Humphrey was born and raised on an Ojibwe Indian reservation in Northern Minnesota where she learned first hand the struggles of growing up as a minority. Eager to explore a wider world, she left the reservation and joined the United States Marines, traveled the country coast to coast, and was stationed in Japan. When Annie returned home to her Ojibwe homeland, it was on her own terms. She's now living close to nature, no electricity, and no running water, in an A-frame cabin she helped build.
A strong, determined, complex woman, whose life experiences can be heard in her vocals, Humphrey says she doesn't want to serve as a spokesperson for any particular group, yet she doesn't hesitate to use her music to call attention to causes in which she believes. Humphrey does more than just sing, however. She works at local prisons writing newsletters and singing for inmates. She is dedicated to preserving the land and protecting wildlife and natural medicines. Humphrey supports efforts to control logging in the Chippewa National Forest. She also teaches traditional skills (beadwork, wild rice harvesting, maple sugaring) to reservation youth.
Humphrey wrote the music for all of the tunes on the album except "Falling Down and Falling Apart," a song written by Sherman Alexie ("Smoke Signals") and Jim Boyd. Her mother, the noted author Anne Dunn, was the inspiration behind "500 Years." Adrian Liberty, Anne Dunn and Humphrey wrote "See Her," while "I Can See You" is Humphrey's solo composition. Annie's primary writing partner, Carson Gardner, wrote many of the album's lyrics. Gardner, a unique story himself, gave up a lucrative medical practice in order to better serve those in need on the reservation. The CD's title track details Carson's personal conversion, a remarkable story of a great blue heron that visited Gardner and literally changed his life.
Several songs on The Heron Smiled reflect Annie's Anishinaabe Ojibwe heritage and vision. The album begins and ends with different versions of the song "Spirit Horses." Based on her mother's story about a boy who learns a dream song and uses it to call spirit horses, it tells of the tribe's hope for a child of this generation to learn their song. On one version, renowned American Indian poet/teacher/activist John Trudell echoes Annie's vocal with his trademark haunting delivery. Trudell, a major influence and good friend to Annie, also has a speaking part on "DNA," a song about his life. In the 1970s, Trudell burned an American flag in front of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Twelve hours later his wife, children and mother-in-law were killed when a "fire of unknown origin" burned down their home. "The strength of the people and the ancestors are hidden in our DNA," explains Humphrey.
"Same Old Years" was inspired by the realization that so much remains the same, year-after-year, especially on the reservation. "I went in the Marines," Humphrey notes, "and came back a year later only to find the same people sitting in the same places in the same bar."
The epic song of the album is the eight-minute "500 Years," with lyrics by Annie, her mother and Carson. The chorus speaks of "500 years of genocide" and the verses recite a litany of American Indian touchstones - names, places, phrases that recall both injustices and heroic endeavors. "Maybe the words will inspire some people to pay more attention to our past," Humphrey hopes. "Awareness is so important in fighting prejudice. At the end of the song I sing about the red oak, the one tree that holds its leaves all winter. Like the red oak leaves, we will always be here."
But not all of Humphrey's music is political or historical. There are tender love songs like "But This Love" with its message that "the grass may look greener over there, but too often it isn't," explains Annie. "Much Sense" heralds that "whatever you give in a love, you get back and more," and "I Can Hear You" is a song that in essence says, "you may miss someone far away, but you can still have a spirit connection.""See Her,” teaches us "a woman can have children, but can still feel alone and just want people to acknowledge her as a person.""Call Me" is about "anyone imprisoned - in jail, at home or in their minds."
Annie's father taught her how to play the guitar when she was in the first grade. Two years later she was playing piano (she taught herself) and composing her first songs. "Early on I was inspired musically by my father and lyrically by my mother," she says. Humphrey's mother is the noted author and grandmother storyteller Anne Dunn. Her published works include "When Beaver Was Very Great" and "Grandmother's Gift."
As a youngster, Humphrey sang along with songs by The Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac, John Denver, Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks. In high school she began writing songs on a regular basis. After two years at a community college, she started to take her music more seriously. She went to see the U2 documentary "Rattle &Hum" and decided "I don't want to just sing empty songs. I want to sing about things I have strong feelings about, and choose causes that I can help." She met guitarist Don Robinson at a jam session and soon they were writing protest songs together and playing Indian benefit concerts. They recorded a regionally released album together in 1989 titled "For the Children."
Feeling stifled by the reservation, Humphrey joined the Marines, left Minnesota for the first time, went to Boot Camp in South Carolina, and was stationed in Okinawa where she played in two bands. She sang songs by Natalie Merchant and Edie Brickell for one band, while the other band was heavy metal covering Ozzy Osborne, Metallica, and Judas Priest - "I learned to scream the words." The rest of her time in the Corps was at Camp Pendleton in San Diego where she joined up with a pop-rock group "in the vein of the Dave Matthews Band." After completing her tour with the Marines, Humphrey went on to training at a Police Academy. She graduated with honors, but decided not to pursue a career music and her need to express herself was growing stronger. After hearing Reba McEntire say the most valuable lesson ever taught her was to sing from the heart, Humphrey got out her guitar and started writing songs again.
While attending the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, she began performing professionally at coffee houses. "At college I concentrated on art -- painting, sculpture, and art history." Humphrey recorded her first solo album, the regionally distributed Justice Hunter, in 1995. She moved back to the Ojibwe Reservation and began performing at schools, educational workshops, rallies for battered women and coffee houses throughout Northern Minnesota. She sang in the musical "Tribe" at The Ordway Theatre in St. Paul. Her first national exposure came on the album The Whispering Tree (released by Makoché), an album of poetry and music by various artists, featuring Humphrey singing on three tunes.
"My music addresses many of the things I feel strongly about," says Humphrey. "Love is hard to find and should be cherished. We need to care for children wherever they are in the world. Alcoholism and abuse are human problems everywhere. People everywhere need healing. No one should judge another person by the color of his or her skin. I consider anyone who walks in a sacred way and honors the earth to be indigenous to our planet." f
Her new CD, The Heron Smiled, is on Makoché (ma-ko-chay), an award winning independent label well known for presenting the best in American Indian influenced music.
"Being an Indian singer, people expect certain things, but I don't want to be limited in what I can sing about. My Indian heritage is part of who I am, so some of it comes out in my music, but I sing about a variety of human conditions. I just want to tell the truth about the world as I see it."