A Brief History of Resistance and Protest in Contemporary Native Music

by Brian Wright-McLeod

During the 1960’s, when ceremonial culture was cautiously being brought out of hiding, a new undergound was beginning to take shape. A multinational-corporate war was waged on Indian rights and the natural world that resulted in waves of economic and environmental refugees. In the cities, Indians found few opportunities outside poverty or prision. The resulting culture shock of relocation had dire and confusing results for people who found themselves in oppressive and racist surroundings.
In the wake of relocations was a young Narragansett named Peter LaFarge, a survivor who had not only been adopted by author Oliver LaFarge (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Laughing Boy) but was a rodeo rider who had been in and out of urban and reservation settings as a way of life. He was a street-wise performer with an urban savvy who embraced traditional values. His potent ability to articulate the history and ongoing injustices through his music, began to draw attention in the wake of popular movements.

Like many of his contemporaries, LaFarge put his prevailing musical message into action. In New York City, he founded the Federation for Amerian Indian Rights, a group of political activists whose membership included Buffy Sainte Marie. As a composer and performer, he was at the centre of this movement. His songs were some of the most eloquently crafted of the times, and foretold the coming era of political Indian activism.

LaFarge’s material demolished the romanticism of settler culter and focused on the little know realities that the Indian world never forgot. Johnny Cash was inspired to create Bitter Tears in 1964 and included LaFarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes“. The song was a vitriolic tale that described a young Pima from Arizona, who emerged as a World War II hero. Hayes’ life came to a sad end after returning home to a life of poverty, alcoholism and despair. Cash identified with the scorned hero and was familiar with the social disintegration of reservation life. The song became the album’s hit and bridged the musical worlds of country and folk. Although it was described as a hillbilly hit’, the single was met with resistance in country radio. Some deejays refused to play it on account of its “angry” poignant content; one editor of a country music magazine was so outraged that he wrote an editorial calling for Cash‘s resignation from the County Music Association.

LaFarge recorded six albums between 1961 and 1965. Although certain mysteries surrounded his life, questions abound with respect to his demise at age 33. His body was found in his New York city apartment on October 27, 1965. The cause of death was officially cited as the result of a stroke, but conflicting evidence led many to speculate the truth.

Meanwhile, Sainte Marie’s career had hit a wall. The blacklisting of her 1964 anti-war protest song “Universal Soldier”, resulted in an airplay ban on her music by many radio stations throughout North America. “In the 60’s I played mouth bow which amounts to making music on a weapon. Vanguard, MCA and ABC Records were all ecstatic on signing me, and later told me they’d never, ever met such resistance in trying to get airplay. The deejays would all say We’d love to play Buffy, but…’ Concert halls were filled, I received good reviews and some work in scoring soundtracks, but no airplay.”

Political upheaval meshed with massive anti-war and civil rights demonstrations shook the foundations of the status quo in America. The US governemtn had recently retreated from its disastrous policy of Treaty Termination and began careening on a more lethal path of domestic counter-insurgency known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program).

Regardless of government repression, the truth could not be hidden or ignored. To combat the continued onslaught against the very existence of Indian nations, activists reclaimed disputed land from governments and corporations that had illegally assumed title. A series of occupations and demonstrations at key areas were organized to gain a greater degree of visibility. On November 4, 1969, AIM seized the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Among the key strategists was a Vietnam vet named John Trudell. The nineteen month-long action placed him and others on the FBI’s ten most wanted list.

Censorship could not silence the arts which continued to document these actions of resistance. The rock quartet Redbone paid tribute to the takeover in a composition that appeared on their second album, Potlatch. Alcatraz was also the subject and title of pianist Leon Russell’s song that was later re-recorded by Kiowa Commanche guitar legend, Jesse Ed Davis. Davis would eventually have a more direct impact on the Native music scene in the years that followed.

After the liberation and siege of Wounded Knee in 1973 and Anishnaabe Park near Kenora, Ontario a year later, the backlash against the expression continued. The first album, Plight of the Red Man by another all-Indian group XIT, was banned from airplay in Canada due to the political nature of the material.

Mic Mac troubadour, Willy Dunn was being received with equal disdain in northern Canadian towns. Not far from Kenora’s local radio station, the smoky Kenreisha Hotel was featuring an evening performance by Dunn, whose agent booked the gig as a joke more than anything else. Once the local mill workers, lumberjacks and off duty cops heard his songs, redneck justice prevailed, “Git that damned Indian out of here!” yelled one. “This don’t sound like no Hank Snow song!” exclaimed another. Fortunately for Willy, the Trans Canada highway was just outside the front door where it was locally named Main Street.

Dunn composed some of the most timeless story-songs dealingwith history (“Louis Riel”), the effects of government policies on indigenous societies (“Hey Broker”) and the residential schools (“Little Charlie”). His most famous work with the National Film Board of Canada was “Crowfoot”. Accompanied by the song of the same name, the 12 minute collage of historical and contemporary photographs ironcially, received frequent broadcast on national television. It has been described as the forerunner of today’s music video.

Lakota traditionalist-turned country singer and political activist, Floyed Westerman collaborated with lyricist, Jimmy Curtis, to create a powerful musical interpretation of author Vine Deloria’s, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.

The 1969 album contained a simple message to white corporate America and specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “I’m not your Indian anymore!” The anthem, created in the pow-wow 49 tradition is still sung in protest and demonstrations. The album was described as “brillant, biting and witty”. No recordings followed for 15 years. A 1984 reworking of Custer Died for Your Sins, was released on Westerman’s own Red Crow Music label based in Mailbu, California and followed with The Land Is Your Mother.

