Cherokee People, Cherokee Tribe: Lyrics And Meaning of The Raiders' 'Indian Reservation'
The Raiders, formerly known as Paul Revere and the Raiders, had a single number one hit, with "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)." Its lyrics are a mixture of historical truth and myth, and the song has quite a dubious backstory. The Raiders were not the first to perform this song, nor would they be the last.
The Raiders were technically not one-hit wonders -- "Kicks," "Hungry," "Good Thing," "Him Or Me -- What's It Gonna Be?" were all top-ten hits in 1966-67. And in fact their period with the "Paul Revere" moniker and Revolutionary War getups is how they're best remembered. But this one song, released late in their career (it topped the Billboard Hot 200 in 1971), turned out to be their biggest hit.
They took the whole Cherokee nation
Put us on this reservation
Took away our ways of life
The tomahawk and the bow and knife
Took away our native tongue
And taught their English to our young
And all the beads we made by hand
Are nowadays made in Japan
Cherokee people, Cherokee tribe
So proud to live, so proud to die
They took the whole Indian nation
Locked us on this reservation
Though I wear a shirt and tie
I'm still part redman deep inside
Cherokee people, Cherokee tribe
So proud to live, so proud to die
But maybe someday when they learn
Cherokee nation will return, will return, will return, will return, will return.
The Song's Fabricated Origin
John Loudermilk wrote the song. According to Loudermilk, Casey Kasem called him in 1971 at 3 a.m. to ask him about the song’s origins. Loudermilk began spinning a story about being trapped in his car during a snowstorm when he fell asleep. He was pulled from the car by angry Cherokee Indians who beat him. Just before they were about to kill him, he told them he was a songwriter and they promised to let him go if he promised to write a song about their plight, even fabricating a chieftain, “Bloody Bear Tooth.”
He changed the story later, claiming that a man with a feather in his hat tapped on the window and supposedly knew his name and knew that he was a songwriter. This man, “Bloody Bear Tooth” led him away from his car to a cave where there were a group of men sitting around a fire. He asked Loudermilk to write the Cherokee story.
Loudermilk Comes Clean
Later, Loudermilk would admit to fabricating the story for Kasem, explaining that the snow storm did happen, but he stayed in a hotel. Supposedly he woke up the next morning to see a group of people walking through the mountains. This led him to read about the Cherokee and inspired the song. He also made the claim that he was awarded the “first medal of the Cherokee Nation” for his Cherokee ancestry, because his great-grandparents were on the Dawes Rolls, the citizenship rolls for the Cherokee Nation. This claim has never been verified and if his great-grandparents had been on these rolls, he would have been a Cherokee Nation citizen, which he is not.
A Number of Musical Acts Covered The Song
Marvin Rainwater, who claimed to be a quarter Cherokee and who wore Native American outfits while performing, first recorded the song in 1959 and released it as “The Pale Faced Indian,” but the song got little notice. Then in 1968, Don Fardon’s version reached number 20 on the Hot 100 and number 3 on the UK Singles chart in 1970. The Raiders’ version climbed the highest on the charts, and became their only Hot 100 number one hit as well as their final top 20 hit. On June 30, 1971, after it sold over a million copies, it was certified gold; it was later certified platinum after selling an additional million. While The Raiders version was the one that charted highest, it was not the last one released. In 1976, Billy Thunderkloud and the Chieftones recorded their version, while Orlando Riva Song released a disco version in 1979, and the English punk band 999 released theirs in 1981.
Differences In The Song's Lyrics
There are some variations between the versions. For example, Rainwater’s version does not include the Cherokee people chorus but does have a series of “hiya hiya-ho” chants. Some other elements of the song were shifted around in Rainwater’s version and his second verse includes the lines "They put our papoose in a crib/and took the buck skin from our rib". Fardon changed the title of the song to “Indian Reservation," and the lyrics are quite similar to the Raiders’ except for the addition of the line "Altho' they changed our ways of old/They'll never change our heart and soul" in the second verse. The end of the song also differs between the versions. The Raiders sing “Cherokee Nation will return,” which Fardon changed to “Cherokee Indian,” and the entire line is not included in Rainwater’s version. Rainwater’s song instead ends with "beads...nowadays made in Japan." In addition, Fardon has also added the line: "Brick built houses by the score/ No more tepees anymore", which does not appear in The Raiders' version.
The Song Was More Accurate Than Not
We're all savvy enough to know that a white rock band singing about Cherokee people is no substitute for a real history lesson, and "Indian Reservation" does have its inaccuracies. The glaring one is that the Cherokee were never taken to a reservation. Many Native tribes were placed on reservations, but the tribes known as the "Five Civilized Tribes" of Oklahoma, and others, were given land in that state. Travelers on Oklahoma highways may have noticed signs indicating that they are entering or leaving the Creek Nation, the Seminole Nation, the Sac and Fox Nation, and so forth.
Cherokees weren't from Oklahoma originally -- they and other tribes were forced to move there on a journey known as the "Trail of Tears." The Cherokee were originally inhabitants of a mountainous region that extended into Tennesee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. In this sense, the song's claim that "They took the whole Cherokee Nation" is relatively accurate -- the Trail of Tears was a forced removal that is remembered to this day.
'They Took Away Our Ways Of Life'
The lines "They took away our ways of life..." and "Though I wear a shirt and tie" are also fairly accurate. Assimilation was the U.S. government's official strategy to solve the "Indian problem." Children of many tribes, the Cherokee among them, were placed in boarding schools where they were forced to learn English ("took away our Native tongue / and taught their English to our young") and wear western clothes ("though I wear a shirt and tie"). Boys were given haircuts. The idea was to raise a generation of American Indians with Western habits and cultural values.
The most famous Indian boarding school was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Over 10,000 Native children from some 140 tribes attended during the school's 39-year existence (1879-1918). Carlisle became known for its incredible football team, coached by Glenn "Pop" Warner, which regularly defeated Ivy League opponents. Its star athlete, reckoned to be perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century, was Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe.
There's a famous phrase that describes this idea of separating Native children from their culture -- "kill the Indian to save the man." If the Indians would stop being so, well, Indian, then perhaps they'd stop resisting American authority and demanding sovereignty. This is a very cursory summary of an episode of Native and American history that created resentments and cultural frictions that remain to this day.
What's The Deal With The Beads And Japan?
The oddly specific lines "all the beads we made by hand / are nowadays made in Japan" isn't totally accurate but the idea is there. American Indians did have beads before trade with Europeans -- made of materials such as seeds, stone, clay, wood, bone, horn, pearl, shell and antlers. Today, when we think of Native "beadwork" we imagine the intricate, mosaic-like arrangements of brightly colored glass beads. American Indians didn't have glass as a material -- they traded with westerners to get these tiny glass beads (sometimes called "seed beads") for their regalia. The beads came from Italian glassmakers (who also supplied African tribes with beads), as well as from Holland, Poland and Czechoslovakia. It's not unreasonable to think that if you were to go to your local craft store and buy beads, they would be of Asian origin, though probably more likely made in China than Japan.
The beadwork of the Plains Indians is perhaps best known, but many tribes practiced bead art to some extent. The Cherokee beadwork tradition is continued to this day, by contemporary bead artists such as Martha Berry.