August 9

The Different Faces of Indian Themed-Country Songs

The irony! Most early movies depict white Americans and American Indians as foes. Like, really, we see cowboys with pistols against hollering Indian warriors. Shheesh! As if the long years of exploitation and displacements of our Indians brothers are not enough that we compound their suffering through such mangled portrayals.

Country songs, fortunately, did the opposite.  Pheew! Where cowboys and Indians were enemies in movies, songs, on the other hand picture them as blood brothers. (I know. You’re starting to think now of that 1995 movie, “The Indian in my Cupboard.”)

But not to go off topic, it’s a huge relief to discover that our very own country singers championed the plight of Native Indians. Most renowned is Johnny Cash whose album “Bitter Tears- the Ballads of the American Indian” was highly approved by many Indian communities. (Inserts are a clip of the song “As Long as the Grass Grows” and below it is the full version of the album.)

Also, check this tribute performance of Floyd Westerman (a Sioux musician and activists in Dakota), to Johnny Cash’s “Drums”, another song from the Bitter Tears album.

On a negative note, not all song writers and artists have the sensibility of Cash. Their Indian themed-songs were mere characterizations of white people’s imagination. Examples are; Cindy Walker’s “Cherokee Maiden” which landed no.1 through Merle Haggards, to Hank Williams Jr and Sr.’s “Kawliga,” “Cherokee Fiddle”, by Johnny Lee & Michael Martin Murphy, “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy, “You’re Squaw is on the warpath” by Loretta Lynn, “Squaws along the Yukon” by Hank Thompson,” and who could forget Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw”? Benefit of the doubt; let’s just assume their works were mere attempts for inclusiveness. Doubtless, non-Indian listeners won’t make a fuss out of it. These songs, after all, were simply narrations of human’s desires and inclinations. But what do they make from a Native Indian’s outlook? Take Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” for one. Some Indian community elders and leaders perceived it as offensive, stereotypical, and that it promotes bigotry. While their younger counterparts maybe more open-minded and forgiving, truth is, these aforementioned songs reveal less to nothing of actual Indianness. For the culturally-sensitive natives, their trivial depictions on celebrity’s songs were nothing short of exploitation, sort of money-making at their expense.


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