Arts & Entertainment | Opinion

Steve Russell: Songs about our Indian wars manage to stay timely






Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo from Facebook

In Part 3 of a series, Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, admires works from artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Mitch Walking Elk and wonders what the next generation will say about the newer Indian wars:
The Cree poet Buffy St. Marie has had more popular success. It could be songs like “Up Where We Belong” or early boosts by friends like the ID sufferer Johnny Cash, but his show also benefitted when St. Marie gave Cash an excuse to duet on one of his songs from Bitter Tears. I suspect Cash lost some more establishment credibility for ridiculing a dead man, but Custer’s been dead a long time and he did provide a clinic in all the ways an officer could mismanage a battle and get his men killed.

Buffy St. Marie, like Mitch Walking Elk, is about today but steeped in yesterday as prelude. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is “about” Wounded Knee II but you hear the echoes of Wounded Knee I.

That’s why topical songs about and by Indians, unlike many songs of labor and civil rights and opposition to particular wars, have no expiration date. They are often complicated because the roots go so far into the past, and the complication causes as much trouble for popular acceptance as the content.

Indians may have missed the civil rights bus because of lack of unity or because of differing goals, but there’s another bus coming as the public begins to see the outrageous harms the settlers are inflicting on North America in pursuit of short term profit.

I know of no tribal traditions that could support what we see going on, so perhaps Indians can understand themselves as one people united to preserve what is left of their habitat. Should that happen, much of what Indian songsmiths have produced would remain fresh.

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: Topical Songs 3: The Indian Wars (Indian Country Today 7/10)

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