Grateful Dead

Notes On The Grateful Dead and Native Americans

Wes Lang's Indian Girl.

Wes Lang’s evocation of a Native American take on the Grateful Dead’s iconography for the Spring 1990 boxed set has deep roots in the Dead’s milieu. A fascination with all things Indian was a big part of the Haight-Ashbury, and the Dead were no exception. Band members were as intrigued with Native American heritage as they were with the Anglo side of Americana and the West, which can be seen in photographs, posters, and other artifacts in the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz.

Some aspects of the band’s association with Native Americans were even closer to home. In 1969, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay in an historic bid to raise awareness of a variety of social and political issues; and over the years, the Dead supported Native American charitable organizations and invited Native American groups to perform as opening acts as well.

Probably the most famous link between the Dead and Native Americans was their friendship with Rolling Thunder, “an authentic healer and a fascinating character,” as Dennis McNally put it, who inspired Mickey in particular—see Hart’s album of the same name, which features an invocation by Rolling Thunder. But RT, as he was affectionately dubbed, was a friend to the whole band, someone to whom Weir turned for help when an apparition spooked both him and his dog on a songwriting trip to Wyoming.

NC Wyeth's Indian illustration.

Native Americans also haunt the periphery of the Dead’s world, just as they do the broader cultural context that frames America in all its complexity, like the NC Wyeth illustration of an Indian stretching out his hands that inspired Weir to remark to Barlow, “Looks like rain,” which became the title of the song they were writing. And most fans can think of several iconic posters advertising Dead shows that feature Native American motifs and themes, such as Bill Graham dressed in complete warrior regalia for the Dead’s New Year’s 1990 poster.

Similar trappings have been a part of Deadhead style since its genesis in the Haight-Ashbury, but some fans have had deeper commitments to Native American causes. One group, called the Grateful Dead Indians, handed out flyers at Dead shows in the ’90s, a gesture that captured the imagination of Yale historian Philip J. Deloria, who wrote about them in his book Playing Indian. Most recently, Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus presenter Jeremy Vaughan gave a paper at last year’s conference called “‘Indians Are Better Than Cowboys’: The Grateful Dead and Native Americans” that surveyed that connection.

Wes Lang updates and honors that long tradition with his truly breathtaking imagery for this release. Fans owe Wes a big thanks for his creativity and art: His work for Spring 1990 represents a magnificent continuation of an important strand in the band’s long, strange trip through American culture.

Nicholas Meriwether
Grateful Dead Archivist
UC Santa Cruz


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Brin's picture
Joined: Nov 2 2015
I Want to Know These Stories

While the art may or may not be offensive to an individual of or not or Native Decent, the history is important.

I'm not particularly interested in anything else except the oral and spiritual traditions. These I'm sure were passed to and from the Dead and the Native's of many traditions during the 90's. I know for a fact that these two social movements; one newly established; and one more ancient and realized at a time that we could ever imagine. These two traditions have met, and to pit them against each other is to divide and conquer by those not supporting either.
We must keep our traditions alive so we may share lessons, I need any information I can have on the Native and Dead connection... so both may live.

PS. Any information or persons of oral tradition relating to this movement/era, I needs'. How far South did we make it?

Joined: Apr 4 2008
Spring 90 tour art

1st off I'm Native ,living and working here on my Rez.(Khapo Owingeh) Santa Clara pueblo. 30 miles north of Santa Fe NM. I highly question these "Cherokee Indians" or other so self proclaimed Indians. Im questioning Dina Whitaker as well. I'm calling BS on all you.Are you enrolled tribal members? do you have a C.I.B.(certificate of Indian blood). Do you actually participate in your tribal ceremonies on your Rez? Clan membership? Live on your Rez? Know the good and horrible things that happen on all Rezs? Know the extreme social and economic problems that exist? I DONT find anything offensive about Indians that Wes Lang or anyone else has portrayed!I find it laughable that any Indians find this offensive. Sports teams that bear Indian names are loved by all NM pueblos.Hats of teams such as Atlanta braves,Redskins,Indians are worn with pride. I enjoy the music and hold fond memories of the hundreds of GD shows I've seen. Ive met some cool white people ,and the only thing I find offensive is white people or the "Cherokee " Indians pretending to be Native. Going on a "vision quest" or believing Grandfather Martin from Hopi, telling me how to be a better Native.Dina Whitaker? I doubt her BS.too.

