July 08, 2007

Pop songs about Indians

Native American reservations

There's no brave music for native peoples, says Yuval TaylorPop songs have been both ridiculing and venerating Native Americans for well over a century now, doing everything but portraying them as real human beings. (OutKast's particular trope--Indians appearing from outer space in order to rescue a dying earth--had already shown up in places as diverse as Caetano Veloso's Um Indio in 1977 and Kansas's album Monolith in 1979.)

There were plenty of songs about Native Americans in the 19th century, but the earliest 20th-century example I've found is Navajo, from 1903, whose chorus runs, "Nava, Nava, my Navajo/ I have a love for you that will grow." Making love to Indians was a popular fantasy: it's the subject of old folk songs such as Little Mohee and Shenandoah; Tin Pan Alley numbers including Mineola (or the Wedding of the Indian and the Coon) and Arrah Wanna (An Indian Irish Matrimonial Venture), and Yiddish comedienne Fanny Brice's 1921 I'm an Indian, a fantasy about marrying one. But it didn't stop when most other racial attitudes from that era became unacceptable. Even that most bleeding-heart of songwriters, Neil Young, sang: "I would give a thousand pelts to sleep with Pocahontas"; and Slick Rick devoted not one, but two jaw-droppingly explicit songs to sex with squaws.

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