Native American Culture in the Light of Revolutionary Possibilities

This is the edited text of a speech I gave at the Cultural Workers Conference, February, 1975, in San Francisco. This picture is the drawing I did for a mural on the Wounded Knee occupation that was painted on a wall of the San Francisco Indian Center on 16th and Valencia in 1975.

I would like to give a little history of Native American culture because I think our culture provides a link with the history of this land. I think most people know that Native American people have a very close relationship with the land. We have lived here for thousands of years, living off the land, with hunting, fishing and some farming. Our culture grew out of this relationship to the land and was an expression of our unity with the Natural World.

In this period of our people, we had many ceremonies every year all across the country and even across North and South America. These followed a fairly slow rhythm, because the only thing that changed our ways were like changes in Nature, which is usually very slow.

At about the time that Europeans started coming over to this land, changes began to be introduced fairly fast, especially as the people who began to call themselves ‘Americans’ began to spread out over the West, where most of our tribes were concentrated. They began deliberately destroying our way of life, in order to take over the land. They destroyed the buffalo, which was the center of the Plains tribes lifestyle, in order to destroy them.

When they could not completely physically destroy us, they then tried to assimilate us. They put us on reservations and in government boarding schools where we were forbidden to speak our languages — they forbid us to perform our ceremonies, to relate to our spiritual ways and literally drove our culture underground. So at that period in our history, any attempt to keep our culture, would become an act of resistance.

The government tried to destroy our culture because it realized that culture keeps alive the spirit of the people and enables them to remember what life was like before colonization.

For many years after this policy of forcibly attacking our culture, it began to stagnate and much of our languages were lost. Slowly we had to adjust to these changes, especially in Oklahoma, where a lot of Eastern and some Western tribes were forcibly removed from their land and forced to live in close proximity to each other in Indian Territory.

But in the fifties, after the Second World War, a change began to happen. Tribes started exchanging different cultural experiences, started singing each other songs and adopting parts of each other’s ceremonies, especially the sweat lodge. One result of this interchange was the ‘49er’, a traditional song with something added, which was the English language. English was understood by all the tribes by then, and for them to communicate more fully in intertribal powwows, they started making up songs in English, but still using the drum and traditional singing styles. The songs usually dealt with what was going on at the time—like drinking, trying to get girl friends and driving one-eyed Fords from one powwow to another—like the Blues in a way.

By the 50’s and 60’s, I think our people were beginning to be influenced by the so-called ‘youth culture’. Rock and roll songs, folk songs, people like Buffy St. Marie were finally able to reach a mass audience. Rock groups like Redbone and Xit started coming out and speaking about our history of colonization

My long time friend, Eldy Bratt on Alcatraz. She was originally from Peru.

Richard Oakes, a young Mohawk college student, was the leader of the occupation of Alcatraz, in San Francisco, 1969.

That was about the time of Alcatraz. The occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco by Indians of All Tribes signaled the rebirth of the spirit of our people. The Traditional movement at that time became very strong. There were some traditional people like Mad Bear Anderson, going from reservation to reservation, tribe to tribe, very quietly, without much publicity, holding powwows and singing the old songs and reviving the old ceremonies, teaching the young people who had not be taught by the elders. A lot of our people, especially our young people, felt that was a good thing. It gave them a new pride and a new hope. This was the time when a lot of struggles were just beginning, Alcatraz, Pit River and the Fishing Rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest.

I think the turning point of all this came at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which was a much more serious struggle—we were facing massacre by the U.S. Government again. It showed us that the Government had not changed much since the original massacre in 1890, that it was still ready to commit genocide.

At Wounded Knee, as other tribes, Chicanos, Vietnam Vets against the war and other revolutionaries stood with the Lakota and American Indian Movement occupiers, we began to look at our culture in the light of revolutionary possibilities. We began to see that revolutionary ideas could create a powerful unity among our people and all oppressed people. This unity could lead to our liberation and the freedom of our culture and to allow us to regain control over our destiny.

We want to emphasize the positive aspects of our traditions, and we have many positive values, like balance, love for our Mother Earth and cooperation as opposed to greed. Our societies thrived by working together collectively. It was democratic—everyone had a right to speak at the councils. It was based on common ownership of the land and equal sharing of the benefits of the land. We need to hang on to these values against the destructive cultural imperialism of the U.S. Government.

We must also look at any aspect of our culture that tends to hold back our struggles. Any aspect that tends to pit one tribe against another, or that says that Indians only are the greatest race in the world. We want to struggle against any aspect that tries to put women below men. We want to struggle against any aspect of our culture that emphasizes too much mysticism over reality, especially the current harsh reality that we have to live with now.

Now I want to speak some about what we call prophesies and visions—these are old, old legends, but they have survived and gained new force because they emphasize some of the more positive aspects of our culture. For instance, the prophesy of the Warriors of the Rainbow. This is a legend about a new breed or type of people, that would struggle to bring unity, not only to Indian people, but to all people. The rainbow has long been a symbol to Native American people, and a positive symbol to many indigenous people. Now I know that the rainbow is a symbol of revolution in this country also. I thing there might even be a connection between the rainbow of , say, the Weather Underground and that of the Warriors of the Rainbow. Black Elk himself speaks of a flaming rainbow in the book of his great vision. In one part of his vision there is singing—“Look, a new nation is coming.” I use the rainbow in my artwork too, and the idea that a new American nation is coming.

At this stage in our struggle we are trying to regain our destiny, to make our own history and a new culture based on the best of our old, to carry us forward. When Black Elk said that the nation’s hoop was broken, he was talking about the destruction from imperialism. And I think that what we are trying to do is rebuild, rebuild that broken hoop of our nations and to link that hoop with other people’s hoops so that it will extend all around the world—in revolution.

Our people are the original link that connects all of you to the Western Hemisphere. Our culture and our history is the link to the overall history and culture of this land. We invite all people to join us as real Native Americans in a new revolutionary society for this Turtle Island, now known as America.


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