by Akim Reinhardt
Europeans spent 400 years killing, raping, lying to, and robbing Indigenous Americans. And then, when they’d taken most everything they wanted, they turned Native peoples into tokens, costumes, mascots, and fashion accessories. Like most fashion trends, it’s gone in cycles.
During the mid-19th century, when secretive men’s fraternal societies such as the Masons and Shriners became popular, the Improved Orders of Red Men was one such organization. Members occasionally dressed as make believe Indians and “whooped” it up. Although most people today have not heard of them, some Red Men societies held on until the late 20th century. Indeed, my own Baltimore neighborhood had a Tecumseh chapter building when I moved here in 2003.
By the early 20th century, dressing up as Indians had become a trendy pursuit for boys. The Boy Scouts promoted this appropriation, and it soon spread to countless summer camps across America. This childish cosplay was widespread during the first half of the Cold War, when Hollywood Westerns were at their peak of popularity, both in movie theaters and on TV. Countless backyard games of cowboys and Indians ensued, along with a fresh wave of children dressing up as both.
By the late 1960s, rising disenchantment with the Vietnam War led American popular culture to recast Native Americans; instead of war-whooping obstacles to civilization’s inevitable progress, they were now framed, much like the Vietnamese, as tragic victims of U.S. aggression. It was a simple role reversal of the good guys and bad guys. And so it became hip, at least in some circles, to be Indian. Predictably, this fed a new wave of white people dressing up as Indians. Indian-inspired fashions such as fringed buckskin, turquoise and silver jewelry, beads, and moccasins became popular, first among hippies and then in the mainstream culture. Adults mimicking Indians was in vogue again. Which helps explain the band Redbone.
Candido “Lolly” Vasquez and his brother Patrick spent their 1940s childhood living and working in the migrant agricultural camps in and around Fresno, California. But they found their true calling, and their way out, when rock n roll burst onto the scene. Both sang, Pat learned bass, Lolly picked up the guitar, and they started playing in local combos. In 1959, the duo moved to Los Angeles. Pat was 17 years old. Soon after arriving, they hooked up with drummer Ed Green, who later played with The Jackson 5. Their trio spent three years as the house band at a hoppin’ nightclub called The Peppermint Tree, playing mostly covers and some originals. The brothers cycled through other drummers and various incarnations, gigging for several more years at clubs along the Sunset Strip. First they called themselves the Avantis and rode the surf-rock craze. They recorded several singles and opened for the Beach Boys. They also cut 45s as the Routers, the Mar-kets, the Sharks, and the Deuce Coupes. The latter recordings included session work from a young Glenn Campbell and star of last week’s chapter, Leon Russell.
Around this time, noted writer/arranger/producer Bumps Blackwell, who worked with, among others, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert, and Sly and the Family Stone, convinced the brothers to change their last name. He thought they’d do well with something that sounded less Hispanic and more “club-friendly.” They became Pat and Lolly Vegas. Apparently it helped. They soon appeared in several beach movies, including 1965’s It’s a Bikini World; they became a regular act on the TV show Shindigs (which Leon Russell also played on); and they did backing work for Elvis in the film Kissin’ Cousins, all while continuing to work the L.A. club circuit. In 1966, still riding the surf and go-go fads, the brothers released their first solo album, Pat and Lolly Vegas at the Haunted House. Leon Russell co-produced it. They also branched out, working as session musicians on other artists’ recordings.
Then, in 1969, the brothers found a new name for their band: Redbone.
They recruited guitarist Tony Bellamy and drummer Pete DePoe, and signed with Epic/CBS Records. The next year they released a self-titled debut album. But it wasn’t about the “Indian thing” yet. Instead, the Vasquez/Vegas brothers had spent several years working up a Cajun (very loosely defined) theme. The double album featured songs like “Crazy Cajun Cakewalk Band,” “Tennessee Girl,” “Jambone,” and “Danse Calinda.”
It wasn’t until late 1970, with the release of their second album, Potlatch, that Redbone became Indian rock n rollers. The timing was perfect.
