by Doug George-Kanentiio
Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World premiered on PBS two years ago, on January 19/2019. This remarkable, and long overdue, show featured Indigenous musicians who have had significant impact on contemporary and historical music. While most of the profiled artists are from the 20thcentury it does prove that aboriginal music is the true “North American” means of harmonic expression.
By watching the documentary we learn that the blues, jazz, rock, New Age and world music have had Native roots. Past composers and stars of Native ancestry range from Charley Patton, the godfather of the blues to the jazz artist Russel Moore and Kay Starr, one of the most prominent country singers of the 1940’s-50’s.
Others of influence are Link Wray, Peter Lafarge, Jesse Ed Davis, Floyd Westerman, Joseph Fire Crow, Willie Dunn, Buddy Red Bow and A. Paul Ortega, all now in the spirit world but not before they were able to share their talents as singers, composers and instrumentalists across the globe.
Among the contemporary artists are Robbie Robertson, Buffy St. Marie, Joanne Shenandoah (my wife), Joanelle Romero, Pat Vegas, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Annie Humphrey and hundreds of others. They are talented equal to anyone else but have been muzzled because of their heritage. Whatever cartel controls the music industry has decided that Native music is not marketable hence made invisible.
This was evident on January 20 when US President Joseph Biden took his oath of office in heavily secured US Capitol. President Biden has called “inclusiveness “as a cornerstone of his term and this is reflected in his selection of cabinet secretaries including US Rep. Debra Haaland, Laguna, of New Mexico to oversee the massive Department of the Interior (70,000 employees).
Given this there should have been at least one Native performer at the inauguration to mark the historic event. There should have been at least one Native spiritual leader to give voice to the indigenous nations and to the natural world.
Instead, the planning committee decided to go with mainstream performers one of who sang the Woody Guthrie ballad “This Land is Your Land”. This song makes Native people very upset since it gives the impression that the continent belongs to the Americans when, in fact, it was stolen by the settlers among whom was Mr. Guthrie’s father Charles Guthrie, a land speculator who was said to have cheated Native people of their property.
Guthrie himself was aware of, and sensitive to, the displacement of indigenous peoples and the subsequent suffering which was a result. Yet while he might have included a verse acknowledging his family’s part in these thefts but he did not and the ballad has become a way for the immigrants to lay claim to that which is not theirs. It is irritating no one on the inaugural planning committee realized how provocative this song is-as offensive to us as those old “negro” black faced minstrels.
This was a serious mistake by whomever decided to have Jennifer Lopez sing the song. It was a glaring reminder by indigenous people that we remain, with the exception of Ms. Haaland, obscure.
Perhaps this will change but the opportunity to profile one of our artists and to have our history and current status acknowledged before hundreds of millions of viewers and participants was forever lost.
This is not right but we can encourage President Biden to hold a special event at the White House featuring our performers and show that we are not a forgotten people and will no longer be subjected to these slights.