“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”

“Rumble” is a 2017 Canadian documentary film that I’d missed until it hit public television. I watched it twice, taking notes the second time, wanting to get in my mind the names of Rock n’ Roll, jazz, and blues musicians I’d listened to—and many I had not heard or heard of before.

I’d have to slow it down and stop action to get all the names and dates, but I know enough now to know that once again the roles of American Indians in the American story have been hidden or muted, and that there is again the story of resilience. Joy Harjo, our current national poet laureate and a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, says, as the credits roll, that “We’re still here; we’re still alive; we’re still singing.

As I watched and took notes I thought that the story of appearance and disappearances of American Indians—Native Americans—is our origin story, and if you count sins, “disappearing Indians” is the nation’s first and original sin. Before the importation of Africans and the development of chattel slavery, before that sin, Columbus had sent Indian slaves back to Spain, and European fishermen off the New England coast had captured Squanto and sent him to sell in Europe. And the long story of displacement of the misnamed indigenous peoples of a misnamed continent—by war, disease, treaty, proclamation and neglect—had begun. The real stories are coming out now, in the work of scholars and poets, mystery writers—and musicians.

“Rumble,” the documentary, gets its title from an instrumental song by a guitarist born to a Shawnee mother in 1929.  Link Wray wrote “Rumble,” the song, in 1958, announcing the “power chord” that influenced guitarists from Iggy Pop to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan (you’ll know it when you hear it). All instrumental, it was still banned in New York and Boston for fear that it would incite teenage gang violence. Wray grew up in North Carolina fearing the Klan, and left the US for Denmark in the 1980s, dying in Copenhagen in 2005. Dylan and Springsteen played Rumble in his honor on his death.

“Rumble,” the movie, says that there was a time, in 1907, after the huge assimilation efforts of boarding schools and outright banning of Indian dance and music, when fieldworkers were sent out to record Indian musicians. Assimilation was never total, but by 1907 Indians were no longer a threat to the dominant culture—and had become a curiosity to many. In Indians in Unexpected Places, Native historian Phillip Deloria says that in the early 1900s Indians were in the silent movies, on college football teams, and Native music was explored by classical composers. They called it “primitivism.”

Mildred Bailey was born in 1907, near Spokane, of a Coeur d’Alene mother. She learned Indian music first, but her mother died and she began making her way in the white music world. Bailey was the voice of jazz before Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and helped get Spokane’s Bing Crosby to California (as he later supported her through poor health and decline). Her Indianness was not advertised in her singing career, and a postal stamp issued with her likeness was released in Mississippi, along with a blues and jazz festival, and not in or near Spokane.

Rumble the documentary tells us that many mixed-race Louisiana Indians passed as Black because they did not want to get sent to reservations, and that the rhythms of New Orleans jazz owe to Indian music. There is something real behind the Mardi Gras Indian tribes that’s been muted too.

The suppression of Indian stories told in music and of Indian musicians “passing white” and coming out as Indian are many. Wray left the country. Buffy Saint-Marie, the Canadian Cree-born singer, learned 20 years after the fact that the Nixon White House had worked hard to blackball her music in the US. Johnny Cash—who claimed to be one-eighth Cherokee—recorded the “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and his producers tried to keep it off a new album. Hayes was a Pima Indian Marine, and one of six Marines who raised the Ameri flag at Mount Suribachi during the WW II battle on the island of Iwo Jima. The ballad tells the story of the Pima, and of Ira’s terrible homecoming and descent into alcoholism and death by drowning in a ditch. The Cash version of the song was immediately popular, and it was on the record.

There is an arc to the vanishing and emerging of Indians in America. Early settlers pushed them off land and pushed them west, then isolated them on reservations, warred against them, tried mightily to assimilate or “civilize” them with allotments that divided tribal lands, boarding schools that took children from families and took their hair and languages and customs—and parenting—from them.

In a last gasp in the 1950s, President Eisenhower and dominant America tried one last time to vanish Indians with the “Termination” and “Relocation” acts and programs. Reservations would go away and Indian would melt white—or Mexican or Black.

But there were always holdouts, always traditionalists, always singers and dancers who hid their drums and regalia when they had to, who came alive with the Black and Brown power movements of the 1960s, and watched white hippies wear their beads and feathers.

As with so many instances with history and culture, Indians played their roles in the growth of the country. They gave us corn and beans, chocolate and squash, toboggans, snow shoes, and lacrosse. They resisted allotment, continued the Sun Dance, and eventually grew their own lawyers and fought for salmon and the buffalo.

Maybe Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” sang its way into a wider world; Alvin Josephy used it for the title of a book exploring Indian resilience in language, religion, and place. The buffalo are not gone, and the salmon are hanging in, if by thin threads of undammed waters. But the dams too are being questioned, and the forest fires have turned scientists to Indian use of fire.

As the poet Joy Harjo says in the film, “We’re still here; we’re still alive; we’re still singing.”

Thanks for the songs.

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