American sympathy for Native peoples and issues was being stirred up as Native activists and causes grabbed the national spotlight. A pivotal moment came in 1969, when Indigenous people occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco harbor. The old federal prison transformed into a site of Native protests for two years. The press gobbled it up as leaders satirically called for establishing a Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to tutor savage white people in the ways of civilization.
Then in 1970, author Dee Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. A re-telling of Western history that put the black hats on Americans and cast Indians noble, innocent victims, it was the year’s top-selling non-fiction book. By then, Indian-inspired fashions were peaking as the popular culture co-opted the hippie counterculture. Redbone was there to catch the wave.
The front cover of Potlatch is bordered by a patchwork of Pendleton blankets, an iconic feature of the old fur trade days. Two of the band members are wearing stylized headbands. On the back cover, the Native imagery is more overt. One of the band members is wearing a beaded headband and tasseled vest. The four of them are perched among a collection of attired Native people: an old man, a young woman, and two kids. Among the record’s songs are“Alcatraz” and “Without Reservation.” The album’s title is also a nod to Native cultures. A potlatch is an extravagant feast/giveaway ceremony that wealthy Indigenous aristocrats in the Pacific Northwest threw to celebrate certain major life events (eg. marriages or naming ceremonies), and to cement their hereditary elite status through conspicuous display of wealth.
No, Virginia, Indians didn’t live in a classless Eden before whitey showed up.
After Potlatch, Redbone continued releasing Indian themed albums. Next came Message from a Drum (1971), with a cover painting of tipis and Indians on horses. There was still some old “Cajun” inspired material to work through, including the lead single “Witch Queen of New Orleans.” But Redbone was also overtly playing up their Indianess in concert. Members wore Indian costumes and accessories and sometimes performed Indian dances.
Already Here (1972) had a stereotypical Indian shaman front and center on the cover. Wovoka (1973) was named for the Paiute prophet who founded the Ghost Dance religion. By 1974, the cover shot to Beaded Dreams through Turquoise Eyes featured the foursome in 19th century plains Indian wardrobe, a.k.a. the official costume all things “Indian” in pop culture. Think bone chokers and breast plates, braids wrapped in leather, patterned blankets, and a couple of feathers thrown in for good measure. In an interview, Pat Vasquez even claimed that Jimi Hendrix, who himself identified as part Cherokee, had inspired him and his brother to form an all-Native band.
So were the members of Redbone actually Indian? It’s really not for me to say. And even asking that question opens up another one: What, exactly, do you mean by “Indian?”
The Vasquez brothers were certainly at least partly (maybe entirely) of Mexican descent, which brings its own set of complications. After gaining independence in 1821, Mexicans began co-opting Indigenous cultures to define their new nation. In particular, they often harkened back to the mighty Aztec Empire to set themselves apart from Spain. The Mexican flag even features Aztec symbolism (an eagle sitting on a cactus). Much like the United States then, Mexico conquered and exploited Native societies, then superficially glorified its Indigenous heritage, even as the government and dominant society continued to screw over Native peoples.
A big difference, however, is the size of Mexico’s Indigenous population. Whereas less than 2% of modern Americans are Native, a sizable portion of Mexicans, particularly in southern Mexico, are Indigenous, many of them continuing to speak Indigenous languages. Furthermore, the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a Spanish word that signifies mixed Indigenous, European, and (to a lesser extent) African ancestry.
While many Americans, both black and white, falsely claim Native ancestry nowadays, relatively few actually have any. American Indians often refer to people who pretend to be Indian as “Wannabes.” But most Mexicans don’t have to pretend. The vast majority Mexico’s population really is mestizo.
Then again, simply being partially descended from Native ancestors doesn’t automatically connect you to modern Native peoples or cultures in any meaningful way. Many Mexican mestizos, for example, do not maintain direct connections to Native societies, and don’t pretend to. Rather, they understand themselves as simply Mexican, and recognize “Mexican” as a modern admixture of Spanish and Native.
Unfortunately, American culture doesn’t make much room for such nuances. Even though many Americans are ethnically mixed in one way or another, our society often doesn’t acknowledge them as such, instead attempting to pigeon hole folks into one racial/ethnic category or another. Before 1960, Americans couldn’t even define themselves in the decennial census; the census-taker showed up at your door, looked you up and down, and picked a racial category for you. And it wasn’t until 2000 that people could even identify as more than one “race” on the census.
