Freedom is an illusion, and all we have are redemption songs

Ray Cook

In 1936 African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson starred in Song of Freedom, a classic film.

It’s about a black longshoreman descended from slaves who became a world-renown opera singer. Believing himself to be some sort of king of an African tribe, he goes to Africa to find his people. To his dismay, he is greeted with laughter because he is clearly western in his dress and his thought. He stands clueless among a people who live traditionally within the nature from which they were created.

In real life, Mr. Robeson established a non-profit company to assist people of color in media production so that we can tell our own stories. The Paul Robeson Foundation has benefited many projects and people. Native radio had benefited from Robeson’s vision.

Another visionary? Bob Marley. Oh Bob, you are a saint. One of his gifts is Redemption Song.

Why don’t we Natives have such songs for freedom? We do, but they are not the commercial kind. They are ceremonial songs that call attention to those things in nature that keep us alive and adaptable. Our freedom is directly tied to the freedom of the Earth. Earth is freedom, we are the dependent ones and forever will be as long as we keep singing those songs of freedom. That’s all we ever know, redemption songs.


Those of us who operate outside the illusion of contemporary freedom (and its attendant ills such as Federal Trustee or nation-to-nation relationship, etc.), well, we already enjoy a large degree of feeling free, the feeling of freedom. But not the kind African Americans fought for, or the Pilgrims before them. To us, a bigger slice of the pie is not freedom. Successfully participating in a new world of market economy as an individual or as a company or as a nation of people is not freedom.

Sure be nice to live a life free from commodity food, so we strive everyday to grow our own food. No hunting, or fishing license from the state. The State we fish in is a state of natural law. We hunt where our earth-given food is found, whether in berry briers or deer trails when the natural season permits.

What is our song of freedom? Ours are songs of acknowledgments, prayer and thanksgiving. All of them are forms of redemption songs.

Why is freedom an illusion?

Freedom is an illusion in the contemporary sense because the definition of freedom now means free from obligation, free of restraints. Free of consciousness, free of ownership from bad or horrible actions.

That’s the reasoning that makes clear cutting possible, and what makes dams possible. That misguided thinking is what makes strip-mining of uranium and coal, and fracking possible. It is the thinking that made concentration camps and their forefather the American reservations possible. If you don’t see it, it does not exist. This is what industrial minds define as freedom…ignorance (freedumb). Billions are spent each year to market a message meant to tell you to live in the moment and ignore the past and future.

What keeps us from ever truly achieving that kind of freedom? Our weaknesses. We, and all the creatures of Creation, need clean air. We need clean water to hydrate and cleanse. We need healthy foods and medicines. We need healthy minds and humble spirits. Natives in general understand our place as being on a web that is made up of independent strands. If your actions weaken or break enough of the stands than the web will fail us. That is natural law.

We are poor beings whose lives depend on so much for survival. What is the paramount concern we all share? That the Earth will one day turn her back on the human race.

Because of all the above, we are dependent and the sources that provide us a good life require our acknowledgment. And if we’ve failed, we must redeem ourselves in the eyes of our Mother. Is all of this what is sacred? Some think so, others believe those strands to be a reality we cannot ignore; the elements are free, and we are dependent on them. The elements are what we need to survive. The elements don’t need us.

Ignorance of repercussions is not freedom.

Our lives are full of obligations that we happily embrace because our actions are the difference between living with harmony or not. Life or death.

Our lives are full of demands for respect and consideration for those things that make our well being possible.

Our lives are conducted, or were, with a sense that we are lucky to be here and healthy. We are this way because a force greater than ourselves allows us to be here. As long as we remember to be thankful, that is not freedom, that is gratitude, an obligation that we must fulfill in order to only feel free.

Therefore, while it feels great, freedom remains an illusion, an intangible reward. All we have are our redemption songs.