Red Roots

By Josh Garrett-DavisJune 20, 2016

Red Roots

Indigenous Pop by Jeff Berglund, Jan Johnson, and Kimberli Lee

“Go ahead, jump holy, all the way to the stomp grounds. We were there when jazz was invented,” Joy Harjo declares on the title track of her 2008 album Winding Through the Milky Way, before blowing a smooth three-note figure on her saxophone.

These lines distill some American Indian relationships to, and possible hopes for, pop music. Harjo, a Muscogee Creek poet and among the most widely recognized Native writers, has added music and spoken-word performance to her repertoire, releasing several albums that join her own voice and her saxophone’s.

What might we make of Harjo’s connecting the Native southeastern Stomp Dance tradition with another, better-known southeastern musical style? Is her “we” specifically Creek or a broader Native “we”? Is it an affirmation that Indians are present as new American forms emerge, an extension of the obvious if rarely noted fact that American history is distorted and impossible without American Indian history? Or is she claiming what others have called hidden “red roots” for a particular genre that emerged in Louisiana in the late 19th century?

The new book of essays Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip Hop raises intriguing questions about artists who, by playing pop music, disregard or defy the expectations of “tradition” or “authenticity” that uniquely constrain Native North Americans. Many of the essays deliver only brief and relatively superficial answers to these questions. Still, the book assembles a canon — with the imprimatur of a university press and a flourish of academic jargon — of American Indian pop artists across the 20th and into the 21st century. Like all canons, it is incomplete and shifting, subject to debate. But it is a start.

Here are some of the canonized:

  • Joe Shunatona (Otoe/Pawnee), bandleader of the United States Indian Reservation Orchestra in the 1920s, who deftly played the popular demand for showbiz Indianness (buckskin and braids) against federal assimilation policies;

  • Mildred Bailey, from the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho, who learned to sing in both Native and non-Native traditions (as well as indigenized Catholic hymns) before becoming a leading jazz singer in the 1930s and ’40s;

  • Link Wray, of Shawnee descent, garage-rock hero credited with inventing rock distortion and the power chord in the 1950s, who much later engaged his Native heritage;

  • Robbie Robertson, Canadian of Jewish and Mohawk descent, founding member of The Band, who like Wray has come to explore his Native heritage later in his career;

  • Peter La Farge, of Narragansett descent, a Greenwich Village songwriter who composed striking ballads about present-day as well as historic wrongs against Indian nations;

  • Buffy Sainte-Marie, adopted away from the Cree tribe on the Piapot reserve in Saskatchewan, who became an Indigenous voice in the American folk scene of the 1960s and ’70s;

  • Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Santee Dakota), who experienced the Indian boarding school system and later became the folk-country bass voice of the Red Power movement;

  • Redbone, a Los Angeles band made up of descendants of Yaqui, Shoshone, and Makah tribes that broke into the mainstream in the early 1970s with Red Power–themed classic rock;

  • XIT, or Crossing of Indian Tribes, another Red Power–associated band, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and widely popular across Indian Country, with members of Dakota, Pueblo, Navajo, Creek, and Cherokee heritage;

  • John Trudell (Santee Dakota), spokesman for the 1969–1971 Red Power occupation of Alcatraz Island, who turned to poetry and then musical spoken word in later years (he died in December, after the book went to press);

  • Jesse Ed Davis, an Oklahoman of Kiowa, Comanche, Seminole, and Creek descent, a sought-after session guitarist in the 1960s before releasing three solo albums in the early 1970s and some collaborations with Trudell in the 1980s; and

  • Jim Pepper (Kaw/Creek), jazz fusion saxophonist who adapted powwow and Native American Church (a.k.a. peyote religion) music into rock and jazz forms in the 1970s.

Indigenous Pop also explores and celebrates the work of newer artists like Harjo, Digging Roots, Joanne Shenandoah, Lila Downs, Blackfire, Eekwol, and Casper Loma-da-wa Lomayesva.

Most are unheralded or forgotten artists, dusted off and dropped into rotation. A few — Mildred Bailey, Link Wray, Robbie Robertson — fall under the label: “Did you know s/he is/was Indigenous?” The book includes passing references to others in this category (Rita Coolidge, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix). Only Buffy Sainte-Marie is both widely known and widely known to be Indian.

But to return to the questions Joy Harjo’s work raises, what is the meaning of this collective effort? The introduction says the book “is meant to speak to the continuance of the ways that music and song-making work for Indigenous peoples in the Americas.” One could add that Native people’s engagement with pop forms can illuminate many of the driving questions of how being Native writ large has changed over the past century or so. How have ordinary Indian people navigated making culture in the modern era, amid a flood of images that frame Native American culture as quintessentially anti-modern?

