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Johnny Cash and Native American activism

Salon has an interesting historical piece about Johnny Cash and his battle with the music industry over a song called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” It seems radio DJ’s didn’t want to play (nor did Columbia records want to promote) a song that detailed the historical abuse of Native Americans like Hayes, who was used and abused by his government as one of the Iwo-Jima flag raisers. Anyone who’s seen Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers knows what happened to Hayes: the unwanted fame helped fuel a depression that led to alcoholism and his eventual death.

Although the song was originally written by Peter La Farge, a folkie who frequented the same Greenwich Village scene as Bob Dylan and others, Cash was the first to popularize it with the release of his 1964 album Bitter Tears, an album entirely dedicated to the plight of Native Americans. While Salon writer Antonio D’Ambrosio brings further deserved attention to a man who devoted much of his life–oftentimes at the expense of his career–to defending the rights of the marginalized, the real fascinating part of this article is its brief history of Native American activism. Although concurrent with the Civil Rights Movement, it was something entirely different…

Cash, like many in the 1960s, could see that everything that was certain, rigid and hard was breaking apart. Social movements were blossoming. But the thunderous American choir that was singing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall All Be Free” drowned out the cry of the loose-knit Native movement. As Martin Luther King and other leaders steered their people toward legislative victories that would further integrate them into a society they were locked out of, the rising tide of Native youth activists wanted something different.

“In my mind, Native people could not have a civil rights movement,” American Indian Movement activist and musician John Trudell says. “The civil rights issue was between the blacks and the whites and I never viewed it as a civil rights issue for us. They’ve been trying to trick us into accepting civil rights but America has a legal responsibility to fulfill those treaty law agreements. If you’re looking at civil rights, you’re basically saying ‘all right treat us like the way you treat the rest of your citizens’. I don’t look at that as a climb up.” Rather than pursue assimilation into the American system, Native American activists wanted to maintain their slipping grip on sovereignty and the little land they still possessed.

By the early ’60s, the burgeoning National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) was attempting to stake its own claim for their equal share of justice. With the expansion of fishing treaty violations and the breach of two major land treaties that led to the loss of thousands of acres of tribal land in upstate New York for the Tuscarora and Allegany Seneca (the story behind La Farge’s “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”), the NIYC, led by Native activists like Hank Adams, responded by adapting the sit-in protest. Rechristened as the “fish-in,” the NIYC disputed the denial of treaty rights by fishing in defiance of state law. Fish-ins were held in New York and the Pacific Northwest.

The fish-in tactic worked in helping build some public support, but it did little to stop the treaty violations. Instead, the U.S. government ramped up its efforts to crush any momentum the Native movement was building. Oftentimes their tactics were brutal and violent. “This was the time of Selma and there was a lot of unrest in the nation,” remembers Bill Frank Jr. of Washington state’s Nisqually tribe. “Congress had funded some big law enforcement programs and they got all kinds of training and riot gear-shields, helmets. And they got fancy new boats. These guys had a budget. This was a war.”