The name of Gerard Parker, vice chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was misspelled in a Style article yesterday. (Published 4/9/94)
"Indian Outlaw" is the hottest country-western song since the equally catchy and annoying "Achy Breaky Heart." But its novelty is wearing thin with one particular audience: American Indians, some of whom are offended by "Indian Outlaw's" cartoonishly demeaning portrait of their people's religious rites.
"You can find me in my wigwam/ I'll be beatin' on my tom tom/ Pull out the pipe and smoke you some/ Hey, and pass it around," go the lyrics to Tim McGraw's single, which propelled his new album to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart this week. The popularity of "Indian Outlaw" -- the single has already sold 600,000 copies and is climbing the popular music chart -- has not only forced McGraw to publicly defend the song but opened a debate among tribal officials because other Indians embrace it.
"It's a catchy, fun little tune, and there are a lot of Indians around here who love the song," says Lynn Howard, public affairs director for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla. "But translate it to another culture or heritage, and I don't think many groups would stand for it."
In fact, Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation, recently sent a letter to Oklahoma radio stations asking them "to consider not playing" the song because "it is insulting to Indians ... and it promotes bigotry. Tim McGraw appears to be one of those who appropriates Indian culture," Mankiller wrote, "and then corrupts it for his own gain."
McGraw, 26, didn't write the song -- few of country's singing hats pen their own material -- but says he never considered it offensive, only "fun." He also says the majority of Indian fans approve of the tune when he plays it in concert. "Ninety percent of the feedback we've gotten from Native Americans has been positive," McGraw said yesterday from a tour stop in Texas.
"I feel people are smart enough to know that it is entertainment, and it's art," McGraw says. "When people see a cartoon of an Indian running around with a feather, whooping with a bow and arrow, they have to see it as caricature."
But in an era of diversity and self-esteem training, such caricature can be deemed psychologically hurtful. In Southampton, N.Y., recently, an intermediate school scrubbed its production of "Peter Pan" because of the negative stereotypes rampant in the "Ug-a-Wug" song and dance. The school's pupils include 150 Shinnecock Indians.
McGraw, son of former relief pitching star Tug McGraw, says his maternal great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, but he never knew he had Indian blood until about a year ago when his grandmother mentioned it. He cited his heritage when defending the song in a letter to Mankiller.
But McGraw's Native American bona fides don't impress his critics, who are particularly nettled by the song's comic references to the sacred pipe ritual and a medicine man who "drug me around by my headband." McGraw's concert visit to Tulsa in late February drew demonstrators from the Cherokee reservation.
"Almost to the man and woman, our people hate this song," says Vernon Bellecourt of Minneapolis, a Chippewa and longtime activist in the American Indian Movement. "It's sort of a barometer for the racism in America that these cheap cliches are still accepted." A commercial station in Minneapolis dropped "Indian Outlaw" from playlists after local protests.
McGraw's label, the Nashville-based Curb Records, has attempted to blunt the controversy by circulating a supportive letter it solicited from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. "We hope he sells a million copies," wrote Vice Chief Gerard Barker, who added in an interview: "I had about 100 people listen to the song or watch the video, and there wasn't anybody who found it offensive."
But the Eastern Band is criticized by more culturally protective American Indians as a tribe that embraces commercialism and tourism, selling souvenir tom-toms and tomahawks and supporting the Atlanta Braves' "tomahawk chop." Says Barker: "We sell a lot of tomahawks because of the tomahawk chop, and that employs our people. We're not going to cut the hand off that feeds us."
In Washington, home of the Redskins, the song is heavily played on country station WMZQ, but music director Mac Daniels says it has received no protests. "We had some concern about it, but we found out that for the most part it's being embraced by Native Americans. We were told that on some radio stations on reservations, it's the most requested song."
KILI Radio, which serves the Oglala-Sioux Nation on the Pine Ridge (S.D.) Reservation, dropped "Indian Outlaw" from its country-western playlist last week because "it was offensive to the elders who heard it," says deejay Calvin Two Lance. In an on-air poll that drew about 200 callers, 160 said they didn't want to hear the song again, according to Two Lance.
But "Indian Outlaw" is popular on the Apache reservation in White River, Ariz., says Udell Opah, deejay at KNNB. "It's a good song," he says.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a Washington, D.C., Indian activist who's campaigning to get the Redskins to change their name, isn't surprised that some Indians might like the song. "When people don't have anything positive to identify with, they will identify with anything, even if it's negative," she says. "Some of our people wear Washington Redskins caps and bead them on the bill -- even though there is no more derogatory label than 'redskin.' "
McGraw, who grew up with imagery of crafty chiefs in Bugs Bunny cartoons and "Peter Pan's" whooping braves, says everyone knows that real Indians aren't like that. He certainly does. And he wants this printed: "A lot of my friends are Native Americans."
To hear a free Sound Bite from "Indian Outlaw," call 202-334-9000 and press 8181.