September 21, 2012

Is Neil Young a wannabe?

Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming AlbumYoung’s “Indian” identity dates back to his days in Buffalo Springfield, the group he was in from 1966-67; in In For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, he said:

There I was making 120 bucks a week at the Whisky as a musician. … I’ve always liked fringe jackets. I went out and bought one right away with some pants and a turtleneck shirt. Oh yeah, I thought I was heavy. I wore them on some TV shows and whenever we worked. Then I went to this place on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega. I saw this great Comanche war shirt, the best jacket I’ve ever seen. I had two more made. The group was Western, the name Buffalo Springfield came off a tractor, so it all fit. I was the Indian. That’s when it was cool to be an Indian.

Authors John Einarson and Richie Furay add that the music press really dug the idea: “Many people believed Neil was, in fact, an Indian because magazines like Teen Screen and TeenSet constantly referred to him as ‘Neil the Indian.’”

With so much talk of cultural appropriation and misappropriation—see Paul Frank Industries’ “Dream Catchin’” party (and surprise happy ending)—we’re curious to know whether any Natives feel Young, who was born in Canada and has no known Native heritage, ever crosses the line with his enthusiasm for American Indian culture. This one is a little trickier than a pair of “Navajo” panties from Urban Outfitters because, speaking very broadly, a lot of Indians really like Neil Young’s music. Musician Bill Miller, Mohican from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin, for instance, included two Neil Young tunes in his list of 10 Essential Songs for Native Musicians.

Sorting out what uses of American Indian culture are respectful and what ones aren’t is a personal decision—perhaps Neil Young’s Native fetish is uncontroversial because everyone feels it’s done in a completely respectful way. Or does he get a pass because, well, he’s Neil Young?
Comment:  Nobody gets a free pass from me. <g>

I don't know much about Neil Young or his music, so I can't answer the question. But I can suggest some questions that would help determine the answer.

  • Is the albums' content as rich as the albums' covers? Or are the covers just a marketing gimmick?

  • When Young sings about Native subjects, does he lament the fate of the vanishing Indian? Or does he sing about Indians as modern, forward-looking people?

  • Does he give back to Native people in some way--e.g., by hiring Native musicians, giving concerts on reservations, or contributing to Native charities? Or does he just take?

  • If anyone still thinks he's an Indian, does he immediately disabuse them of the notion? Or does he "play Indian" whenever he can get away with it?

  • If the answers to these questions favor Indians, we can surmise Young is the genuine article: an honest Native enthusiast. If the answers don't favor Indians, we can surmise he's a wannabe. That's how you determine these things, in general.

    For more on celebrity identity issues, see Justin Bieber Thinks He's Native and Gary Busey the Adopted Sioux and

    Below:  "An undated publicity photo of Buffalo Springfield with 'Neil the Indian' at upper right."


    Anonymous said...

    As a lifelong fan of Neil Young and growing up to "Harvest" in the 1970s, I always knew that Neil Young was not native. I have heard some say he was Canadian Sioux, but that never convinced me. Neil Youngs earlier music with his band Crazy Horse in particular makes natives references in "Cortez the Killer" and "Pocahantas". In Pocahantas (1975), his lyrics paint modern scenarios with traditional settings.

    Aurora borealis
    The icy sky at night
    Paddles cut the water
    In a long and hurried flight
    From the white man
    To the fields of green
    And the homeland
    We've never seen.

    They killed us in our tepee
    And they cut our women down
    They might have left some babies
    Cryin' on the ground
    But the firesticks
    And the wagons come
    And the night falls
    On the setting sun.

    They massacred the buffalo
    Kitty corner from the bank
    The taxis run across my feet
    And my eyes have turned to blanks
    In my little box
    At the top of the stairs
    With my Indian rug
    And a pipe to share.

    I wish a was a trapper
    I would give thousand pelts
    To sleep with Pocahontas
    And find out how she felt
    In the mornin'
    On the fields of green
    In the homeland
    We've never seen.

    And maybe Marlon Brando
    Will be there by the fire
    We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
    And the good things there for hire
    And the Astrodome
    And the first tepee
    Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
    Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

    Whether this song is exploitive or pro-indigenous depends on whom you talk to, but Americans in general and media powers consistently claim the rights to redefine what is and who are native and who are and what is not.

    Jesse Edwin Davis, a full blooded Kiowa from Oklahoma worked with some of the biggest people in music from the Beatles, Eric Clapton, BB King, Neil Diamond, Taj Mahal, and Bob Dylan, but he never got, not gets, any credits from mainstream media, period.

    Why does artists like Neil Young get publicity just for wearing a leather fringed jacket? Are Americans that shallow and dumb about what defines Indians? If anything, Neil Young is the rock and roll version of Iron Eyes Cody.

    dmarks said...

    I'm a long term Neil Young fan myself, and was surprised to read about his wannabe-ism.

    Yes, Pocahontas was the first song of his that came to mind for this subject also.

    Rob said...

    The narrator of Pocahontas may be a modern Indian, but I'd say the song falls squarely into the "lamenting the past" category.

    Consider: This narrator has nothing but memories. He dreams of a homeland he's never seen. His eyes are blanks and he sits in a little box. It sounds pathetic and nothing like the Indians I know.

    Anonymous said...

    Don't forget about Jim Jarmuschs film "Dead Man" with Gary Farmer and Johnny Dapp, Neil Youmg did the soundtrack and Farmer got no praise from anyone!

    Anonymous said...

    Stick with comic books Rob and leave music and lyrics to Neil Young!

    Rob said...

    I'm not writing lyrics, Anonymous, I'm analyzing them. That's a different skill entirely--one I'm better at than most people, including Neil Young.

    dmarks said...

    Anon: Yes, apparently Rob is doing as you have requested. I've never seen him present examples of his own music or lyrics here.

    Anonymous said...

    Well pat yourself on the back again Rob, your the token analyst!