Photo courtesy Sam Sampson
From left, Sam Sampson, Frank Waln, and Micco Sampson. The Sampson Bros dance on stage as Waln, a hip-hop artist, performs.

Unbreakable Trio: The Sampson Bros and Frank Waln

Chelsey Luger

Sam Sampson is a visual artist, a hoop dancer, and a flute player. Micco Sampson is a choreographer and dancer of many styles. Frank Waln is a rapper and producer. As individuals, they are forces to be reckoned with. But together, they make an unbreakable creative Native brotherhood with one common talent that melds and relies upon on all of their skills: storytelling.

If you’ve ever seen the Sampson Bros and Frank Waln perform live together on stage it’s obvious that they bring out the best in one another. Their shared mission of offering inspiration to Native people is powerful and palpable.

“We want to teach youth and show them how if you’re passionate about something and you’re persistent and keep at it long enough, someone’s [going to] notice,” Sam said.

Frank puts it like this: “We just want all indigenous people to be happy, healthy, and respected.”

Many consider Frank the frontman, but he’ll be the first to say that it’s not really like that. The three of them vibe off of one another creatively. Sam offers his flute skills to Frank’s tracks. Frank’s music inspires Micco’s choreography. Micco’s comedic relief puts the others on ease and allows them to open up while on stage. Sam designs the graphics on T-shirts and albums. They all offer honest yet diplomatic critique to one another. It’s a creative hoop. Along with their manager Tanaya Winder and a crew of other artists they support, they work as a team.

As a team, their live performances sell out not just all over Indian country but all over the world. They’ve done shows everywhere from Chicago to Paris to dozens of rezzes and universities. You name it, they’ve been there, and they’re not slowing down.

But before the world tours, before this team was a team, before they ever knew each other came the backstory of the Sampson Bros as a duo.

“Artistry runs in our family on both sides,” Sam explained. “It has always been in our blood.”

Their mother is an acclaimed fancy dancer who broke down barriers as one of the first women to take up hoop dancing, which some still consider controversial.

“We had a lot of critics because it was a taboo thing for women to be hoop dancing,” said Micco, “but who are we to tell a woman what she can or cannot do, especially when it comes to preserving our culture?”

Their father, Will Sampson, was an artist and actor, perhaps best known for his role as Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He’s known for his integrity and refusal to play stereotypical roles at a time when that’s what Hollywood wanted out of Native actors.

“He was portrayed as a human being, an equal,” Micco added. “And now I’m literally walking down that same path, in my own time, in my own way.”

The Sampson Bros have carried on this familial legacy of activism through performance art. They started dancing when they could walk. At the age of 6 they picked up hoop dancing. By the age of 8 they were performing in front of hundreds of school children, asked to teach their peers in Los Angeles, California, about Native culture. They then made a name for themselves on the powwow trail. Sam taught himself the flute and earned a Fine Arts degree from Columbia College. Micco honed his skills with storytelling and choreography. At this point, you can imagine why they are comfortable and cool on stage in front of audiences of thousands as they tour with Waln.

Their unity as a trio all started in Chicago where they were all living when Sam and Frank connected as pretty much the only two Native students at Columbia College, one of the biggest arts schools in the country. The first night they met they started shooting ideas off each other, and they’ve been hanging out ever since.

“It’s kind of like looking in the mirror and seeing what’s missing,” Micco explained. “ Each one of us can reflect each other’s ideas in a different light. We’re all in each other’s art.”

So, how have they managed to get to this level of success without getting at each other’s throats or disputing, as so often happens in creative groups?

“We all really care about the art and where we come from and our people,” Frank said. “Our focus isn’t on money or fame. Our focus isn’t on the things western society teaches us about.”

The trio has already achieved so much. What’s in the future for the Sampson Bros and Frank Waln?

“We’ll be family now until the end,” Sam said, “We’ll keep building our platform and magnifying what we have to offer. Frank’s music, Micco’s dance, my art. We’re a single unit.”

And for now, here’s an exclusive first look at a video they just produced that brings their collaborative unity to light in a way never before seen.

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