Wounded Knee 122 Years Later December 29, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in First Nations, Genocide, History, Human Rights.
Tags: black elk, frank baum, gaza, genocide, history, Iran, Iraq, johnny barber, lakota, lbj, massacre, roger hollander, sioux, vietnam, wounded knee
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Published on Saturday, December 29, 2012 by Common Dreams
December 29th marks the 122nd anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. It is a story that remains fresh in the lives of many indigenous peoples across America. Each generation is taught to never forget.
In 1891, reviewing the history leading up to the massacre, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Morgan said,
“It is hard to overestimate the magnitude of the calamity which happened to the Sioux people by the sudden disappearance of the buffalo. The boundless range was to be abandoned for the circumscribed reservation, and abundance of plenty to be supplanted by limited and decreasing government subsistence and supplies. Under these circumstances it is not in human nature not to be discontented and restless, even turbulent and violent.”
Commissioner Morgan was not empathetic about the plight of the indigenous people. He was just stating facts. One year prior to the massacre, in Oct 1889, he issued a policy paper stating his convictions regarding the native population.
“The Indians must conform to “the white man’s ways,” peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. They must adjust themselves to their environment, and conform their mode of living substantially to our civilization. This civilization may not be the best possible, but it is the best the Indians can get. They cannot escape it, and must either conform to it or be crushed by it. The tribal relations should be broken up, socialism destroyed, and the family and the autonomy of the individual substituted.”
The Wounded Knee Massacre is still commonly depicted as a “battle” that no one can be blamed for, but if blame is assigned it is always made clear that a Lakota fired the first shot. This is the justification for all that followed. A century after the murders, Congress issued an apology, expressing “deep regret” for the events on that day in 1890 when upwards of 370 men, women, and children were gunned down as they fled for their lives. But the Wounded Knee Massacre was not an anomaly, nor was it an accident. Wounded Knee is the entire history of indigenous peoples relationship with Imperialism made manifest in a single event.
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.” Black Elk.
The ancestors of the victims commemorate the massacre in order to honor those who have fallen and to foster healing of their still devastated communities. The ancestors of the perpetrators ignore inflicting the wound and the wound festers.
From Wounded Knee, where just days after the massacre a young newspaper editor named Frank Baum (later to become famous for the children’s story “The Wizard of Oz”) opined, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.“
To Vietnam, where Lyndon Johnson’s call to win hearts and minds of the civilian population was corrupted by GI’s to, “When you have them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow.”
To Iraq, where Madeline Albright was asked if the deaths of ½ million children during sanctions was worth it, she replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
To Gaza, where Dov Weisglass said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
To Iran where a new sanctions regime is in place and the state department claims, “The sanctions are beginning to bite,” and dozens of places in between, the wound festers.
In each case, the power with the superior military claims that the occupied and oppressed are dangerous and threaten the very existence of the state, even as the state starves the population, restricts their every move and denies them the most basic rights under the guise of “security”. All attempts by the “enemy” to seek peace are ignored or derided as “lies” while the theft of land and/or resources continue unabated. Each time the oppressed demand their rights or dare to strike back against their oppressors, the oppressor claims that the people are motivated by hate and seek the annihilation of the state. Negotiations are viewed as a sign of weakness and are rarely pursued unless they can be used as a tool to further oppression. The oppressors continually talk about “pursuing peace” as they systematically destroy any and all opposition.
We kill by starvation, we kill by denying medicine, and we kill by isolation. When that doesn’t silence dissent of the “malcontents” we do not hesitate to kill with bullets and bombs. Remember Commissioner Morgan’s words, “This civilization may not be the best possible, but it is the best they can get. They cannot escape it, and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.”
One day we too will be crushed by this flawed concept of civilization.
The Dahiya doctrine is a military strategy in which the Israeli army deliberately targets civilian infrastructure as a means of inducing suffering on the civilian population, making it so difficult to survive that fighting back or resisting occupation are no longer practical, thereby establishing deterrence. The doctrine is named after a southern suburb in Beirut with large apartment blocks. Israeli bombs flattened the entire neighborhood during the 2006 Lebanon War. But this doctrine is not a modern strategy for controlling populations. Nor is putting the people of Gaza on a “diet” new- subjugating an entire population through a combination of poverty, malnutrition, a struggle over limited resources, and violence is the American way, adopted by our closest allies, (and “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world,”) the Israelis.
