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.
Grateful Dead Archivist
UC Santa Cruz
I have not read "Rolling Thunder" the book since the 70s. I stated Brad Stieger as the author. Looking up the book to possibly reread it I see the author was Doug Boyd. So sorry. "All I want is the truth". John Lennon
God Bless em'!
Evidently one time The Dead suprised Quicksilver with an indian raid on Quicksilver's home base. The Dead came as Indians. Totally surprised them! Well, not to be outdone, Quicksilver wanted to retalitate with a raid of their own. So they go to Winterland where the Dead were doing a gig , dressed as cowboys with guns. Unfortunetely Quicksilver got busted by police for bringing arms to the area. Kind of backfired!
Just wanted to share where my work can be read. I am the Topic Writer for Native American History at About.com (a New York Times Company):
I also contribute to Indian Country Today Media Network:
that pic is very Hollywood Indian. It reminded me more than anything of Natalie Wood in 'The Searchers'. So I looked up a picture to check and found this
now look closely...is that some kind of modified stealie she is wearing? Spooky.
Interesting and educational discussion folks, thanks. It's a thn line between paying homage and cultural appropriation.
Once in awhile you can get shown the light.......
And that's why forums like this are so important, even (especially!) when the topic matter is delicate, controversial and difficult like this is. As Native scholars, we like to think we're making progress in being able to talk about these things without being told yet again that we're being overly sensitive or that we just need to "get over" the past. I appreciate the conversation Nick.
Do you know if there is an online connection to Vaughn's paper? Would love to read it.
May the four winds blow you safely home.
Rather than post a list or Rex grantees since 1983, which would derail this thread completely, I refer folks to the listing on the Rex site. Lots of cool groups have benefited from Rex grants over the years...
My thanks to Dina for weighing in with her thoughtful post. My article is entitled "Notes" for a reason: it is a very brief, non-academic sketch of the connections, both substantive and casual, between the Dead phenomenon and Native Americans.
In no way did I make a value judgment on any of those connections - - either implied or otherwise. Rolling Thunder, for example, is considered controversial by some Native Americans; that does not mean that historians should not acknowledge his involvement in the Dead's world.
In fact, my reason for citing both Deloria and Jeremy Vaughan's conference paper was to ensure that knowledgeable readers would recognize that the sketch does recognize the very real issues to which Dina alludes.
Deloria's book is quite critical, as Dina points out; the fact that he chose to frame his final chapter with the Dead phenomenon is what I was pointing out as significant. The fact that I made it a point to include the book is also significant.
Likewise, Vaughan's paper is often quite critical as well, given his deep involvement in Native American causes, although he also points out how complex that terrain is.
Which was the intention of my piece as well: to sketch those connections and point that complexity. As someone who is sensitive to the scholarship on Native American expropriation, I appreciate her concerns and respect them.
The illustration of the Native on horseback was really done by N.C. Wyeth father of Andrew Wyeth. The American Indian Benefit at Winterland was March 5, 1972. Would need further research to see if it was for A.I.M.. The Rex Foundation has helped Native people for years. Would be good to find out what groups have been benefited from Rex.
I appreciate the article and one of the things I've always loved about the Dead (and the Deadheads) is their obvious affection for Native culture. I am myself a Deadhead from way back, but I am also a scholar in Native American studies, and Native by birth. My view is from both perspectives, Deadhead and Indian.
As a Native person, Wes Lang's cartoon Indian girl is offensive. It is offensive for the usual reason cartoon Indians are offensive...it automatically relegates Indians to an imaginary space where we are stuck in an idealized past and irrelevant (or non-existent) in the present. What would happen if the artist tried to pass off an image of a black slave with the same kind of reverence and longing for an American past that this image invokes? This particular image while beautiful, is also very culturally inaccurate. Women don't wear eagle feather headdresses in Native cultures. Only men do.
Phillip Deloria does indeed devote the concluding chapter in his book "Playing Indian" to the Grateful Dead Indians, but not in the flattering way that Nick implies. The book is an interrogation about how Americans have historically appropriated (i.e. taken, or used) Indian identities for various purposes. The overall message is that Americans have never completely accepted their brutal history of genocide and plunder of Indians and their lands, but that they have needed Indians to validate their own sense of identity which is not entirely European, but not Native (one could say indigenous). It is about the search for an elusive authentic identity. As Deloria says in the chapter "To play Indian has been to connect with a real Self, both collective and individual, and there was no better way to find such reassurance" (pg. 183).