American reticence to accept mixed heritage people as such can be seen in the way our society defines black people as “black” even if they’re relatively light skinned and majority European descent. Barack Obama is a case in point. Half black and half white, raised almost entirely by his white family, and partially in Kansas, one of the whitest places in America, most Americans nonetheless understand him to be black because his absentee father was from Kenya.
This is your America.
In addition to their mestizo Mexican heritage, the Vasquez brothers also claimed Yaqui and Shoshone descent. The Yaquis are Indigenous to what is now the U.S.-Mexico border region. The Shoshones are from the lands west of the Rocky Mountains. Redbone’s second guitarist, Tony “T-Bone” Bellamy, was from Nevada and also claimed Yaqui-Mexican heritage. The band went through several drummers, including Bellamy’s cousin Butch Rillera and Peter DePoe (Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ojibwe, Siletz, Rogue River Tututni, and Iroquois).
The point here is not to cast aspersions on or speculate about Redbone’s Indianess. Rather, it is to point out how complicated ethnic identity can be in modern America. And even in old time America. Which brings us to the band’s name.
Many people assume the Vegas (Vasquez) brothers chose “Redbone” as a statement of their deep inner Indianess. As if to say, We’re Indian (“red”) right down to our bones, or something to that effect. But in fact, they chose the name before deciding to play up their Indian image. Instead, the name Redbone initially referred to their broad and “Cajun” and Louisiana voodoo motif.
“Redbone” is actually a Southern colloquialism referring generally to creole (mixed heritage) people. That is, people who couldn’t be neatly categorized as white, black, or Indian because they were mixed and had developed their own sub-cultures. The term can also refer more specifically to a particular group of mixed “free peoples of color” (free African Americans) who originally hailed from South Carolina, and settled in southern Louisiana during the early 19th century.
While the Vasquez brothers didn’t have any connection to the American South, they may have been drawn to the name because they understood it to reflect their own mixed ancestry. Either way, the name stuck as they transitioned from being a “Cajun” (they actually would’ve been better off with the term “Creole”) band to being an “Indian” band.
Consequently, some may take a jaundiced view of Redbone. Did the Vasquez brothers exaggerate their Native heritage? Possibly. Did they pander to pop culture stereotypes about Native peoples and cultures during the 1970s? Almost certainly. And was it at least partly a cynical effort to cash in on America’s recurring “Indian” fad? That’s hard to know. After researching them as best I could, I don’t think so, but it’s difficult to rule out completely.
Much more important than my opinion, however, is what actual Native people did/do think of all this (I am not Native).
Regardless of the band members’ complex backgrounds, many Native people accepted Redbone on their own terms. In 1998, the band appeared as presenters at the Native American Music Awards. And in 2008, Redbone was inducted into the Native American Music Association Hall of Fame.
Maybe that’s because many Native Americans understand, better than most other Americans, the flip side of race and culture. If partial Indian ancestry (imagined or real) doesn’t automatically make you Indian, then it’s also true that partial non-Indian ancestry doesn’t automatically make you not Indian. Many Native people born and raised into vibrant, thriving Indigenous communities have mixed ancestry. Not all of them, but many to one degree or another, and most in some Native nations. And of course “race” is actually a European concept, not an Indigenous one. Historically, most Native nations defined membership through family descent, not pseudoscientific racial make believe. And most Native societies also had robust social institutions for the full kinship adoption of both children and adults, regardless of their biological ancestry.
In the end, though, it wasn’t any of Redbone’s Indian-themed songs that rocketed up the charts and made them famous. Rather, it was the catchy 1974 pop tune “Come and Get Your Love” that sold over a million copies and stayed in the Top 40 for 18 weeks, peaking at no. 5. It was the year’s best selling single, and to this day remains a fixture on oldies radio stations. It’s also the song that got stuck in my head for over two weeks in March, 2014.
So in the end, who were they? Christ, who the fuck am I?
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com