Robbie Robertson’s Native Side

Last night, I was watching ABC Evening News like my wife and I normally do every night when we are home. We are, I suppose, a little old school in that way, watching the nightly news on the ol’ TV.

ABC News had a remembrance of Robbie Robertson. Rightfully so, he was a major figure in the history of contemporary music, a member of the legendary The Band, part of Dylan’s original electric backup band, had a great solo career, and scored a ton of Martin Scorcese movies. But oddly absent was a large slice of his career: his Native-influenced music.

Sadly enough, this was absent from some of the other tributes. Not here at First Draft, as Adrastos gave the man his due and included that Native part of who he was musically. Even referenced it in the headline.

This overlook, without a doubt, would have greatly angered Robertson. He was born to a Jewish father and a Mohawk/Cayuga mother and was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario. He weaved this mix of ancestry into quite a musical legacy.

Robertson’s Native influences really came into focus with 1994’s “Music for the Native Americans,” an album he did with The Red Road Ensemble. The album is sort of a personal journey for Roberson, much different than his prior work.

He continued this path with “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.” An interesting album, he expanded Native music to envelope electronic music and mostly pulled it off.

Robertson’s Native music was even part of the opening ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

His Native music career was not just limited to playing and writing music. He also was part of the documentary “Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked the World.” The executive producer of the documentary, Stevie Salas, had said he contacted Robertson about playing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2023 induction ceremony because another legendary Native rocker, guitarist Link Wray, was being inducted this year. Wray is best known for one of the best tunes of the 1950s, a simple number that packs a hell of a lot of attitude that rock guitarists have worshiped over the decades since it was released.

Would have been quite a show with Robertson there.

None of this, of course, diminishes his output during the 1960s and 1970s. In a way, he epitomizes the classic line from the Native American movie “Smoke Signals” – “In the 60s, Arnold Joseph was the perfect hippie, because all of the hippies wanted to be Indians anyway” (Still gets a laugh from me, for this just replace Robertson’s name with Arnold Joseph).

Robertson’s connection to his Native side did not stop at music. He was a tireless advocate for Native issues, including poverty, the environmental racism that happens near and on reservations, and healthcare disparities. In fact, he asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support the new Woodland Cultural Centre as a memorial.

Perhaps some of the ignorance of Robertson’s extensive Native roots was because he himself let his ancestry be known in how it spoke to his creativity in music. He said multiple times that his mother told him “be proud of who you are but be careful of who you tell,” something that I relate to as my own father had told me that. Anti-indigenous racism lumbers on like an ugly wart-ridden monster, showing up in statistics such as how Natives are as likely to be killed by police as Blacks. You have to be careful about who you trust when it comes to Native issues. Some of it is not the non-Native’s fault; the Indian in America is still considered a conquered people, and that colonialism is buried deep in our culture. Because of this, the non-Natives believe they can tell the Natives what their culture is (something I have experienced myself multiple times) and I see the facial transition when a white person gets angry at being told, politely, that their Hollywood-ized idea of American Indian culture is not really true. It is like a shadow that crosses the face, and it is distinctive, a unique darkness that is born of centuries of cruelty and hatred.

As for the lack of mention of Robertson’s Native roots in some obits, whoever heard of an Indian playing rock music?

But it really was a big part of who he was, and his artistic contribution. I am, as someone of Native descent thankful for people like Adrastos and Chris Morris at Variety for covering it.

The last word, of course, goes to Mr. Robertson.


One thought on “Robbie Robertson’s Native Side

  1. Thanks. Plus, you posted a song I nearly used in my tribute. Aces all around.

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