Indigenous Music: Rocking the World, Americanizing the White Man The Rumble Way

Peter d'Errico

Rumble reminds us-teaches us-that Native peoples provide creative energies to the world,despite invasion & colonization

The new music documentary from Rezolution Pictures, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, provides a lesson in what Felix Cohen called “Americanizing the White Man.” As Alex Jacobs wrote, “The film tells the story of a profound, essential, and, until now, missing chapter in the history of American music: the indigenous influence.” “Rumble” explores indigenous roots of American music—blues, country, jazz, rock, gospel, funk, R&B, and more—through interviews with contemporary music icons remembering formative encounters with Native artistry, archival footage of legendary artists, and clips of major bands working from these roots. The global influence of American popular music justifies the film’s subtitle—”Indians who rocked the world.”

Put Rumble at the top of your must-see list. I was fortunate to see a pre-wide-release screening, and can vouch for the rave reviews. You can check playdates and request bookings from Kino Lorber. The thread I want to explore arises from words and phrases used by reviewers—”revelatory,” “profound and overlooked influence of indigenous people,” “often-underappreciated role of Native American tradition,” “often-unheralded contributions of Native Americans.” As a New York Times reviewer said, “One of the most striking aspects of the documentary is how few people, [even Native artists] like [Robbie] Robertson, knew that these artists were Indians….”

Felix Cohen, widely known for his Handbook of Federal Indian Law, a compilation of U.S. laws affecting Native peoples, also authored numerous essays, including a 1952 piece, Americanizing the White Man. Cohen asserted, “few Americans … realize that America is not just a pale reflection of Europe – that what is distinctive about America is Indian, through and through.” He criticized the notion of “the vanishing Indian, …the theme of song and folklore, of sculpture, of fiction and of the special sort of fiction that sometimes passes as American history.”

Cohen pointed out U.S. government efforts to stop Indians from being themselves: “So far they have failed. To that failure we owe much that is precious in our American way of life. … Universal suffrage for women as well as for men, the pattern of states within a state that we call federalism, the habit of treating chiefs as servants of the people instead of as their masters, the insistence that the community must respect the diversity of men and the diversity of their dreams – all these things were part of the American way of life before Columbus landed.”

Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law appeared in 1942, just prior to the mid-20th century lurch toward “termination,” a denial of “recognition” and an assertion Natives were not “peoples”—separate nations—but simply “people”—individuals. Viewing them as individuals, termination laws denied Native peoples had any self-government or control of their lands. Termination policy emerged as one of the most aggressive assimilation projects in U.S. relations with the original peoples of the continent.

Cohen compiled his Handbook with a major eye toward curtailing assimilation projects. Brought into the U.S. Interior Department in 1933 to help draft New Deal legislation, Cohen worked to tease some rationality out of the morass of court decisions, treaties, legislative and executive acts affecting Indians and to lay a basis for acknowledging some form of Indian self-determination. One result was the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Another was the Handbook.

Though the IRA and Handbook betray a limited view of indigenous sovereignty—holding “tribal self-government” subordinate to “federal sovereignty”—they established clear departures from the destructive “allotment” process that had intentionally undermined indigenous economic and political independence. They reversed the Code of Indian Offenses that had for 50 years outlawed indigenous cultural practices, including medicine ceremonies, potlatches, and “heathenish dances, such as the sun-dance.”

The New Deal for Indians was motivated in part by a concern to position the U.S. as a defender of democracy against the growing forces of fascism that would eventually erupt into World War II. As Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier put it in 1939, after including the Native peoples of the southern hemisphere in his remarks, “It may be that the most dependable guarantee of the survival and triumph of real democracy…is [the] advance toward power of the Indians, who from most ancient times, and now, are believers in, and practitioners of local democracy.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the New Deal grounded its policies toward Native Peoples in a concern for survival of the U.S., they offered a relief from overt hostility to Indians that still erupts in America. The most significant Native politics today regards the New Deal—including Cohen’s work—as a way-point in a continuing struggle, where Native Peoples take an increasing role in global stands for self-determination. Cohen would understand contemporary indigenous efforts as a continuation of Native teachings: “American Indians today … are still teaching America to solve perplexing problems of education, government and human relations, problems to which Europe never did find adequate answers.”

So, back to Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. If Cohen had lived longer and ventured into music, he would have agreed with George Clinton, “One can’t help but notice the rhythms of—or the pulse that was here, that is here; been here. The feel of Native American is in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll”; and Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), “It changed everything: Rumble [the 1958 instrumental hit by Link Wray (Shawnee)] made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock ‘n’ roll was gonna go.” Cohen would also agree that “Native American influence is an integral part of music history, despite attempts to ban, censor, and erase Indian culture in the United States.”

In 1958, the U.S. Interior Department produced a bowdlerized version of Cohen’s Handbook, deleting the rich philosophy, history, moral, and political materials he wove into his analysis of the law. The Department wanted a book that would not embarrass the new “termination policy” enacted in 1952, the year following Cohen’s death. Plainly, the U.S. feared even a modest recognition of Native people’s original free and independent existence. New updates to the diminished and censored version of the Handbook appear every other year, edited by some of the major academic figures in federal Indian law. If you want to understand how this work acts as a barrier to new understanding and creativity, you must start with the original 1942 edition, reproduced by Five Rings Press in 1986 with a Foreword, Biography, and Bibliography.

Rumble reminds us—teaches us—that Native peoples provide creative energies to the world, despite invasion and colonization—persisting through mental and metal barricades erected against them. As Alex Jacobs said, “We are still here singing.” Rumble demonstrates that Native energies have effects even without words: American radio stations banned the 1958 hit by Link Wray that gives its name to the film—out of fear of the sound itself; the song has no lyrics; but it unmistakably reproduces the heartbeat in Native drumming. Corey Harris (Choctaw) said Charley Patton (Choctaw) learned to play guitar like a drum because white men tried to suppress drums, for fear of their messaging power; Patton thus introduced Delta Blues to the world.

Rezolution Pictures International, an aboriginal-owned film and television production company based in Montreal, produced Rumble on the heels of a previous award-winning feature-documentary, Reel Injun, which explored the Hollywood Indian portrayal of North American Natives through the history of cinema. Executive Producer Ernest Webb (Cree), describes his approach: “My mantra… has been ‘the right people will come together at the right time for the right project.’ So that’s how I try to work. Try not to force things. Because when you come at it in a good way, Spirit will enter.” One may say the same about all creative projects, including approaches to Native self-determination.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.