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  • Heartspeak from the SpiritSongs of John Trudell, Keith Secola, and Robbie Robertson
  • Kimberli Lee (bio)

These survival songs
put us back together

Qwo-Li Driskill

For centuries Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere have raised powerful voices of resistance to the unjust treatment and outright genocide they have received at the hands of colonizers. This resistance has been, and continues to be, manifested through a variety of rhetorical venues: speeches, stories, poems, songs, and at times, when other avenues were exhausted, outright confrontation. But it is song that I am interested in exploring here, specifically the genre of contemporary Native music of the last fifty years. Since the early 1960s, Native American music has been bringing a unique fusion of the written word and oral traditions while also syncretically blending traditional instrumentation with modern electronic technologies. While the forms and styles of contemporary Native American music are always changing, the medium of song still serves, as it has for millennia, to transmit and process information important to Native communities: histories, philosophies, political concerns, social values, and stories. Likewise, they may be sung as expressions of joy, sadness, victory, defeat, love, or anger—any emotional or spiritual feeling can be addressed in song. As Simon Ortiz (Acoma) points out, "the substance [of a song] is emotional, but beyond that, spiritual, and it's real and you are present in, and part of it. . . . A song is [End Page 89] made substantial by its context—that is its reality, both that which is there and what is brought about by the song" (240). Let's think about that for a moment—the context and how that becomes a song's reality. Honor songs, prayer songs, love songs, and encouragement songs are all sung with powerful words meant to do something significant for the People. Not only are songs "texts," but they are also active sites that can and do bring about change. I view them as valid Native texts for serious study in a variety of academic venues, from the classroom to national conferences. While some may think of these songs only as entertainment or amusement, their purposes are more complex if one really takes the time to listen. In fact, these songs contain viable educational elements—sometimes subtle, sometimes direct.

Excellent Native musicians are active in all genres of the industry: jazz, blues, heavy metal, hip-hop, rock, country, punk, powwow, pop, folk; the list is endless. There are many innovative, creative Native songwriters contributing to the contemporary Native music scene these days. Award-winning artists such as Buffy St. Marie, Joy Harjo, Jim Boyd, Joanne Shenandoah, Rita Coolidge, John Trudell, Keith Secola, and Robbie Robertson are dedicated musicians whose work is a testament to the variety of excellent music available today. In this essay, however, I'd like to focus on the work of Trudell, Secola, and Robertson. All three are songwriters who incorporate viable messages of resistance into their songs designed to make us think and give us strength, demonstrating how Native oral traditions are evolving and continuing to function for Native people. Additionally, these songs can be excellent sources for engagement in Native American studies classes.

John Trudell

Dakota activist, artist, actor, poet, prophet, and free thinker, John Trudell has led an extraordinary life dedicated to Indigenous human rights, land, and language issues, carrying on evolving Native American oral traditions and keeping them alive so that we may all learn from them. Born in 1946, Trudell spent his early years living on the Santee Reservation in northern Nebraska. After serving in the [End Page 90] U.S. Navy from 1963 until 1967, he briefly attended college, thinking that he would go into radio and broadcasting. In 1969 Trudell became deeply involved with Indians of All Tribes and the takeover at Alcatraz, putting his broadcasting skills to use by hitting the airwaves on "Radio Free Alcatraz." This period is when he first attracted national attention—from both the public and the U.S. government; the FBI began a file on Trudell that now exceeds 17,000 pages. In 1973 he became the national spokesperson for the American Indian Movement, a position that he held until 1979, when Trudell suffered...


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