Academic Rumblings For Native American History

“Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” — from the documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page really got rocked the first time he heard Link Wray’s Rumble. A lot of people did, musicians and others. In fact, you could say it was what the monolith was to those primates in the “Dawn of Man” segment of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Thing is, Link was a Shawnee Native American, and — as an independent educator wanting to help teachers to do justice to covering the injustices directed at indigenous people throughout our sordid history with them — I believe Wray’s 1958 hit can serve as a point of departure for some highly instructive class sessions in various disciplines.

Below is a brief outline of one possible approach for introducing today’s youngsters to Native Americans so that one penetrates the walls which have gone up.

For starters, it’s worthwhile to point out that both New York and Boston banned Rumble for fear that it would incite teenage gang violence. That’s, arguably, fertile fodder for the tuned out; it should get the ball rolling with most, I think. It’s certainly worked for me in the past, describing it as “the theme for juvenile delinquency.” Famous fans Steven Van Zandt and heavy-metal drummer Randy Castillo can be cited as two who have noted that Wray wrenched the wildest out of them as youngsters.

Session Two: Note that Rumble covers many musical genres, and play and discuss Charley Patton‘s Delta blues, Mildred Bailey‘s jazz music and Buffy St. Marie‘s  folk songs. Those three Native Americans provide plenty of material to run with… with the most reluctant students.

Session Three: Native American music has deep roots in plantation life and at Mardi Gras. You may make productive hay out of the ways in which this can be traced.

Session Four: How the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash incorporated (appropriated?) elements of the work of Native American musicians in their songs can be explored; their tributes were made with deep respect, and any teacher worth her/his salt should be able to provide a memorable lesson with  the multiple examples one has to choose from in this regard.

Session Five: There are fantastic music clips to draw upon from a viewing of the documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, one notably featuring the band Redbone performing a tribal dance before playing their hit single, “Come and Get Your Love,” on Bert Sugarman’s Midnight Special TV program. The film convincingly argues that these Native American musicians rarely got their due and were left out of the story of American music because of racism.

Session Six: Robbie Robertson, who is part Mohawk, made tremendous strides performing with Bob Dylan and the Band, but other musicians like Jesse Ed Davis deserved better treatment. Davis’ famously played guitar on Jackson Browne’s hit “Doctor My Eyes,” and got great respect from his peers, but not from producers or those who called career shots. The contrast between these two — considering the plentiful and magical material they provide — could serve as the basis for a highly engaging session.

Session Seven: The addiction issues related to Native American musicians is fertile ground for a lesson in and of itself, considering the opioid epidemic now raging, and the number of suicides that have been recorded among the Native American demographic et alia.

Session Eight: Other lesser known performers, such as John Trudeau and Pat Vegas deserve separate treatment for a number of reasons. Stevie Salas, who produced the Rumble film, could be included here easily.

And it would be quite easy to interweave the likes of Crazy Horse and Leonard Peltier into the whole effort. Everything from the Iroquois Confederacy to… well, everything of value could be included.

Thanks for your kind consideration.

Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].


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