Destination Jam: Five songs from Native American artists that speak of their experiences and struggles

From being massacred and having their lands stolen to finding peace and comfort in solidarity and music, these artists speak their truth and honor their ancestors in unique ways

                            Destination Jam: Five songs from Native American artists that speak of their experiences and struggles
Jana Mashonee (Getty Images)

Music is a universal language, one that has existed throughout our history. But often, it's hard to recognize music from different cultures, particularly when these acts tend to see limited exposure. Within American music, Native American artists have been widely present in the industry, though not many might know of their presence, either because the artist remains lesser-known or because some with Native American ancestry have come to be known for their work and not their ethnic makeup, such as Jimi Hendrix who was of African-American and Cherokee descent.

But as the nation gears up to celebrate Independence Day chock-full with exalting great American artists and historical turning-points, it becomes even more important to recognize the role Native American voices have played in shaping American music and culture. So in honor of their unique history and traditions, here are five songs from Native American artists that recognize their struggles as well as their victories.

Redbone - 'We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee'

Redbone is a rock band that originated in the '70s. They had several hits, including 'Come and Get Your Love', 'The Witch Queen of New Orleans', 'Wovoka', 'Maggie', and 'We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee'. Originally a surf band called the Vegas Brothers, the band adopted the Cajun term for mixed-race person "redbone" to represent their mixed ancestry: the Vasquez-Vegas brothers who made up the band were of Yaqui, Shoshone, and Mexican heritage and the band frequently alluded to both Cajun and New Orleans culture in its music. They hold the distinction of being the first Native American rock/Cajun group to have a No 1 single internationally.

'We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee', released in 1972, was about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 during which Lakota Sioux tribe members, who left their reservations to join a nearby group for safety, were stopped on their path by soldiers who, after holding them captive and taking their weapons away, opened fire on the group after one young warrior resisted, killing 300 Sioux men, women, and children and wounding 51 others. The song also makes references to many of the 'broken promises' Native Americans endured. One example of this is the 'Northwest Ordinance of 1787' which decreed that Native American land and property would not be taken from them without their consent, and additionally, their rights and liberties would not be stripped away. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, a land that originally belonged to the Sioux, these lands were invaded and following the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871, Native American's were essentially treated as wards of the State and placed in reservations instead of being allowed to inhabit their own lands. The song also briefly points to other massacres, such as that of the buffalos that grazed the lands and on which the Sioux depended being hunted by settlers for sport.


Blackfoot - 'White Man's Land'

Blackfoot is an American Southern rock band from Jacksonville, Florida, formed in the late '60s. Originally called Hammer, the band changed their name after realizing there was another band on the West Coast with the same name, this time opting for a name that reflected the band's Native heritage: drummer Jakson Spires (from Oklahoma) had a Cheyenne/French father and a Cherokee mother, guitarist and vocalist Rickey Medlocke's father was Lakota Sioux and Blackfoot Indian and his mother's side is Creek/Cherokee, Scottish and Irish, and Greg "Two Wolf" Walker was part Eastern (Muskogee) Creek. Charlie Hargrett was the only white member in the original line-up. In the early '70s, Medlocke and Walker joined Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blackfoot went on a hiatus, eventually reuniting in 1974, releasing the album 'No Reservations' a year later. In 2016, the band released their first album in 20 years, 'Southern Native'. The band's current lineup features no original members, though Medlocke joins them onstage for concerts.

'White Man's Land', released in 1983, plays on the stereotypical tropes of being a "savage...on the run," on a horse with a "guitar as [his] gun," with the narrator lamenting that no matter where he runs to he will always be "on white man's land," having to battle things like taxes as well as racism that often treated Native Americans as being less worthy than their white counterparts. The song featured on the band's sixth album 'Siogo', which the members initially told their record company was a Native word for "closeness" or "togetherness." In reality, 'Siogo' is an acronym for "Suck It Or Get Out."

Jana Mashonee - 'The Enlightened Time'

Jana Mashonee, more widely known as simply Jana, is a singer-songwriter, actress, author, and philanthropist. The Grammy-winning artist is known for her R&B and gospel sound, which is what made her achieve mainstream success, but not as many might be aware of her being of Native American of Lumbee and Tuscarora descent. Jana's father, a singer and drummer himself, introduced her to music at a young age and the singer has spent her career infusing more and more of her cultural roots into her music, releasing the Grammy-winning concept album 'American Indian Story' in 2006. The single 'Enlightened Time' features on this album. The song's video also went on to win awards including a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video.

The song itself is a wonderful ode to Native American tribes, highlighting the need for solidarity between these groups in an endeavor to encourage peace, love, and harmony and making reference to Native American concepts including the sacred eagle and rivers as well as the tree of life.


Champion Jack Dupree - 'Freedom'

A blues and boogie-woogie pianist of Congolese and Cherokee descent, Dupree became a popular fixture at local barrelhouses and other drinking establishments. The artist led a difficult life, owing to losing his parents in a house fire (presumably in a hate crime committed by the Ku Klux Klan) at just eight years old and being separated from his surviving siblings and 'given away' to the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans, an institution for orphaned or delinquent boys. While there, he taught himself to play the piano, once quipping it was because he had a disdain for the loud sounds coming from the bugle of Louis Armstrong, who was sent to the same institution as a child after being arrested for having a "dangerous and suspicious character." Outside of his musical exploits, Dupree was also a 'spy boy' for the Yellow Pocahontas tribe of the Mardi Gras Indians.

Dupree found steady work as a musician over the years, prior to which he found success working as a pugilist after he became acquainted with Joe Louis in the '30s - which is how he earned the name 'Champion'. But his career had to be put on hold when WWII rolled around and Dupree found himself captive as a Japanese prisoner of war for two years. He returned to New Orleans in the '50s, and soon departed for Europe with Judy Garland to perform as part of a tour organized by the mobster owners of a club where the two often performed. For Dupree, Europe offered something America never gave him: a sense of freedom, particularly, a haven away from the racism he had endured in America. When asked if he would ever return to the US, Dupree answered, "I’d rather go to jail."


Joy Harjo - 'Eagle Poem'

Of Muscogee Creek ancestry on her father's side and Cherokee, French, and Irish on her mother's, Joy Harjo is a poet, musician, playwright, and author who holds the distinction of being the first Native American United States Poet Laureate. In 2019, Harjo was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Outside of her creative endeavors, Harjo is also the Director of For Girls Becoming, an art mentorship program for young Muscogee women.

'Eagle Poem' is one of her many lauded works. The track is accompanied by a short film, funded by Native American Public Telecommunications, that features a mix of archival footage and contemporary scenes depicting the 'continuity of Muscogean tradition through the generations'. Opening with a Creek prayer, the song gently blends into Harjo performing her 'Eagle Poem' before she breaks out into a gorgeous sax solo.

Directed and produced by Native Hawaiian filmmaker Lurline Wailana McGregor in collaboration with Harjo, the song was nominated for an award at the Native American Indian Film and Video Festival in San Francisco in 2002. Much like Jana's 'The Enlightened Time', Harjo's 'Eagle Poem' honors Native American cultural and spiritual symbols, including the eagle and the rivers, finding solace in their beauty and movement.


Destination Jam is a daily list of songs that will keep you entertained and grooving up top in lieu of feeling drained and losing the plot. Look out for a fresh selection of great tunes from MEAWW to refresh your mood every day!

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