Dec 27th marks the 4th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, (the name derives from a popular Hannukah children’s song about a dreidel made from cast lead.) During this attack on Gaza, 1,417 people were killed (330 children), 4336 were wounded. 6,400 homes were destroyed. Hospitals, mosques, the power plant, and the sewage system were deliberately targeted.
Israel accuses Hamas of war crimes for shooting rockets without guidance systems indiscriminately into Israel. Israeli officials claim that “Hamas hides behind civilians” as a justification to bomb civilian population centers and infrastructure. Killing civilians in Gaza using precision munitions, is a war crime, no matter who is hiding behind them.
After the recent killing of 20 children in a Newtown, Connecticut grade school, President Obama, wiping tears from his eyes said,
“This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations?“
The just completed eight-day Israeli operation against Gaza called the Pillar of Cloud (The name is derived from a Biblical passage) saw three generations of the al-Dalu family wiped out in a single bombing, including 4 children between the ages of 1 and 7 years old. The surviving son does not speak of surrender, relinquishing the families land, or disappearing. He demands justice. His tears are mixed with fury. Can he be blamed?
As the ceasefire went in to effect there was one consistent message from the people of Gaza. We are here. This is our home. We will never leave. They will have to kill every one of us.
Upon cessation of the bombing, our Congress immediately voted to replenish Israel’s bombs and munitions in order for Israel to “protect itself”. The wound festers.
In his speech the President went on to say,
“If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”
Wounded Knee has not disappeared. The Lakota people remain. Gaza has not disappeared. The Palestinian people remain. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia people grieve for the loss of their children. The violence wrought upon them in our name continues. If we can take one step to save another child, we have an obligation to try.
Johnny Barber is currently in Afghanistan as a member of a delegation from Voices for Creative Non-Violence. He has traveled to Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Gaza to bear witness and document the suffering of people who are affected by war. His work can be viewed at: www.oneBrightpearl-jb.blogspot.com and www.oneBrightpearl.com
A Memorial Poem: Not for the Feint of Heart September 17, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Art, Literature and Culture, Genocide, Racism, War.
Tags: 9/11, africans, apartheid, attica, cambodia, chiapas, Chile, Colombia, disappeared, El Salvador, EMMANUEL ORTIZ, fallen timbers, genocide, guatemala, hiroshima, indigenous, iraq embargo, laos, moment of slience, nagasaki, nicaragua, Palestinians, pine ridge, poem, Poetry, political poem, roger hollander, sand creek, slavery, somalia, steve biko, torture, trail of tears, Vietnam War, wounded knee
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BEFORE I START THIS POEM
by Emmanuel Ortiz
Before I start this poem,
I’d like to ask you to join me in
a moment of silence
in honour of those who died
in the World Trade Centre
and the Pentagon
last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
a moment of silence
for all of those who have been
harassed, imprisoned, disappeared,
tortured, raped, or killed
in retaliation for those strikes,
for the victims in both
Afghanistan and the U.S.
And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
for the tens of thousands of Palestinians
who have died at the hands of
U.S.-backed Israeli forces
over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence
for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation
as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo
against the country.
Before I begin this poem:
two months of silence
for the Blacks under Apartheid
in South Africa,
where homeland security
made them aliens
in their own country.
Nine months of silence
for the dead in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, where death rained
down and peeled back
every layer of concrete, steel, earth and skin
and the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence
for the millions of dead
in Vietnam–a people, not a war-
for those who know a thing or two
about the scent of burning fuel,
their relatives’ bones buried in it,
their babies born of it.
A year of silence
for the dead in Cambodia and Laos,
victims of a secret war … ssssshhhhh ….
Say nothing .. we don’t want them to
learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence
for the decades of dead
in Colombia, whose names,
like the corpses they once represented,
have piled up and slipped off
Before I begin this poem,
An hour of silence
for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence
for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence
for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew
a moment of peace
45 seconds of silence
for the 45 dead
at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence
for the hundred million Africans
who found their graves
far deeper in the ocean
than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing
or dental records
to identify their remains.
