Cowboys and Indians

Colm Mac Con Iomaire, a member of Irish band The Frames, writes about encounters with Native Americans whilst on tour in the United States. The Frames play a Halloween concert at the National Museum of Modern Artin Dublin this evening.




As far back as I can remember I've always had a fascination with 'Indians'.

I can still see myself as a small child making a bow and arrow with a stick, a length of string and a couple of pieces of bamboo.

Since that time I always have an eye peeled for "Indians" on my travels around America with my band the Frames, the sonorous place names.. Milwaukee, Missoula, Chicago, Seattle, Medicine Hat etc. they have a magic all of their own. 

I well remember meeting my first 'American'. It was the Frames' first trip to New York in 1993. He was an Apache who called himself 'John' who lived in the Village.

We knew that 'John' couldn't be his real name and after a little coaxing from myself and Noreen O'Donnell, he told us that his Apache name was "Natchia".

He was very taken aback when I could sound his name properly. (I could empathize with that experience!)

New York was still wild and vibrant back then, before Rudi Giuliani arrived with his repressive measures which banished thousands of artists and other "colourfuls" from the city.

Indeed it was a dangerous city at that time too, but it had an incredible pulse, reminiscent of a pre-Katrina New Orleans.

On that first summer evening in New York, Natchia told us that he'd read Lou Reed's tarot-cards on the street earlier that day and that summed up New York at the time and the Village especially, the Stars were still on the street.

But on our next meeting with Natchia, he was a different fellow.

He had the glazed and ugly belligerence of a man obviously in the grip of alcohol and opiates.

When i think of him now, I doubt very much whether he's still alive.

Nothing new there I suppose, Indians drinking?

Like our own.. not so long ago.

The United States is a strange and wonderful country to travel around.

The band would drive an average of about 10,000 miles per tour in a month.. and a trip like that twice or three times a year.

We've definitely seen more of America than have most Americans.

I really enjoy being in the United States but it scares me.

It's blind naiiveté, it's wilful certainty and scarier still the Television!

There's no doubt but that things are getting worse there over the years.

America is a country riven with doubt, division and inequality.

It took me years to make sense of an uneasy feeling I've always had when in America,

"The people are not from the ground" (a simplistic and obvious conclusion perhaps but true nonetheless).

There's an undeniable truth about an Irishman in Ireland, of a Frenchman in France, of an Englishman in England even but this does not necessarily apply to most Americans.

The 'visitors' have been on holidays a long time now, still there's no sign of them paying any of the overdue rent to the indigenous population.

I remember spending an afternoon in Billings, Montana in 2002.

We were travelling between Vancouver on the west coast of Canada and Minneapolis in north central United States.. there weren't many 'gigging' opportunities between both cities so it left a few days of driving without the reward of a concert, to punctuate each evening.

Our routine is to sleep while we drive at night and spend the afternoon in whatever nearest town which coincides with our driver's need to sleep and that brought us to Billings.

It was clear from our first view of the town, while we searched for breakfast, that we were parked in 'skid row' and it was no surprise (in that part of the United States)that most of the inhabitants were Native Americans (Black people being the other main candidates countrywide).

Just outside our tour bus, on the cold street, lay an old Indian man.

The thing that shocked me about him was how alike he was to the figure of the long-dead Minneconjou chief 'Big foot", who along with 260 Lakota men, women and children, were killed by Union soldiers on their travels between reservations in 1890.The massacre happened in a place made famous by Dee Brown's book called "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee".

What was unusual about the original photograph of "Chief Big Foot" in death, was how awkward and twisted his body looked from the way he fell in the snow after being shot. I was sure that this old man was dead too and decided to find out.

It was only when I approached him that I noticed that he only had one arm and that one of his legs was missing below the knee. An old soldier.

He looked like the part of South Dakota they call the Badlands, a lifetime of exposure to the elements had carved a remarkable face.

In one moment, as if he sensed company, he opened both his eyes and without a word motioned for a cigarette.

I had to light the cigarette and put it in his mouth for him as his only arm was being used to keep himself sitting up.

I was instantly struck by the symbolism of giving this old man tobacco.

Tobacco is sacred to the American Indian and must be presented to their Chiefs and Medicine people before any further meaningful-communication can take place.

The other metaphor was even more profound.. that it wasn't enough to knock the Indian down but that the white man might take his arms and legs lest he stand up again!

The legacy of Wounded Knee.  

I've met many Native Americans since that afternoon and most of them are far from drink.. a quiet, reserved, thoughtful and profound people.

I met Walter a few months ago in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

It was a laundry day.. the bus parked up in a hotel car park on the edge of the small town.

(We played the night before in Boise, Idaho.. a nineteen year old 'boy' from Boise had been killed in a roadside bomb in Iraq that same afternoon.. an only son.)

I was taking in the sun on this day and I spied Walter picking up litter in the car-park.

'How's it going there? Do you mind me asking..Which nation are you from?' I asked. "I'm from the Arapaho Nation"..said Walter. "I live on the Wind River reservation, in the mountains not far from here. I help out here at the hotel..I do some odd jobs and keep the place tidy.."

We started discussing the world and the "Wasichu" (White Man) especially..

"They're never happy, man.. Always chasing after new things, they never have enough!"

I asked Walter whether his people still had their own language and whether it was still spoken by the young people?

"They do now, but it took us a long time to turn it around.."

I was telling him about the Irish experience and how we were faring with our language and we had a gallows-chuckle over the favored empire-building methods employed by 'visitors'.

'What about Religion.. have you still got your own beliefs? Do you follow the Pipe in this area?'

"Yeah sure we do..not so much the Pipe, this here is Peyote country" (Peyote is a small cactus-button that when ingested produces visions).

"Have you ever been in a Sweat-lodge?" asked Walter.

'Not in this lifetime' I answered with a smile..

Walter laughed and started to tell me how he had to go and talk with the tribal elders in Wind River as he had been asked by some non-Indians to build and run a sweat lodge for them..he wasn't sure how the elders would take it.

'Mitakuye Oyasin - We are all related'.. I said, quoting a Lakota phrase.

"Right on!" said Walter thoughtfully.

It was time to move..

We shook hands and wished each other luck.

"You have a good trip now!" said Walter happily.

What occurred to me later thinking about Walter was, that I was probably the first 'Wasichu' to have such a conversation with him. We were both the better for it.

The following day while the 'visitors' were still killing and being killed in Iraq, a young man walked into a college in Virginia and shot dead thirty three of his co-students, a week later again and the only talk on Television was of whether or not students should be allowed to carry guns to protect themselves at school..

America truly is a strange and surreal place to be, at the moment!