Exploring Identity in Native American Visual Art and Music through Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Salas, Robbie Robertson, and the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo

Essential Question

How have Native American musicians and visual artists negotiated their identity, and what role does physical space play in these negotiations?


In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a letter marked “unofficial and private” to Indiana Territory Governor (and future president) William Henry Harrison. In the letter, Jefferson provides “information and instructions as to our Indian Affairs,” and outlines the Federal Government’s plans to encourage tribes to leave their hunter-gatherer societies and take up agriculture. This, Jefferson and others hoped, would result in Native Americans then selling off vast tribal forestlands to the American government. “In this way,” Jefferson concludes, “our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or be removed beyond the Mississippi.”

Many Native Americans, however, wished neither to “incorporate as citizens” or depart from lifestyles their communities had practiced for centuries. Among the most vocal dissenters was Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader who traveled widely and amassed a sizable following from dozens of tribes that opposed Jefferson’s vision. Tecumseh aligned his large, pan-tribal force with the British during the War of 1812, and, despite several early military victories, was ultimately defeated. Following this loss, treaty after treaty resulted in Native Americans being forced west of the Mississippi. Those who remained were expected to “incorporate as citizens,” or “assimilate”–i.e. “bring into conformity”–with the European American public that surrounded them.  

“Assimilate,” leave, or face the consequences–Native Americans have grappled with these choices for over two centuries.

Just how Native Americans were to “bring into conformity” with the 19th century American public was an issue of much debate. To some, it meant that Native Americans should adapt to the farming and factory jobs that might occupy one with darker skin. To others, “conformity” within the European American U.S. could only be achieved by a complete abandonment of all things “Indian”–communal living, the pooling of resources, native languages, religious practices, and music. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this movement to “civilize” Native Americans resulted in measures such as the banning of song and dance, and the forced enrollment of thousands of Native American children in Federal Indian Boarding schools designed to “Americanize” them in both body and mind.

By the early 20th century, Native American heritage could be both dangerous and shameful. To all but the proudest it had become something to hide. As several musicians recall in RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World, such feelings became deeply embedded in future generations. Guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Robbie Robertson recalls his elders advising him in the 1950s, “be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” Elsewhere in the film, guitarist Stevie Salas discusses coming to terms with his heritage only as a young adult in the 1980s, and the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo admits to intentionally privileging his Hispanic heritage over his Shoshone ancestry in the multiethnic Los Angeles of the early 1990s. Each of these musicians, however, ultimately returned to their cultural and geographical roots and found personal strength.

In this lesson, students begin by examining the ways their sense of identity might be affected by social pressures associated with different spaces. By watching clips from RUMBLE, students then discover how musicians Robbie Robertson, Stevie Salas, and Taboo have negotiated their Native identities, and compare these musician’s journeys with those of earlier Native Americans.

Students then participate in a gallery walk activity, exploring how some artists have negotiated their “Native” and “American” identities visually. Students will also investigate some traditional Native American perspectives on space, and compare Native and European American concepts  of land and property. Finally, students view Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 and consider ways the guitarist might have celebrated his multiethnic identity through an instrumental rendition of the song.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • Ways Native American artists have struggled with revealing or promoting their indigenous ancestry
    • How Native Americans have been historically forced to negotiate their identities
    • The structure and guiding motivation of Indian boarding schools in the early 1900s
    • The artwork of Fred Kabotie, Wendy Red Star, Teri Greeves, Jeffrey Gibson, Diego Romero, and Brad Kahlhamer
    • The relationship between identity and physical space
    • Native American conceptions of land and space, and how it differs from European American ideas about property
    • How music might serve as a vehicle to express identity
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • By discovering how Native American musicians and visual artists have grappled with their identity, students will be able to better empathize with the historic struggles that Native Americans have confronted in the United States.