And for those who were
strung and swung
from the heights of
in the south, the north,
the east, and the west…
100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of
from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots
like Pine Ridge,
Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers,
or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced
to innocuous magnetic poetry
on the refrigerator
of our consciousness …
So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been
Because this is not a 9-1-1 poem
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about
what causes poems like this
to be written
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then
This is a September 11th poem
for Chile, 1971
This is a September 12th poem
for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977
This is a September 13th poem
for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem
for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem
for every date that falls
to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories
that were never told
The 110 stories that history
chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC,
The New York Times,
and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem
for interrupting this program.
And still you want
a moment of silence
for your dead?
We could give you
lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces
of nameless children
Before I start this poem
We could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.
If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit
If you want a moment of silence,
put a brick through
the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses,
the jailhouses, the Penthouses and
If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt
fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered
You want a moment of silence
Then take it
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the
In the space
between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
But take it all
Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin
at the beginning of crime.
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.
EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002
Emmanuel Ortiz (born 1974) is a Chicano/Puerto Rican/Irish-American activist and spoken-word poet. He has worked with the Minnesota Alliance for the Indigenous Zapatistas (MAIZ) and Estación Libre and as a staff member of the Resource Centre of the Americas. Ortiz has performed his poetry at numerous readings, political rallies, activist conferences, and benefits. His works appeared in The Roots of Terror a reader published by Project South, as well as others. His readings of his poems have appeared on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.  His controversial poem, Moment of Silence, circulated the internet a year after September 11th, 2001. 
The bitter tears of Johnny Cash November 9, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Political Commentary.
Tags: american indian, american indian movement, antonino d'ambrosio, apache, bitter tears, colombia records, country music, folk music, folsom prison, ira hayes, john hammond, johnny cash, leonard peltier, marlon brando, native american, navajo, pete seeger, peter le farge, pima, protest ballad, protest music, protest song, Richard Nixon, ris Kristofferson, robbie robertson, roger hollander, Willie Nelson, wounded knee
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In July 1972, musician Johnny Cash sat opposite President Richard Nixon in the White House’s Blue Room. As a horde of media huddled a few feet away, the country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform with the self-anointed leader of America’s “silent majority.” “Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us,” Nixon asked Cash. “I like Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and Guy Drake’s ‘Welfare Cadillac.’” The architect of the GOP’s Southern strategy was asking for two famous expressions of white working-class resentment.
“I don’t know those songs,” replied Cash, “but I got a few of my own I can play for you.” Dressed in his trademark black suit, his jet-black hair a little longer than usual, Cash draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of “Okie From Muskogee.” With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer’s rendition of the explicitly antiwar “What Is Truth?” and “Man in Black” (“Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”) and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash’s fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself — a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.
Years later, “Man in Black” is remembered as a sartorial statement, and “What Is Truth?” as a period piece, if at all. Of the three songs that Cash played for Nixon, the most enduring, and the truest to his vision, was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” The song was based on the tragic tale of the Pima Indian war hero who was immortalized in the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, and in Washington’s Iwo Jima monument, but who died a lonely death brought on by the toxic mixture of alcohol and indifference and alcoholism. The song became part of an album of protest music that his record label didn’t want to promote and that radio stations didn’t want to play, but that Cash would always count among his personal favorites.
The story of Cash and “Ira Hayes” began a decade before the meeting with Nixon. On the night of May 10, 1962, Cash made a much-anticipated New York debut at Carnegie Hall. But instead of impressing the cognoscenti, Cash, who had begun struggling with drug addiction, bombed. His voice was hoarse and hard to hear, and he left the stage in what he described as a “deep depression.” Afterward, he consoled himself by heading downtown with a folksinger friend to hear some music at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café.
Onstage was protest balladeer Peter La Farge, performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” A former rodeo cowboy, playwright, actor and Navy intelligence operative, La Farge was also the son of longtime Native activist and novelist Oliver La Farge, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1930 Navajo love story, “Laughing Boy.” The younger La Farge had carved out an intriguing niche in the New York folk revival scene by devoting himself to a single issue. “Pete was doing something special and important,” recalls folksinger Pete Seeger. “His heart was so devoted to the Native American cause at a time that no one was really saying anything about it. I think he went deeper than anyone before or since.”
Cash never pretended that music could stay immune from social, but he tried his best to “not mix in politics.” Instead he talked about the things that unite us like the dignity of honest work. “If you were a baker,” he told writer Christopher Wren in 1970, “and you baked a loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile.”
