern Wisconsin, on the Bad River reservation on the shores of Lake Superior.

“To be a singer in our community is a calling,” explains Bizhikiins Jennings. “It’s less about being a musician — I mean, you know how to sing, because you’ve studied under other singers for a long time, and there are specific ceremonial songs when there’s a funeral, or somebody’s getting married. But most of all, it’s a cultural obligation — you’re there to help.”

Bizhiki originates from the name given to Bizhikiins Jennings — “it means little Buffalo” — by Eddie Benton-Banai, his wenh-enh (Ojibwe word for teacher), and one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. Rainey says the first track is an homage to the Minneapolis neighborhood Benton-Banai was so active in, the neighborhood Rainey grew up in. “I’ve been around our less housed relatives all my life,” he says. “We used to call them the Franklin Warriors, and when it’s cold outside, you go take a ride and make sure they have everything they need — blankets, water, a couple j’s or something. The Franklin Warriors are always in my heart.”

After beginning in the center of Rainey’s Native community on the Mississippi, Unbound takes you on a journey upriver. Geographically, Bizhiki is almost wholly a made-in-Wisconsin project, a collaboration between Bizhikiins Jennings, Rainey and the multi-instrumentalist Sean Carey (S. Carey), who for years now has been a secret weapon within the Bon Iver family of musicians.

“Unbound,” the title track, is exemplary of Bizhiki’s unique cultural and musical intersection. It begins with an electronically modified hand drum accentuated by a plaintive piano chord, leading into a somber warning sung by Carey: “Be calm when she speaks/she speaks the truth, unbound.” The words were pulled by Carey from Rainey’s notebook, right in the studio. “I wrote those lines around a string of tornadoes and hurricanes — this wrath of mother nature that was hitting everybody,” Rainey says. “There was so much relief needed for people who were displaced, so many people out there hurting.” Carey’s warning is joined to an urgent topline sung by Bizhikiins Jennings, as arresting as it is beautiful.

Or take “Nashke!” at the album’s midway point, a song built around a lyric about praying to the skies and sun accompanied by a dreamy guitar pattern, punctuated by Jennings singing “Nashke!” In addition to his role as a powwow singer, Bizhikiins Jennings is a professor of environmental studies at Wisconsin’s Northland College and a lifelong Ojibwe language learner. He explains that nashke is an Ojibwe word that means “look!”, and the song is a poetic homage to the cleansing nature of grief. “Sometimes rain is seen as a major bummer,” Bizhikiins Jennings says. “It might ruin your event, or make your day seem gloomy: and that might be how somebody feels when they’re struggling with grief. But water is life, and when that water comes from the sky, it’s helping us in some way, shape or form, whether we want it to or not.”

Unbound came together over the course of years and in between several projects from Bizhiki members, including two solo album releases — both Joe Rainey’s Niineta and S. Carey’s Break Me Open were released in 2022, and both artists have been busy touring their projects. Bizhikiins Jennings has also been committed to a robust schedule of speaking and teaching engagements —he’s in the final stage of his pursuit of a PhD at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies — in addition to his singing in powwow groups, both locally and internationally. Bizhiki also features the contributions of former Low bass player Steve Garrington, and frequent S. Carey collaborators guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker and keyboardist Ben Lester. The lead singer of Marijuana Deathsquads, Isaac Gale, contributes the words for the chorus on “Trying to Live.” Sung by Rainey with Jennings, it’s the necessary precursor to a land acknowledgement: a punk rock demand for acknowledgement. You can hear Bon Iver’s saxophonist Mike Lewis’ on a couple tracks, and Justin Vernon himself sings on “Gigawaabamin (Come Through).”

Bizhiki’s Unbound is a collaboration between a group of singers and musicians at a particular time and place, all of them looking to help by exchanging ideas in an open ended dialogue that touches on the resources that we’re trying to share, generations into the future. The last track, “Medicine River” is about the river that flows north through the tribal lands on which Bizhikiins Jennings makes his home. “A river is a living being that tells a story in itself,” Bizhikiins Jennings says. “They start off trickling when they’re young, and they grow into rapids, and as they work their way down, they mature.” Bizhikiins Jennings says there’s a lesson here for himself and his new group. “Just like in life, we’re learning and we’re maturing, and we’re becoming who we are.”