Joined: Jul 10 2014
Real Native Americans

People that follow 0% of our culture, and whose ancestors left our culture generations ago, do not speak for Rez Indians. I'm sorry. Too many 1/4 Cherokee's out there that practice Christianity, white culture, and attempt to speak for us.

Real Natives know what that headdress is. What it takes to earn it. To see a white band show it off, on a skeleton, as if we are dead and gone, is highly offensive. Before you call me insensitive, study our history. Our real history. We are still kept on Reservations if we want to practice our culture. Reservations are POW camps. Still filed as such with the official government documents.

Joined: Oct 6 2012
this does not affect me at all haha

IN response to row jimmys story. someone saw them with a gun, thought it was real, or was gonna really be used, called the cops, before the "hold UP" they were smoking a little pot in their van and the police caught them burning it before they ever made it. that story can be really funny if you look at it right, sucks for them it happened, but there is a humorous side to it. I think maybe portraying a black man as a monkey is wrong and offensive, but does not seem wrong for someone to take images that to us represent an overall culture or indigenous way of life, and feel free to use them in an artistic form, skull with a headress, which was done to represent the proclaimed connection with natives the dead and "hippies' it makes sense anyone offended by it would come off as suspicious of being someone looking for something to be offended about

Joined: Sep 24 2012

I wonder why so many think that some of the artwork involving American Indians is offensive, I do not think so. I am 1/4th Cherokee and have many friends that are full blood Cherokee Indians, I don't think this is offensive at all and I think it's important to respect our native cultures.

Joined: Mar 8 2011
Insensitive and irrelevant?

not really

MissReddin's picture
Joined: Jul 25 2008
gd skull head dress logo sucks-

you guys are insensitive and illrelevant.

fromius's picture
Joined: Nov 22 2011
Cowboys and indians

Legend says,I don't know if it's exactly;that Grateful Dead in certain time were defendin' indians,at the other hand Quicksilver got on well with cowboy culture,and finally at Fillmore or Winterland were "contending" on each side or the other,dressin' like cowboys and indians. ?

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Martin Fierro

Perhaps the closest Native connection to the Grateful Dead was Martin Fierro. He was of Apache and Tarahumara heritage. He played on "Wake of the Flood" in 1973. I used to see him perform with Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at Keystone in 1974. I remember he had an eagle feather on his cowboy hat. Very lively musician. As far as other American Indians and First Nations musicians from the golden hippie era the list is notable. Robbie Robertson is half Mohawk from Canada, Rita Coolidge is Cherokee from Oklahoma, Jesse Ed Davis was Kiowa from Oklahoma and was one of the more talented session musicians in L.A..Jesse Ed played with John Lennon on his "Rock and Roll" album. I came across my Dead tape from March 5, 1972. American Indian Benefit at Winterland and first live "Black Throated Wind". The tape is missinig B.T.W. A new book has been published titled "Hippies, Native Americans, and the fight for Red Power" by Sherry Smith from Oxford University Press 2012.I plan to read it soon. Also Bobby Petersen and Laird Grant lived off and on in Taos in the old hippie days . I met Laird in Taos in 1987 when New Buffalo Commune had a 20th aniversary party. Robert Hunter also spent some time in Santa Fe and Taos 40 to 45 years ago. Many of these stories have died with their tellers. Bobby passed in January of 87. Many more of these stories will pass as the old timers go.

Joined: Jun 29 2012
seems lazy to me

The native indian and all of the spring 1990 art seems lazy and unoriginal to me. Maybe that was the point?


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