Raised in rural poverty on the margins of America, Cash empathized with outsiders like convicts, the poor and Native Americans. But his identification with Indians was especially deep — even delusional. During the depths of his early ’60s drug abuse, he convinced himself, and told others, that he was Native American himself, with both Cherokee and Mohawk blood. (He would later recant this claim.)
At the Gaslight, once he had listened to “Ira Hayes’ and La Farge’s other Indian protest tunes, including “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Custer,” Cash was hooked. “Johnny wanted more than the hillbilly jangle,” Peter La Farge would write later about meeting Cash at the Gaslight. “He was hungry for the depth and truth heard only in the folk field (at least until Johnny came along). The secret is simple, Johnny has the heart of a folksinger in the purest sense.” In fact, Cash had written an Indian folk protest ballad of his own in 1957. “I wrote ‘Old Apache Squaw,’” Cash later explained to Seeger. “Then I forgot the so-called protest song for a while. No one else seemed to speak up for the Indian with any volume or voice [until Peter La Farge].”
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.”
By 1964, the Native American cause had attracted the interest of another celebrity. On March 2 the NIYC gained national attention as actor Marlon Brando joined a Washington state fish-in. Already an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, Brando’s very public support and subsequent arrest for catching salmon “illegally” in Puyallup River helped to boost the Native movement. Brando’s involvement with the Native cause had begun when he contacted D’Arcy McNickle after reading the Flathead Indian’s book “The Surrounded,” a powerful novel depicting reservation life in 1936. Brando’s involvement in Native issues led to government surveillance that lasted decades. His FBI file, bursting with memos detailing possible means of silencing the actor, quickly grew to more than 100 pages.
Three days after Brando’s arrest in Washington, Cash, fresh off the biggest chart success of his career, the single “Ring of Fire,” and having just finished recording a very commercial album called “I Walk the Line,” began recording another, very different album. When Cash left Sun Studios for Columbia in the late 1950s, he believed his rising star would give him the creative capital to produce and record something a little outside the pop and country mainstream — albums of folk music and live prison concerts. He was alternating folky albums like “Blood Sweat and Tears,” a celebration of the working man, with commercial discs laden with radio-ready singles. “Ring of Fire,” which had reached No. 1 on the country charts and had crossed over to pop, had bought him the permission of Columbia to make an album of what he called “Indian protest songs.”
In the two years since Cash had first met La Farge and listened to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Cash had educated himself about Native American issues. “John had really researched a lot of the history,” Cash’s longtime emcee Johnny Western recalled. “It started with Ira Hayes.”
As Cash explained, “I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage.”
But Cash felt a special kinship with Ira Hayes. Both men had served in the military as a way to escape their lives of rural poverty longing to create new opportunities. Plus, both suffered from addiction problems; Cash and his pills and Hayes with alcohol. He decided to anchor the album with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” And since the song had provided the spark for Cash’s vision, it just felt right that he should learn more about the song’s subject.
Cash contacted Ira Hayes’ mother and then visited her and her family at the Pima reservation in Arizona. Before Cash left the Pima Reservation, Hayes’ mother presented him with a gift, a smooth black translucent stone. The Pima call it an “Apache tear.” The legend behind the opaque volcanic black glass is rooted in the last U.S. cavalry attack on Native people, which took place on Apaches in the state of Arizona. After the slaughter, the soldiers refused to allow the Apache women to put the dead up on stilts, a sacred Apache tradition. Legend says that overcome by intense grief, Apache women shed tears for the first time ever, and the tears that fell to the earth turned black. Cash, moved by the gift, polished the stone and mounted it on a gold chain.
With the Apache tear draped around his neck, Cash cut his protest album. He recorded five of La Farge’s songs, two of his own, and one he’d co-written with Johnny Horton. All were Native American themed. “When we went back into the studio to record what became ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash bassist Marshall Grant says, “we could see that John really had a special feeling for this record and these songs.”
Yet the album’s first single, “Ira Hayes,” went nowhere. Few radio stations would play the song. Was the length of the song, four minutes and seven seconds, the problem? Radio stations liked three-minute tracks. Or maybe disc jockeys wanted Cash to “entertain, not educate,” as one Columbia exec put it.
