On Sunday night at the Juno Awards, A Tribe Called Red made history.

When the electronic powwow drum group won a Juno for Breakthrough Group of the Year, it became the first indigenous group to win outside the Aboriginal music category.

A Tribe Called Red consists of DJ Shub, Deejay NDN and DJ Bear Witness. Their win comes after two years of international success and accolades, including being shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. 

“It was shock and excitement, and all of those kind of things mixed together,” says Ian Campeau, also known as Deejay NDN.

A Tribe Called Red was also nominated for Electronic Album of the Year, but the group collectively decided not to submit to the Aboriginal Album of the Year category.

“We just felt we wanted to compete for an award because of our music and not our ethnicity. Our album is an electronic album and we'd be up against someone like George Leach who has a rock album. You can't say one album is better than the other because they're completely different genres.” said Campeau.

George Leach

Lillooet, B.C.'s George Leach won the Aboriginal Album of the Year (GeorgeLeach.com)

Lillooet, B.C.'s George Leach won the Aboriginal Album of the Year. His publicist, Kim Wheeler has been in the industry for two decades. She says it’s an exciting time for aboriginal music.

“Overall this year's Junos felt like a breakthrough year for aboriginal artists in general,” Wheeler said from her home in Winnipeg.

She says aboriginal musicians weren’t always so well-represented at the Junos.

In 1992, Cree singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie helped establish a new category called "Music of Aboriginal Canada” at the Juno Awards to help showcase aboriginal musicians.

She won in that category twice and was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1995.

Aboriginal-only category not 'contemporary'

But not everyone thinks the Aboriginal category is necessary or even a positive move for aboriginal artists.

Mohawk singer Kinnie Starr was nominated for Best New Artist at the Junos in 2004. This year her manager wanted to submit her latest record for Aboriginal Album of the Year, but Starr says she decided she didn’t want to be nominated in that category.

kinnie starr

Musician Kinnie Starr decided not to submit her album to the Aboriginal album category at the Juno Awards. (Robin Gartner)

“To me it just makes Canada look like we are in 1913 or something, it is not contemporary to look at us like that,” she said.

But she says she understands why the category was once important.

“There were reasons why that was fought for, and that’s why I would never go hardline about it and demand it be stopped. A lot of people prefer it and there were innovators that were instrumental for creating that safe place for indigenous musicians.”

Campeau also has mixed feelings about musicians entering in the Aboriginal category.

“They are kind of a double-edged sword. It does give a really good platform for a lot of emerging artists who don't necessarily have those connections or whatnot to get to that level, and it's good for the music industry to see these talented people and be showcased like that,” Campeau said.

Campeau said he’d like to see more indigenous people going for awards in other categories.

APTOPIX Juno Awards

A Tribe Called Red celebrate their Juno Award for Breakthough Group of the Year. (AP Photo) (The Associated Press)

“A lot of First Nations people are going for the Aboriginal category instead of Best Album category or Best Pop, or Best Country or Best Rock Album, it seems that a lot of people feel like this is the Juno that they want, when they can aim higher — I am not saying it's not high, it's just not mainstream."

Kim Wheeler said that even though it's been 20 years since the establishment of the Aboriginal category, the indigenous music scene in Canada is just starting to hit its stride.  

“I think it's important because the majority of our artists are not signed to a major label, or any label for that matter. Winning or even being nominated for the Juno in the Aboriginal Album of the Year is a big opportunity for exposure in an industry where recognition doesn't come easily for independent artists who don't have a big marketing machine behind them,” she said.

Campeau is hopeful that A Tribe Called Red's win outside the Aboriginal category will be the first of many — for many.

“To me it’s good proof that we don't have to be stuck anywhere, we can be mainstream ... For A Tribe Called Red winning is 100 per cent proof that you can do whatever you want as First Nation people in Canada now, and whatever goal that they make for themselves is completely attainable, so aim high when you are making these goals,”