I met Tina Estes a couple of years ago when I was looking for a voice instructor for my teenage daughter. The two hit if off immediately and she is definitely one of the best in the city at her craft! As an entrepreneur, she not only keeps busy with her music business, but she also keeps active as a single mother to three beautiful children. I loved meeting with her at my home - teaching her how to prepare my Masala Chai with Slippery Elm Bark to help soothe her throat as a singer. After preparing the chai, we sat down and I got to hear more of her story on being Native American and Filipino.
You can read our conversation below and you can find the recipe for Masala Chai with Slippery Elm Bark HERE.
I grabbed this jar of honey from my pantry, which is a Native owned Sioux company...and I remember you telling me that you were Sioux? Yes, Lakota Sioux. My dad was from the Lower Brule Sioux Nation in South Dakota. So, I’ve always grown up with my father telling us stories about our family. Our family history has most definitely been orally passed down. We knew that my dad was the last surviving sibling of ten children who grew up in South Dakota. He would always tell us stories of Grandpa Bill who was a Medicine Man. He had so many incredible stories about him.
Do you have any wisdom you can share that your dad passed on to you? He would always talk about the death of his mother, who was very important to him. I never got to meet her as my dad had me when he was 55. When his mom died he was so grief stricken that he fell into a deep sadness. He said at that time his uncle made him chop wood all day to keep busy. He said later on he realized that that experience had taught him that one of the best medicines, for grief or for whatever, was to work with your hands. It was so simple but I’ve kept that principle my entire life.
So is your voice an extension of your hands? Yes, absolutely. I feel the most aligned with my destiny and the purpose of my calling when I am up on stage in a venue. I always have to stay singing somewhere, or learning something about my craft. I’m hungry to learn about different styles of music, which is so important to me. I consider myself a musician before a singer because before I started singing I was playing the piano 8 hours a day! My piano was my best friend growing up.
You grew up in Arizona? Yes, I’ve never been to my reservation. I grew up in the city. I’ve only been close to it when I went to North Dakota in the 9th grade. There was a scholarship for Native youth to go to North Dakota State to participate in a psych program for young adults needing mental healthcare - since there was a shortage of Native doctors here. It was eye opening to be with other Natives. I felt so out of place. It was intrinsic the type of Native culture that was in me, but I was a city girl. I was culture shocked, surrounded by Native teens who knew how to dance and lived on the rez, and I had never even been to mine.
I sometimes felt like I was living in two worlds growing up. Visiting our family in New Mexico and then coming back to the city. But it sounds like you didn’t even have that experience? Definitely. I missed out on so much of my culture. Thankfully I was able to enroll because of dad and I look forward to when I can get there.
And your mother? My parents met through correspondence. *chuckles* My mom comes from the southern part of the Philippines that is mostly Muslim. I think she toggled a little bit between being Catholic and being Muslim. There’s a Muslim dress dance there and the native music from that region of the Philippines sounds very Middle Eastern to me. It’s so beautiful. My mom, my grandmother, and I are very dark. We are all considered to be very dark by Filipino standards. In the central part of the Philippines the country was mostly colonized by the Spanish, and people seem to be lighter skinned there and appear more Asian. But the indigenous people of the Philippines, now called Negritos, are very dark with a lot more texture to their hair. I was doing research and learned that there was a strain of a migration pattern where we align more so with Austronesian than we do with Asians! And with that we are very indigenous. So I’m indigenous from all over the world!
It’s unfortunate that a lot of people of the Philippines look down at the indigenous people of the Philippines. They are very Westernized.
Does your mom cook any Filipino food? Hahaha no. I don’t think my mom has cooked anything ever!
Now that you are getting older how are you celebrating both sides of your family since they are so very different? I’ve struggled my whole entire life with my identity and I have sometimes shunned one culture and clung to another just depending how I was feeling emotionally. With family trauma on both sides of the family it’s personal. So now that I am researching for myself what it means to be “indigenous” and proud of that, I’m really on a journey of trying to celebrate them both at the same time. It’s really hard because I feel like half of my Self is here, and half of my Self is there. So, what has been my dream - and I have never really expressed this yet - is for me to feel like a whole person would be to find it through my artistry, because that is the one true place that I can really make space for myself and really feel who I really am. When I am around other Filipinos, I feel very Filipino. They have a lot of strong non-verbal cues and mannerisms and they are very prideful and I love that. But those personality traits don’t work the same when I am around other Natives (Native Americans). We seem to be very quiet people, or I’ve found that many don’t like to look one another in the eye. They're just very different. So at this time, I just need to find it within myself so that I can honor them both respectfully.
Are there any ways you are specifically finding the space to honor both? I think the best thing I can do is to continue to educate myself and be really aware of the struggles of the past and pay homage to that. So actually, one of the things that I did do was to pay homage to my mother...being fresh off the boat, being an immigrant, not knowing how to speak English very well, having a really thick accent and so on...was I wrote a song called One, Two. That song was about my mom. I changed the lyrics a little bit for the radio edit, but I did release another version of it on my Soundcloud that was less mainstream and more original. So, in the backround I have some Native chanting and then in the lyrics it does speak to being brought over and the different struggles with that, and not just being brought over, but being so patriotic to a country that is not yours.
You have such a family story! Yeah, this is just skimming the surface and I am really thankful for it all.
Watch Tina perform One, Two from her live show at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, Arizona in 2014.
Tina Estes is a Phoenix native and an internationally reaching artist. She’s opened for Grammy Award winning artist, Macy Gray, singer-songwriter Yuna, and has collaborated with Billboard chart-topping artists such as Mega Ran, Joell Ortiz and MURS. She is a musician, playing the guitar and piano, and teaches music lessons to beginners of all ages.