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A brief evolution of Indigenous protest music

Lindsay Monture

Reclaimed is a new weekly summer series hosted by Jarrett Martineau that will introduce you to a new generation of Indigenous artists reclaiming their culture through music and song. Listen to it Tuesdays at 1 p.m. ET on Radio One and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on Radio 2 starting July 4 and 5.

The first protest songs that come to mind are likely ones from the anti-war, anti-establishment music that boomed in the 1960s, like Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." The music reflected a surge in awareness of the state of the world, and provided much-needed fuel for movements that would change history.

For Indigenous people across the globe, the mere fact that they exist today is an act of resistance; every generation since the time of contact has gone through various attempts of assimilation or genocide. The Indigenous side of history had been left out of textbooks — but it was through music that their stories really started to come out to the world.

Indigenous protest music isn’t just about anti-war ballads; telling Indigenous history through song has been integral to the re-education of the masses. From storytelling folk songs to anti-war anthems to spoken-word and hip-hop to music that sparks our spiritual awareness, below we recognize some of the music that has fuelled the call to action for Indigenous people over the years.

1. Peter LaFarge, ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ (1962)

Peter LaFarge was perhaps the first folk musician to give voice to Native issues back in the heyday of musical poetry and protest. A descendant of the Narragansett nation, LaFarge lived in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. He wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the story of Ira Hayes, a soldier from the Pima nation, and one of the six United States marines immortalized in the raising of the U.S. flag in Iwo Jima during the Second World War.

The song begins with the plight of the Pima people, who were driven into poverty through colonization: “When the war came, Ira volunteered/ and forgot the white man’s greed.” Hayes fought bravely in Iwo Jima, and was celebrated for a short time, only to go home and not be accepted by his own people for what he had done. He went into a downward spiral, and later died from alcohol poisoning. An ironic and grim look into the life of a man shortly praised as a war hero, fighting for a country that forced his people into poverty, and his fall from grace.

LaFarge’s ballad was released in ’62, but didn't garner mainstream attention until it was covered by Johnny Cash in ’64. Since then it has been covered again by the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and many others.

2. Buffy Sainte-Marie, ‘Universal Soldier’ (1964)

Like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Plains Cree songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” wasn’t popular upon its original 1964 release. It became a hit a year later when psychedelic folk artist Donovan covered it.

The now infamous anti-war classic comes from Sainte-Marie’s debut album, It’s My Way!, and describes an everyman’s soldier, with unspecified age, religion or nationality, who is “the one who gives his body as a weapon to a war.”

The song’s timeless message made “Universal Soldier” an international anthem against war, having been covered in many languages, including Finnish, Dutch German, Polish and even the Sami language.

3. Willie Dunn, ‘I Pity the Country’ (1973)

Mi’kmaq filmmaker and singer-songwriter Willie Dunn often featured Native issues in his work, but his most prolific protest song was “I Pity the Country,” released as a single in 1973.

It opens with the lyrics, “I pity the country/ I pity the state/ and the mind of the man/ that thrives on hate,” and continues to list the many ways society has rejected Indigenous peoples in Canada. Dunn calls out the broken relationship between government and the people, and leaves us with the sense of a man worn down from the many injustices the country has placed upon him. It's a simple song, but it applies to the strife many oppressed communities deal with daily.

4. Jimi Hendrix, ‘Machine Gun’ (1970)

The legendary Jimi Hendrix, of Cherokee and Mexican descent, wrote the anti-war song “Machine Gun” for his 1970 album Band of Gypsies. Hendrix had performed the song at various lengths and versions, but always remained true to the guitar effects that he pioneered, with his riffs mimicking the sounds of war — gunshots, explosions and screams.

Although the song is a loose statement on the Vietnam War — like “Universal Soldier” — it is ubiquitous to conflict anywhere. The lyrics point out the cowardice behind the use of guns and bombs in warfare against the common man, and the painful effects it has on victims and their families.

5. The Band, ‘The Night They Drove Ol Dixie Down’ (1969)

Six Nations' most prolific export, Mohawk singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson of the Band, wrote one of the most influential songs in rock history: "The Night They Drove Ol Dixie Down.

