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Ballads of the American Indian

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Judy Schweitzer

Bitter Tears by Johnny Cash

In the 1970s, Johnny Cash’s interest and compassion for the stories of the American Indian (as they were called in that era) grew, as the public became more aware of an activist group known as AIM ( American Indian Movement). Johnny recorded an album called “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,” for and about Native Americans.

It was not one of Cash’s biggest sellers, but a few singles, such as “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” found their way into the top 5 spots in country music. The impact of its message was felt throughout America and many whites joined the cause on the basis of Cash’s support, feeling that a terrible injustice was done to the tribes that were here when the Europeans landed and proclaimed their “ownership” of the continent. Today, you can be a part of history by owning this unique piece of musical history.

Rumor Says He Was Part Cherokee

Some say Johnny Cash’s interest was more than casual, that he was one-quarter Cherokee. There are others who deny this claim. Cash himself has never claimed it. Was he just a man who saw a wrong that had been done and set about to right it? Did he want to inform the world of the callous disregard for the culture and people who deserved better from those who took their land? Possibly, and if you asked those who actually knew him, they’d say he wanted to use his name to do some good for his Native American brothers and sisters.


The Legend

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Johnny Cash – Outsider, Performer, Star, Legend

Johnny Cash began his musical career as an outsider in the Nashville music industry. After recording “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” for Sun Records, (the company where Elvis got his start), Johnny Cash became a popular performer and country star. Future songs would seem to be supportive of the underdogs of society: (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ira Hayes” among others.) He even did concerts for those in prison. But during all that he became a well-respected member of country music performers. By the time of his death in September of 2003, he was a legend, honored by the music industry and the public for his talent and achievements. Listen to a few of the songs below to hear the emotion Cash puts into these recordings.

“…and there are drums beyond the mountain, Indian drums that you can’t hear….”


Ira Hayes “A Marine That Went To War”

Another song, more like a lament, on the Bitter Tears album is the story of the United States Marine, Ira Hayes. He was a man from the Pima Tribe in Arizona. He enlisted in the Marine Corps during WWII, where he was one of 27 surviving men out of 250, who fought their way to the summit of Mt. Suribachi. Ira Hayes was one of those survivors who helped to raise the American Flag, as pictured in the famous photo and statue all Americans recognize. This is his story, set to music. You can hear the emotion in Cash’s voice, as he sings about the sad end of this brave warrior in this video.



“As Long As The Grass Shall Grow…”

This is a chronicle of betrayal and hurt, set to song, as the Native Americans were promised something, time after time, and each time it was taken from them. They were assured by the United States government that the land on the Allegheny River would be theirs “as long as the grass shall grow, as long as the sun will shine, as long as the river flows.” After all those fine promises, hundreds of Native Americans were relocated because of the building of Kenzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren County, Pennsylvania. All their lands were flooded and once again, they were betrayed by the white man’s promises.

The Longest Walk, in 1978, was a spiritual walk of Native Americans across the United States, to bring awareness to anti-Indian legislation that would threaten tribal lands and water rights. It was sponsored by AIM, the American Indian Movement.

The American Indian Movement 1960-1970s

The Flag of The American Indian Movement (AIM) used during the 1970s

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In 1978, AIM believed that new legislation was anti-Indian and would have gone against their best interests under the treaties that had heretofore been in place. AIM organized a spiritual walk of 3,200 miles known as The Longest Walk to support tribal sovereignty. The Longest Walk began on Alcatraz Island on February 11, 1978 with a ceremony involving a Sacred Pipe loaded with tobacco. This pipe was carried the entire distance to Washington, D.C. Many celebrities who were non-Indian supported the cause, including boxer Muhammad Ali, United States Senator Ted Kennedy and actor Marlon Brando.

Congress voted against a proposed bill to ignore treaties with Indian Nations, and passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act which allowed Native Americans the use of peyote in their worship ceremonies. President Jimmy Carter never met with representatives of The Longest Walk.

In 2008 The Second Longest Walk, led by AIM, started from the San Francisco Bay area and covered 8,200 miles and included representatives from more than 100 American Indian Nations. This walk spotlighted the need for protection of sacred Native American sites, and treatment of Native American prisoners, and protection of Native American children.

These days we see little about the problems of Native Americans. Possibly it’s because there are so many other groups vying loudly for national attention or perhaps it’s because many Native Americans truly have assimilated into American life. But there are those who still feel alienated from large areas of white population, whether from their own problems or the feeling that only their own can understand their problems.

American Indians/Native Americans are entitled to the same basic benefits any American citizen is entitled to receive, without regard to their ethnic background. If they are without a job they may draw unemployment OR welfare if their unemployment has run out. They’re also entitled to Social Security if they and their employer contributed. Any other money received by them is through their tribe if it owns resources that the United States Government has bought rights to such as oil, water, minerals, etc. Native Americans do NOT receive monthly government subsidies for having Native blood. You can find out more about this here:  FAQ Native American Rights Fund

and here:  U.S. Department of the Interior

Johnny Cash’ legendary “Bitter Tears” is available here, on CD or on Vinyl.

Bitter Tears: Johnny Cash Sings Ballads Of The American Indian