“I know that a lot of people into Johnny Cash weren’t into ‘Bitter Tears,’ ” explains Dick Weissman, a folksinger, ex-member of the Journeymen and friend of La Farge. “They wanted a ‘Ballad of Teenage Queen’ not ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes.’ They wanted ‘Folsom Prison.’ They didn’t want songs about how American’s mistreated Indians.”
The stations wouldn’t play the song and Columbia Records refused to promote it. According to John Hammond, the legendary producer and Cash champion who worked at Columbia, executives at the label just didn’t think it had commercial potential. Billboard, the music industry trade magazine, wouldn’t review it, even though Cash was at the height of his fame, and had just scored another No. 1 country single with “Understand Your Man” and No. 1 country album with “I Walk the Line.”
One editor of a country music magazine demanded that Cash resign from the Country Music Association because “you and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs.” Johnny Western, a DJ, singer and actor who for many years was part of Cash’s road show, recalls a conversation with “a very popular and powerful DJ.” According to Western, the DJ was “connected to many of the music associations and other influential recording industry groups. He had always been incredibly supportive of John.” Western and the DJ started discussing Cash’s new album and the “Ira Hayes” single. “He asked me why John did this record. I told him that John and all of us had a great feeling for the American Indian cause. He responded that he felt that the music, in his mind, was un-American and that he would never play the record on air and had strongly advised other DJs and radio stations to do the same. Just ignore it until John came back to his senses, is what he told me.”
“When John was attacked for ‘Ira Hayes’ and then ‘Bitter Tears,’” explains Marshall Grant, “it just ripped him apart. Hayes was forced to drink by the abuse and treatment of white people who used and abandoned him. To us, it meant Hayes was being tortured and that’s the story we told and it’s true.”
When “Bitter Tears” and its single did not get the attention he felt they deserved, Cash insisted on having the last word. He composed a letter to the entire record industry and placed it in Billboard as a full-page ad on Aug. 22, 1964.
“D.J.’s — station managers — owners, etc.,” demanded Cash, “Where are your guts?” He referred to his own supposed half Cherokee and Mohawk heritage and spoke of the record as unvarnished truth. “These lyrics take us back to the truth … you’re right! Teenage girls and Beatle record buyers don’t want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes … This song is not of an unsung hero.” Cash slammed the record industry for its cowardice, “Regardless of the trade charts — the categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for the gutless [Cash's emphasis] to give it a thumbs down.”
Cash demanded that the industry explain its resistance to his single. “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???” And then Cash answered for them. “‘Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine … So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
As Cash later explained, “I talked about them wanting to wallow in meaninglessness and their lack of vision for our music. Predictably enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on.” In reality, however, as Cash noted in his letter, “Ira Hayes” was already outselling many country hits. Ultimately, thanks in part to aggressive promotion by Cash, who personally promoted the song to disc jockeys he knew, “Ira Hayes” reached No. 3 on the country singles charts, and “Bitter Tears” peaked at 2 on the album charts.
Later, long after “Bitter Tears,” and after he’d won his battle with drugs, Cash would dial back his claims of Indian ancestry. But he never wavered from his support for the Native cause. He went on to perform benefit shows on reservations — including the Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee in 1968, five years before the armed standoff there between the FBI and the American Indian Movement — to help raise money for schools, hospitals and other critical resources denied by the government. In 1980, Cash told a reporter: “We went to Wounded Knee before Wounded Knee II [the 1973 standoff] to do a show to raise money to build a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation” and do a movie for “Public Broadcasting System called ‘Trail of Tears.’” He joined with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Robbie Robertson to call for the release of jailed AIM leader Leonard Peltier.
Since Cash first recorded “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” in 1964, many musicians have recorded their own versions. Kris Kristofferson is one of those musicians. He summed up the spirit behind Cash’s now nearly forgotten protest album in his eulogy for Cash, who died in 2003. Cash, he said, was a “holy terror … a dark and dangerous force of nature that also stood for mercy and justice for his fellow human beings.” Four years before his famous concert at Folsom Prison, four years before the American Indian Movement formed, and at the pinnacle of his commercial success, Cash insisted on producing an uncommercial, deeply personal protest record that was a close as he could come to truth. He would always cherish it. “I’m still particularly proud of ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash would say near the end of his life, while talking about the topical music he recorded in the 1960s. “Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position today. The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making any moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Antonino D’Ambrosio is the author of “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.”