An interesting answer comes in David S. Walsh’s discussion of Casper Loma-da-wa Lomayesva’s use of reggae imagery such as Babylon, Zion, or I-and-I in a Hopi context. Since the early 1980s, a vibrant conscious-reggae scene has flourished among the Hopi (often regarded as one of the most conservative or “traditional” tribes in the United States). While Lomayesva adopts characteristic Jamaican rhythms and phrasing, he is neither a Rastafarian nor a wannabe. Rather, he uses “Zion” to describe the Hopi homeland and its religious traditions, and “Babylon” to refer to the intruding US-colonial-capitalist state. “[T]radition is not what existed from the past to today,” Walsh writes (following the anthropologist James Clifford), “but rather what is articulated today about the past.”

This way of thinking about Indigenous pop is helpful. When I watch Redbone start a live performance of their hit “Come and Get Your Love” in 1974 with a short fancy dance by guitarist Tony Bellamy (Yaqui), or consider the Navajo punk band Blackfire’s 2007 album [Silence] Is A Weapon, which pairs a disc of traditional Diné and intertribal music with one of protest songs set to anthemic hard rock, I find the lens of “articulation theory” clarifying. In the same way that “Rasta-reggae serves as the medium for connecting the singer [Lomayesva] to Hopi religious tradition and to the place of Hopiland,” flashy 1970s guitar rock laid down a groove in which Redbone could articulate their own Native identities and histories, and the global tradition of protest rock offers Blackfire a language to articulate specific Navajo struggles against, for instance, the desecration of sacred sites. We can acknowledge the constraints under which, say, Plains Indian icons like fringed buckskin, headdresses, tepees, and fancy dancing became ubiquitous among Native public figures throughout much of the 20th century, but we needn’t fall into the trap of calling out these elements as somehow “inauthentic.” Different times and places have produced different Indigenous pop. Native performers wearing buckskin is less common today than it was in Joe Shunatona’s time, though it is notable that the cover image of [Silence] Is A Weapon uses an Edward S. Curtis photo of “Cheyenne Warriors,” prominently featuring a Plains eagle-feather headdress rather than a specifically Navajo image. These constraints and historical changes have not ended continuous Indigenous cultures. The Indigenous future remains undetermined, and potentially hopeful.

As for the alluring “red roots” hypotheses, they are impossible to prove or disprove. A lot of traditional Native music does in fact swing, in a way, and the Spokan musicologist Chad Hamill makes a convincing case that Mildred Bailey’s singing style, her control of tone “in between the notes,” was shaped by singing Coeur d’Alene and other Plateau music as a child. Bailey herself explained that Indian singing “offers a young singer a remarkable background and training.” (A related, and fascinating, aspect of her story is how it sheds light on the tangled regional and ethnic mix of the American jazz scene in the 1930s, in which Bailey’s brother first formed a band in Spokane, Washington, with Bing Crosby. Mildred Bailey helped kindle the young Crosby’s career when he arrived in Los Angeles.) But as for full genres of music, how could you possibly trace the flows of influence back and forth in the Deep South, or the Los Angeles speakeasy scene, from various African traditions, from France, England, and hundreds of Indian nations? Were Link Wray’s innovations in distortion and power chords somehow essentially derived from the Shawnee parts of his ancestry? Do we really want to cheek swab a Louis Armstrong or a Jimi Hendrix record and mail it to a laboratory for DNA sequencing?

We are best left with the open ambiguity of Harjo’s assertion “we were there when jazz was invented.”

Ultimately, for all Indigenous Pop’s value as a conversation starter, it makes me question the value of academic discourse on pop culture. The 13 essays offer very few descriptions of the songs under question, and they tend to push the reader away from, rather than toward, the music. At their best, historical, literary, or musicological analyses can offer surprising insights — and there are a few such examples here — but for all the delight and sustenance the musicians took from their creations, their lives and work too often feel flattened in service to a political or cultural theory.

On balance, the subject of Indigenous pop was probably better served by the 2014 compilation Native North America, Vol. 1. This two-CD set, primarily of Canadian First Nations and Arctic rock, country, and folk artists, was compiled by the enthusiast Kevin “Sipreano” Howes over the course of decades — and nominated for a Grammy last year. (Hopefully the promised Lower 48–oriented sequel will appear before long, highlighting some of the artists in Indigenous Pop and others whose recordings are far less accessible.) Native North America’s 100 pages of liner notes hew to biographical detail rather than theories of decolonization, but regardless they are just a supplement to the recorded Native voices in Inuktitut, Cree, Innu-aimun, and English. The artists’ ringing, sometimes lo-fi, genius speaks for itself.


Josh Garrett-Davis is the Gamble assistant curator at the Autry Museum of the American West and the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.

LARB Contributor

Josh Garrett-Davis is the Gamble assistant curator at the Autry Museum of the American West and the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.