The anthem highlights the end of the American Civil War and has been featured in numerous lists, including Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Pitchfork’s 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s, Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Songs, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It has also been covered many times by artists like Johnny Cash, the Black Crowes, the Jerry Garcia Band and most famously by folk singer Joan Baez. Check out the Band performing the song in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, below.

6. Redbone, ‘We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee’ (1973)

All-Native rock and funk group Redbone, best known for its classic “Come and Get Your Love,” didn’t receive any love from the U.S. charts when the band released its single “We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee” in 1973.

Perhaps retelling the massacre of the Lakota Sioux by the 7th Cavalry Regiment was a bit too controversial for the American charts, but the single hit No. 1 in the Netherlands and charted in a number of European countries. The song’s lyrics tell us that we have not forgotten the history and intergenerational aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, but those “who were not wiped out by the 7th Cavalry” will “sing, sing, sing out our story 'til the truth is heard.”

7. John Trudell, ‘Bombs over Baghdad’ (1992)

Legendary poet, writer, actor, musician and activist John Trudell’s entire career was a resistance to colonialism. Whether he was directly on the front lines or in solitude with a pen and paper, Trudell covered ground in many different areas to raise awareness on Indigenous issues.

Trudell's AKA Grafitti Man was a spoken-word rock album that was initially released on cassette tape in 1986, then later re-recorded and released again on CD in 1992. His single "Bombs Over Baghdad" was a classic protest song off of the album. Trudell's lyrics speak to the blind obedience of people who are led to believe their fight will result in freedom, and calls out the hypocrisy of using violence to achieve peace.

8. Aztlan Underground, Decolonize (1995)

Los Angeles-based Indigenous hip-hop/punk fusion group Aztlan Underground might have released its debut album, Decolonize, more than 20 years ago, but the message behind this and all of the band's subsequent works remains the same: from calming poetry that speaks to spirituality and connection, to the raw and intelligent retelling of history, to the angry testaments of the mistreatment of Native people and injustice to the Earth, Aztlan Underground takes us through all the emotions Indigenous people feel on a very deep level. If you dig what A Tribe Called Red is doing with its music, you need to check these guys out.

9. Drezus, ‘Red Winter’ (2013)

The Idle No More grassroots movement that began in late 2012 saw hundreds of thousands of Native people and allies marching and round dancing across the world in protest to Canada’s omnibus Bill C-45 that impeded on Indigenous treaty rights and protection of the land and water. If you were marching up on Parliament Hill at the time, you can remember wading through the freezing cold snow in support of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and to protest Bill C-45. Plain Cree-Saulteaux rapper Drezus released “Red Winter” in response to the movement, a song that captures the determination in the hearts of every person who raised their voices to say we are Idle No More.

10. A Tribe Called Red, We are the Halluci Nation (2016)

Electronic trio A Tribe Called Red released its third album, We are the Halluci Nation, in 2016. The entire album is more of a call for connection and social justice than it is made up of songs of protest, but what good is protesting without unity and inclusion?

The concept album introduces us to the Halluci Nation, an inclusive nation of spiritually woke revolutionaries ready to challenge the establishment (the ALie Nation), who see that "all the things of the Earth and in the sky have energy to be exploited, even themselves, mining their spirits into souls sold."

The album raised Indigenous voices to new heights, and features collaborations with artists from around the globe, including Leonard Sumner, Tanya Tagaq, John Trudell, Lido Pimienta, OKA, Yasiin Bey, Narcy, Maxida Mark and many others. Each single addresses layers of colonialism today: "Virus," featuring Saul Williams and the Chippewa Travellers, likens colonization to a rapidly spreading virus; "R.E.D," featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy and Black Bear, addresses the borders that separate us; the effects of intergenerational trauma are laid out in "How I Feel," featuring Leonard Sumner.

This is just a short list among the hundreds of Indigenous protest songs that have come out over the years. Check out more revolutionary artists who keep the dialogue going, below.

Las Cafeteras, 'It’s Movement Time' (2014)

Ana Tijoux, 'Antipatriarca' (2015)

Nataanii Means, 'Warrior' (2015)

Raye Zaragoza, 'In the River' (2016)

Stuart James, '#NoDAPL' (2016)

Taboo, 'Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL' (2016)

Tanya Tagaq, 'Retribution' (2016)