Westerman was a True Friend

by Doug George-Kanentiio©
News From Indian Country

For those Akwesasnorons lucky enough to have come of age during the late 1960s and 70s, our home was the center of Aboriginal political action across the continent.

The touring group White Roots of Peace and the newspaper Akwesasne Notes inspired thousands of people, Native and non, to get involved in preserving their heritage and promoting Indigenous self-determination.

The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs was the guiding entity for both Notes and the Roots. From the Nation came powerful speakers, great singers and highly effective community organizers. People who read Notes got involved in advocating political and social change and by doing so challenged those then in power.

The response was not always positive as the tribal leaders, empowered by the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. fought back. At times, there was conflict and people were imprisoned, physically beaten or expelled from their communities.

There could be no denying that great, permanent changes were taking place. It was our musicians, writers and poets who best expressed the mood of the times. For our teenage generation, or at least those who supported the Nation and hung around the Akwesasne Notes offices, the most influential singer was Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

His album “Custer Died For Your Sins” was impossible to find in mainstream record stores, but Notes served as a distributor along with the companion book by Vine Deloria of the same title.

We read the book and it was if Ray Fadden was voicing its words, we listened to Floyd’s songs and it was if he was able to express our pain and anger. He was not afraid or intimidated to speak out so neither should we.

I found his ballad “35 More Miles” the most provocative since it sang of his bitterness at having been taken from his family as a child only to be reunited at his mother’s death.

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Westerman

Floyd was a friend of Notes and the Mohawk people. He enjoyed his visits with our leaders and was always welcoming with that deep Lakota voice. He was our musical hero along with A. Paul Ortega, Willie Dunn and Buffy St. Marie. We wore his LP down after hundreds of hours listening to how the American Cavalry officer George Custer carried the collective guilt of the U.S. and that “a new day can begin.”

Floyd as a human being was not egotistical or full of rage. He went through the emotional and physical traumas of the notorious boarding school system, yet whenever I met him he was given to laughter and ready for a good story. He was, in many ways, like his great friend Vine Deloria; aware of the absurdities of life but enjoying his time here. He was a stong presence on and off the stage and played a really hard guitar.

A few years ago my wife, Joanne Shenandoah, her sister Diane and I joined Floyd in Rapid City, South Dakota. They were scheduled to perform together at a benefit concert for a school at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Lakota territory and I was the driver. We met in Rapid City with John Kay of the Steppenwolf band who told us an unanticipated thunderstorm had struck while his group was on stage the night before.

A bolt of lightening actually hit the stage destroying much equipment but Floyd was set to go ahead with the show. But first he had to escort us to Sturgis to attend the annual biker rally and then to the Grey Butte area where we walked with him through the hills, a place where the Lakotas go to for their vision quests.

We then went to Pine Ridge and as we entered the rez the teasing began – Iroquois versus Lakota. Floyd was never more hillarious then on that trip. As we laughed our way through the rez we noticed a blue Cadillac driving at a high rate of speed, followed by huge clouds of

road dust. At the wheel was a very dark skinned black man, looking confused, obviously lost.

We wondered at this site but there was no way we could have caught up to the Caddie to find out who the person was and why he was in the rolling hills of Pine Ridge. We found out later the man was Chuck Berry, one of the inventors of rock and roll. He was on the rez for the same reason as Joanne, Floyd and Steppenwolf; to perform for the Lakota kids.

Berry managed to find the venue and along with Floyd and Joanne gave the audience an amazing show, but it was Floyd who stood before the audience, encouraging them to get involved, to take a stand in defense of the people.

There would be many other events for Joanne and I to meet with Floyd from the first Native American Music Awards to walking with him near the Santa Monica pier on the Pacific coast. He was just plain fun to be with. As he went into movies and television he was, to us, the same humble human being who always responded with a big grin whenever we greeted him with a “hey, Floyd!”

The last time we saw Floyd and Vine together was at a traditional knowledge conference we attended at Frank’s Landing in Washington State. Joining us there was Janet McCloud who has also since passed into the spirit world. We were there as the guests of the Puyallip Nation and the Billy Frank family to discuss “giants and little people” in the culture of Native societies. Floyd joined us even though he had to drive from Los Angeles because asthma prevented him from flying; he was determined to be with his friends.

To mark the event he gave another strong performance at a concert with Joanne at the Evergreen State College. Typical Floyd, overcoming his own concerns to sing for us all.

As he sang in one of his songs “the earth is our mother” and to her he returned. We who shared his music and were so inspired by his courage have lost another hero.

 

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