An appreciation of Floyd Westerman
In San Diego recently to meet with tribal leaders at the NIGA conference,
we ran into Floyd Westerman. Floyd - Red Crow - is the Lakota musician,
actor and all-around activist who is the true eyapaha to Indian country.
Indeed, eyapaha - title of the camp crier of old who summoned the people to
action - is a mantle that Floyd Westerman wears well.
Floyd is respected, loved and befriended throughout Indian country. Not
long ago, when we announced to Vine Deloria Jr. that he had won our
American Indian Visionary Award for 2005, he said, "You should have given
it to Floyd."
A lot of people in Indian country put through prayers when Floyd, a
longtime smoker, underwent a lung transplant operation just months ago.
People far and wide invoked strength and recovery for a man who has given a
great deal to Indian people.
Thus to see the great eyapaha, Red Crow, walking briskly and vigorously
down the sidewalk in San Diego was a welcome and reassuring sign that the
activist years - the formative, free-for-all but highly creative years of
the Indian national movement for political and economic recovery - are not
so far behind us. Floyd gave us a fist-to-fist salute with a wink that
carried the recognition of memories of a generation or more.
A salute and appreciation is expressed here to the life and career of Floyd
Westerman, Red Crow. Many people throughout Indian country have their
memories and anecdotes of Floyd, who gave more selfless time and effort to
Indian causes than most parents give their children.
Just to share a couple of stories:
One is Floyd showing up unexpectedly in camps along the Longest Walk to
Washington in 1978, when it seemed Indians from all over the country
converged into a river of humanity to protest anti-Indian legislation. No
matter how out-of-the-way the place, suddenly there was Floyd with his
guitar to entertain the Indian troops. He would travel and sleep in the
back of pick-up trucks; he would eat what there was for the camp, no
There were many mishaps, victories and disappointments during that hot,
long summer, but Floyd never failed to arouse good sentiments and rally the
folks. His monologues between songs truly carried the Indian news and
old-time wisdom of elders from across the hemisphere.
Another is when he came to Akwesasne Territory in upstate New York in the
midst of a local civil war among Mohawks. That was back in 1979 and 1980,
the time of the traditional Mohawk encampment at Raquette Point on the St.
Regis Reservation. The whole traditional Iroquois community, including many
of the activists now turned tribal leaders who don't work together anymore,
came out to support the stand at Raquette Point, which saw over 20 Indian
families barricaded with weapons to defend their longhouse chiefs and clan
mothers from attack and arrest by New York State troopers.
That time, Floyd came through police barriers, via a clandestine river
route, to be with the traditional Indians and play and sing his songs for
the encamped families. Again, he came as one of the folks, no fanfare, no
glitz allowed. Trailed by television actor Max Gail, who was filming a
documentary on Indians, Floyd later generated support for the embattled
Indian camp wherever he went.
Things today are seemingly more complex. With the increase in economic and
political activity over the past 20 years, developmental inroads have
widened for Indian country. Most Indian young people of talent have
professional possibilities to pursue, and most everywhere there are people
willing to help. Not so in Floyd's time, when boarding school beatings for
speaking your own language were commonplace. Floyd, Dakota Sioux from
Sisseton-Wahpeton, is as grassroots as they come and simply gave from his
heart whenever his people needed him.
From his classic collaboration with Vine Deloria Jr. that brought out the
protest songs "Custer Died for Your Sins" and "BIA Blues," and the soulful
"35 More Miles," Floyd captured the Indian movement's pathos and ethos
during its formative years. He stayed with the effort to represent and
inform Indian people whether it helped his own professional career or not,
and he certainly passed up many opportunities in prominent places just to
be with the regular people. Floyd truly has been one of those activist
philosophers who toils for the people first and foremost, always providing
his best talents, his best qualities out of love and devotion to cause.
Floyd's long years of generous contribution are all the more valuable in
that he was giving his talent away when he could have been immersed in the
star-studded profitable life of national entertainment. What Floyd went on
to prove in the late 1980s and through the 1990s was that his was a
He carried a charisma and a voice that resounded in the national stage with
a presence at once so grave and yet so reassuring and appealing that he
transferred easily to the movie screen - where suddenly, larger than life,
there was Floyd as Ten Bears in "Dances With Wolves," a movie which,
despite easy criticisms, was a breakthrough classic in lifting sympathies
for Native people in a hostile era.
There would be more; much more. In the 1990s, Floyd exploded onto many
productions in a highly-deserved opportunity to take his place in the major
leagues of the entertainment field. His friends have grown used to seeing
him turn up in featured roles in "Northern Exposure," "L.A. Law" and many
other television programs, movies and talk shows.
He has toured the world with Sting to bring attention to the problems of
rainforest people. He has traveled the globe various times representing
Native people, often on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council.
He has gained the celebrity and recognition he richly deserves, not only as
a unique and talented artist, but more importantly as a respected
Said Floyd in 1984: "Some people call us radicals or leftists, but we are
not left or right. We just want the Indians to survive, to help the old
Indian way survive, because it is the true and tried way. America is only
200 winters old. That's very new. Our question is: will it be around in
another 200 winters? Will high-tech survive the earth or will the earth
survive high-tech?" (Indian Studies Journal, Cornell, 1984)
Again, a heartfelt appreciation to Floyd Red Crow Westerman. May you
continue to contribute your wonderful talents and resourceful attitude for
many years to come. Yours is a name the people will always remember fondly.