“Poetry Is An Indian”—An Outlaw Ghost Still Speaks
Many Southerners are quick to take great pride in their potential ancestry of Native American tribes. Insert Sioux, Cherokee, or Apache here. If we try, we can visualize the images hung on the walls of some homes—majestic paintings of the stereotypical ideal of Native Americans alongside wolves or deer majestically joining them in a soft-glowing forest. Vibrant dream-catchers hung silently alongside. Throw blankets adorned with tribal patterns hung like trophy animal skins from sofas. Then, of course, plenty of sport teams and companies also take advantage of the Native American caricature.
As a culture, we can collectively pretend we know what it means to be Native American. We’ll draw up images of a brave people hunting for buffalo. We can conjure up ideals of living off of the land and smoking peace pipes. We’re all wrong, and our ideas are all whitewashed. We’ve taken—even unknowingly—bits and pieces of diverse cultures that we like and find marketable. Like picky toddlers discarding bits of a meal they don’t find palatable, the South and America at large does away with the extremely diverse range of Native American voices that aren’t a war cry or soft-spoken wisdom offered freely. Roxy Lee Gordon—or First Coyote Boy— didn’t accept this consensus and used his voice, words, and writing to define Native American.
Born and raised in Texas, Gordon was a Choctaw performance artist who focused much of his work on Native American activism. Described by Paula J. Conlon as a “progressive country witness and outlaw poet” in the Texas State Historical Association, he began his career in the early 70s by publishing a music magazine titled Picking Up the Tempo. His love for music had roots deep in his childhood, as his mother played piano and his grandfather participated in country dances by playing harmonica. Gordon would eventually combine his musical inclination with spoken word, using his ghostly voice to recite halting poetry against a backdrop of dark guitar riffs.
Spanning from the 70s to the 90s, Gordon’s career would cause him to cross paths with a number of poetic and musical artists both known and unknown. He “shared the stage and studio with such notable musicians as Bob Dylan, Ernest Tubb, Leonard Cohen, and Townes Van Zandt,” Conlon notes. Jeff Liles, who had a more intimate relationship with the fabled outlaw poet, writes in the Dallas Observer that “Roxy’s peer group of Texas ‘folk artists’ and drinking buddies included a surly cross-section of outlaw freaks that had each (in their own twisted way) redefined the word ‘subculture.’” True to Liles’ observation, Gordon set to redefine Southern perception not only of country music, but Native American representation.
“An Open Letter to Illegal Aliens” puts bold print on America’s problematic views of immigration laws and those who cross borders to get into the states. Gordon takes the derogatory language often used by white Americans and flips it on them within the first few lines:
“It wasn’t that them ol’ Indians had such bad immigration laws, man
It’s just that you European wetbacks came in such vast numbers
That the Sioux and Comanche border patrol
Just couldn’t keep up.”
He not only places European Americans in the hot seat, but forces them to see the pure hypocrisy in their often prejudiced view of immigrants. But after a few lines of verbal ass-whippin’, Gordon takes an unexpected turn toward compassion for white colonizers.
“Still, man, they’ll let you stay.
It ain’t you, you see, illegal aliens,
That these American continents don’t want
It’s that baggage that you’ve slipped through customs
Send that baggage back, man
You can stay.”
In later verses, Gordon defines the baggage as capitalism, communism, materialism, and greed. He pushes for listeners to “ask the water / ask the air / ask the cut, bleeding earth” and the exhausted working class what the concept of money has done to humans and their homelands.
In “Indians,” Gordon defines what it takes to be Native American—and it has a lot less to do with blood relation than most Southerners would like to think.
“And street people are Indians
The presidents of the United States ain’t.
Pancho Villa was an Indian but
Che Guevara was not…
… Willie Nelson is an Indian
But… unions full of cops ain’t no Indians”
The list continues, with African labeled as an Indian (“but Europe ain’t”) amongst others. One of the most significant lines gives the greatest clues as to how Gordon defines Native American for himself: “Poetry is an Indian / and journalism ain’t.” The difference lies more within concepts and lifestyle decisions than bloodline and ancestry. Poetry and street people are Indians because they allow freedom, may have validation taken from them, and harm none in their existence. Journalism and the presidents of the United States often cause harm, are meant to destroy a targeted person, and dismantle freedom of voice and existence under deceptive guises.
After his death in 2000, the South forgot its outlaw poet who gave freedom and Native American culture a plain but poetic voice. Nearly 20 years later, it’s time that we dig Roxy Gordon’s halting, Texan voice up and place him back on shelves for reading. The current state of Southern states is rife with claiming toxic nationalism as a basis for violence against minority demographics including immigrants, when the people screaming the loudest about pointless wall-building aren’t even rooted in the very American soil they claim to love. Gordon is coming back from the grave, to give us a stern reminder of what it really means to be a native of America.