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Voice of the Native

Note to readers – Writing isn’t cheap. As much as I enjoy it, I need your support for the means to continue blogging and for the means to publishing my book on autism, which is close to completion. You can help out by doing your shopping through the advertisement on the side of my blog. Several books come recommended for you, including the biography of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album, A Heartbeat and a Guitar, which was dedicated to America’s Native American population.

I just recently moved back to my native Seattle. Returning here always has strange effects and they almost always have to do with music. Whereas California is fixated on film and media as its mode of cultural expression, Seattle speaks in musical notes. Nirvana was from here, as was Jimi Hendrix, Courtney Love, Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, Blue Scholars, the list goes on…

It’s not Northwest music that I’m finding myself listening to, however. Instead, Seattle provides a keen reminder of the significance of America’s native population. Seattle itself is a butchering of the name of Chief Sealth by stupid white settlers who couldn’t even manage to get that right. Even if it is physically distant from the nation’s capital or the writing of the Constitution, American history is in your face with the names of as constant reminders – Snohomish, Yakima, Muckleshoot, Puyallup. Washington state is host to reservations just like much of the rest of the United States, a sad legacy that is mapped out on the Governors Office website.

That sad history is reflected in music by numerous artists, Elton John and Johnny Cash standing out prominently. John wrote the song “Indian Sunset,” which tells the story of a young Iroquois man whose heart is broken by the slow motion destruction of his people.

Johnny Cash made an entire album dedicated to America’s Native population called Bitter Tears. A book has recently been released on the making of the album, called A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by writer Antonio D’Ambrosio. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the story of a native of the Pima Indian tribe and World War II veteran, who descended into alcoholism after participating in the famed photograph by Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima in Japan.

That song is incredible, but the whole album is also inspiring. “Apache Tears” is one of many songs that should be permanently in one’s music library.  . . .

I once had an encounter in California in which someone, who for whatever reason had logged in his mind that I must be a racist due to factors of his own decision, tried to latch me on a racist by bringing up the sad history of Native Americans:

Him: “When I was in Seattle, I noticed no real hostility toward black people but people were sensitive about Indians.”

Me: “Indians? Well alot of Indians tend to live in Bellevue, I guess…”

Him: “So then Indians are the nigg*rs of Seattle and live in Bellevue because you won’t let them in Seattle?”

Me: “Bellevue is actually a really well to do, affluent place. It’s near where Microsoft and Bill Gates are located. Are you talking about Native Americans?”

Him: “Yes, I guess I should have said Native Americans.”

That discussion, if one is liberal enough to call it that, was sad as it reflected how racially sick alot of people in this country are but made me feel proud that I was not even able to be baited on the subject because no such prejudice was there. In Seattle, much had often been said in disrespect about Yakima, where 33.7% of the population is Hispanic and 2% Native American, but on my few visits there I was left with the same strong impression that I had toward the Hispanic district of San Francisco. Any objective observer of America’s Hispanic populations has to be left with an impression of a group that has taken society’s lemon seeds and made it into lemon meringue pie, only to sell it back to the seed sellers. This lifelong impression, along with much of the research I did on Latin American politics while working in Washington D.C., is a significant reason why I started Voice of the Migrant, with the help of Nate Parham and Punk Johnny Cash.

Native Americans are largely undiscussed in the American media, as if their existence were a historical aberration. Foreign media, like Russia Today, do bring up their role in the American story in an effort to show the country’s imperfections, while the like of Rush Limbaugh use their economic marginalization as red meat to his prejudiced listeners.

Americans can never have a real, holistic awareness of who they are as a people unless they consider the experience of Native Americans. Whether it’s through a book like A Heartbeat and a Guitar, a graphic novel like Apache Skies, Dan Carlin’s superb “Apache Tears” podcast or this video on the experience of Alaska’s native population and Russian explorers, an easy and healthy resolution this year would be to become familiar with the people who were here first.

Cross-posted at Dagblog and Voice of the Migrant.

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Michael Orion Powell

Michael Orion Powell