Topical Songs 3: The Indian Wars

Steve Russell

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

It’s a stiff competition for “anthem of the Civil Rights Movement” because there were so many great songs. Traditional songs repurposed like “We Shall Not be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome” and songs composed from current news like “Blowing in the Wind,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” or “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”

Many different tribes have their own war songs and their own honoring songs that can be repurposed like spirituals and union songs were repurposed, but the traditional songs are in tribal languages.

I am reminded of a meeting about graverobbing—which only Indians understand as a civil rights issue because only Indian graves have been unprotected by law or custom. A Lakota elder offered a prayer and then another in English. Before he sat down, he explained with a grin, “We pray in English so we understand each other but we pray in Indian so God understands us.”

The Civil Rights Movement was all about organizing coalitions, but particularly so for Indians because even if we all stood together our numbers would demand coalition politics. And we’ve never stood together. We admire those who tried—Tecumseh, Obwandiyag (Pontiac)—but we do not emulate them.

Tecumseh is reputed to have coined the aphorism, “A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.” Tecumseh’s truth has not in his time or ours surmounted the language barriers and the tribal rivalries, but even those differences do not account for how the wave of civil rights progress left us behind.

Our agenda has always been fundamentally different. Mainstream civil rights were about social integration and equal protection of U.S. law. Our goals are segregation when we choose and respect for our own laws on what’s left of our land. Integration sounds a lot like assimilation.

The fact remained that Indians had gotten as raw a deal as the peoples who carried home the victories. The raw deal did not escape the notice of some allies. We got Dick Gregory and Marlon Brando joining the fish-ins for treaty rights and, like the mainstream civil rights movement, we got music.

Music about our struggles was not likely to be heard on the radio but because we lacked the visible wins of African-Americans and Latinos, what music we had did not come with an expiration date. Topical songs about Indians might fade away because fashions changed, but not because the Indian wars are over. The shooting stopped as U.S. policy in 1890, but we continue to bleed sovereignty.

Topical songs are driven by lyrics, not tunes. Often the tunes are just repurposed from other songs. That forces topical lyrics into English, French, or Spanish if they are to have any currency in North America.

The earliest topical songs taking the Indian side of the Indian wars were written by non-Indians suffering from ID. That diagnosis—“Indigenous Delusions” is a modern epidemic. In a severe case of ID, we sometimes see popular songs that aim at representing the Indian side and wind up representing cultural cluelessness. Indians differ in how much slack to offer musicians suffering from ID, usually based on a reading of what is in their heart.

Peter La Farge had a lifelong case of ID, perhaps contracted from the work of his anthropologist father, but based on what his work reveals of his heart, many tribes would claim him if they could. His best known composition was recorded by another good-hearted ID sufferer, Johnny Cash, and the travail of the La Farge song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” recorded by the country music giant at the peak of his career, illustrates how hard it is to get our stories told.

“Ira Hayes” was the single from an album that precipitated Johnny Cash’s estrangement from his record label and from the Nashville establishment. It consisted of five La Farge songs, two Cash songs, and one by Cash and Johnny Horton—all about the Indian wars.

Before he cut the album, Cash visited Ira Hayes’ mother on the Akimel O’odham Reservation in Arizona described in the song. He came away with an Apache tear stone he wore around his neck when he recorded the Indian album, Bitter Tears. Cash told a biographer:

I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage.

His outrage boiled when his label would not support the album. Billboard could not be bothered to review a new album by the man who just had a number one single, “Understand Your Man,” and the number one country album, I Walk the Line.

An angry Johnny Cash paid for a full page ad in Billboard, asking station managers and DJs, “Where are your guts?…These lyrics take us back to the truth…” Getting no support in the conventional ways, Cash took to personally calling DJs he knew and pumping the album in every venue that would allow him. These unorthodox methods eventually got “Ira Hayes” to No. 3 on the country singles charts and Bitter Tears made it to No. 2 on the album charts.

I don’t question that white people suffering from ID could easily slip into ROFLMAO, like Cher in a Pocahottie outfit emoting from the back of a very tolerant pony. Still, even a song as goofy as “Indian Reservation” sometimes manages a little redeeming value, as in this video (not the work of Paul Revere and the Raiders) where I count less than half a dozen culturally clueless slides. 

Eventually, the limited space allowed for Indian themes accommodated some real Indians, although those Indians never got the recognition appropriate to their talent.

Mitch Walking Elk writes his own songs, but I saw him in concert once covering Roy Orbison, a vocal feat few entertainers could manage. He was jaw dropping and spot on. Walking Elk’s signature song and the title of his first album in 1988 was “Indians.” The song covers circa 400 years of the Indian wars. It’s lyric-driven and it is, like the history it portrays, complicated.

Good movement songs are simple, playable by mediocre guitar players, and lend themselves to adding verses. I listen to “Indians” and think two out of three ain’t bad, but don’t hold your breath for a Wayne Newton cover.

Walking Elk has done his best to encourage an alliance that must be made in his remembrance of MLK, “Footsteps of One Black African.”

However, sensible politics and exceptional talent do not equal popular success. Walking Elk gets more appreciation among the Europeans obsessed with American Indians than he gets at home. He keeps his day job and peddles his own music online.

The Cree poet Buffy St. Marie has had more popular success. It could be songs like “Up Where We Belong” or early boosts by friends like the ID sufferer Johnny Cash, but his show also benefitted when St. Marie gave Cash an excuse to duet on one of his songs from Bitter TearsI suspect Cash lost some more establishment credibility for ridiculing a dead man, but Custer’s been dead a long time and he did provide a clinic in all the ways an officer could mismanage a battle and get his men killed.

Buffy St. Marie, like Mitch Walking Elk, is about today but steeped in yesterday as prelude. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is “about” Wounded Knee II but you hear the echoes of Wounded Knee I.

That’s why topical songs about and by Indians, unlike many songs of labor and civil rights and opposition to particular wars, have no expiration date. They are often complicated because the roots go so far into the past, and the complication causes as much trouble for popular acceptance as the content.

Indians may have missed the civil rights bus because of lack of unity or because of differing goals, but there’s another bus coming as the public begins to see the outrageous harms the settlers are inflicting on North America in pursuit of short term profit.

I know of no tribal traditions that could support what we see going on, so perhaps Indians can understand themselves as one people united to preserve what is left of their habitat. Should that happen, much of what Indian songsmiths have produced would remain fresh.

Add a few verses about the latest outrage, and we are good to go. Ending the Indian wars will require allies, and there is no ally more powerful than Mother Earth.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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