As a need for natural resources, particularly oil during OPEC’s domination of the market, a paranoid America began a ruthless search for replacements and alternative energy sources at nay price. From 1973 to 1976, the US government unleashed a reign of terror on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. The area had the highest uninvestigated violent death rate in the US, predominantly AIM members and supports. The FBI committed 2,800 agents to rotation over a four year period; the greatest number ever used during any operation in the Bureau’s history.

The para-military force of Operation Garden Plot was openly resisted on June 16, 1975. The resulting violence, three deaths and ongoing injustice revealed the willingness of the US government to emply extreme measures to achieve its own ends. This led to the eventual frame-up of AIM activist, Leonard Peltier who continues to serve two consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents. His case characterizes the government’s campaign of neutralizing and criminalizing American Indian Movement members.

Sainte Marie had been releasing albums on a yearly basis since 1964 and finally changed record labels. Her latest release “Sweet America”, was being dedicated to AIM. She was organizing throughout the country with Mic Mac activist, Anna Mae Aquash. In earlier years, Aquash and Sainte Marie had worked together in Boston to create the Indian Centre there. During the current turmoil, they had regrouped and put their enterprise into action for the people once again. While traveling between LA and South Dakota, Aquash stumbled upon evidence that exposed the June 26 shoot-out as a cover-up for the illegal transfer of 1/8th of uranium rich reservation land. A series of mysterious occurrences took place just before she disappeared. She scrawled a message for AIM’s National Chairman, John Trudell, “I’ll take to you through the rain”.

Her body was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation in February 1976. A second autopsy concluded cause of death to be the result of an execution-style slaying and not exposure as submitted by a previous coroner.

Sainte Marie discovered, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, that the FBI had amassed a several thousand page file on her own activities. “This is was my song ?Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’ is all about. As far as the files go, it’s all water under the bridge for me. It was done and so what? What can I do about it? We just carry on and keep creating.”

A year later, during Leonard Peltier’s trial in Fargo, North Dakota, an altercation instigated by police, took place in the court house corridor. There was a verbal exchange and John Trudell was placed under arrest for disturbing the peace.

During his incarceration, Trudell was approached by an individual who warned him to stop his activities or something would happen to him or his family.

To protest the government’s persecution of Peltier, AIM once again marched into Washington DC. During the 1978 demonstration, an undaunted Trudell burned the American flag on the steps of the FBI building. The next morning, news of the death of his family left everyone in a state of shock. Three children, wife Tina who was with child and her mother were all burned to death in a house fire on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nebraska. Tina Trudell had been actively working on the crucial issue of water rights that pitted the people against wealthy ranchers and corporations. Arson was cited as the offical cause of the fire.

Trudell points out, “All I did was talk, and they came down hard on me for that.” Canada issued a banishment order against his entering the country. “I’m not allowed into Canada because of the way I think. It’s nothing to do with any crimes I’ve committed, because I’m not a criminal. It goes back to the 70’s, the 80’s. That’s why I’m still being kept out.”

The music of the time, particularly that of Trudell, inspired Jesse Ed Davis to reignite his musical career having gone through a lengthy battle with drugs and alcohol. At the peak of his career, Davis was one of the most influential and sought after session guitarists in the business. He was also a prolific record producer. He met John Lennon in 1968 while on tour with bluesman, Taj Mahal and played on a number of Lennon albums. A close friendship had developed.

In one of my down periods when I wasn’t able to pay the phone bill out here in Los Angeles, John Lennon was going through his immigration case. We talked together quite a bit. We had formed enough of a friendship and a pen pal situation.

Mysteriously, somebody came in and stole all my John Lennon letters here recently. I don’t know why the hell that happened. I had a stack of letters maybe not quite a foot tall, and they all disappeared. Anyway, back to the phone bill. Miraculously, I never got cut off. Somebody wanted to listen to what he had to say to me enough to keep the phone on.”

For Davis fans, the Peace Company cassettes represent some of his most exuberant work and his last. As was the case of Peter LaFarge, suspicions and rumors surrounded Davis’ death. A drug overdoes was the official conclusion, although LA police did not rule out the possibility of homicide. His body was flown home to Oklahoma on June 28, 1988, where he was given a traditional burial.

Trudell continued to work with outstanding artists such as Mark Shark, Davis’ replacement in the Graffiti Band, and British guitarist Jeff Beck. The poem, “Crazy Horse” recorded with Beck, appeared on a larger collective project called “Oyate”.

Produced by Beck’s keyboardist Tony Hymas, the double CD import from France included experimental works by Joanne Shenandoah, Floyd Westerman, Bonnie Jo Hunt, Tom Bee, Paul Ortega and a long list of many other Native singers and poets.

In a world where it wasn’t safe for Native people to speak their truth, many of our artists made the ultimate sacrifice, others lost family, friends and freedom but continued to create music related to incidents of injustice and triumph. The battle continues with a new generation that will remember the past but look toward the future.

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In one of Jesse Ed Davis’ last interviews he talked about Plains Warrior Societies and the perspective of musicians as warriors, he quoted a death song: “I can hear my comrades calling. I can hear them calling me from the other side to the place where all great warriors go. Do not mourn for me, for it is the end all great warriors face. Do not mourn for me, for I will never know”.

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