Celebs People

10 Celebrities Who Support Native American Rights


By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

It’s a sad reality that history books not only neglect to tell the real story of the indigenous people of the Americas; they also downright lie. Take the feast of Thanksgiving for instance. The allegedly idyllic partnership between 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians that involved sharing a meal back in 1637 didn’t quite go as we were told. The true story is that after they had saved the Europeans from starving to death, in the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries and were shot, clubbed to death, or burned alive in their homes. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed a Thanksgiving to celebrate the safe return of all colonial volunteers, who had by then massacred 700 Pequot Indians.

Europeans have brought a very dark history to the Americas, one involving genocide, theft and environmental destruction. But the damage we have done is not just hiding in the past: still today, treaties made with the Natives are continuously broken by the ‘white men’ (namely, CEOs of major corporations) who continuously encroach on was has been legislated as Native territory, especially if any natural resources are found there. 

The fact is, all North and South Americans (and Australians and New Zealanders, for that matter) who are not indigenous are living on stolen land which was gained by a very deliberate genocide, marginalisation and exploitation of indigenous people. Although there was a large civil rights movement led by the likes of Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X in the 60s and 70s, this hasn’t translated into furthering Native rights much.

Leo DiCaprio recently made headlines for making a short speech about Native rights at the Golden Globes, but fortunately, a small but powerful number of other celebrities have been slowly but surely shedding light on the plight of the First Nations people of North America, too. Here’s our list of 10 Celebrities Who Support Native American Rights.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio

Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio made a short but strong statement during his acceptance speech for best actor at the Golden Globes: “I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the indigenous communities around the world.” DiCaprio, who played the lead role as a fur trapper in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, concluded his speech by saying: “It is time we recognise your history and protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people who are out there to exploit them. It is time that we heard your voice and protected this planet for future generations.” It was a great speech, but unfortunately the film The Revenant continued to stereotypically depict Native Americans as little more than violent peoples….

9. Channing Tatum

The hunky star of Magic Mike has Native American blood running through his veins himself, and his solidarity towards indigenous cultures have brought him all the way to the Ecuadorian Amazon to meet the Sápara people. His visit to the rainforest was to learn more about the culture of the indigenous people and the struggles that they are facing from the 11th oil round exploitation and the loss of their culture. Former Director of Fundación Pachamama, Belén Paez, and Sápara leader, Manari Ushinga, guided Channing on his Journey through the Amazon. Tatum also learned more about a new eco-lodge project, called Naku, that the Sápara people are planning as a source of income and alternative to money from the oil industry.

8. Leonard Cohen

A true artist, Cohen supports the native people of his birthplace, Canada, through art; namely in Beautiful Losers. This was  the second novel by the writer and musician, and takes place in the Canadian province of Quebec during the 17th century. The Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s tale is interwoven with a love triangle between a Canadian folklorist, his Native wife and a Member of Parliament leader of the separatist movement. You can watch Cohen read a bit of the novel, below. He has since stood up for First Nations People in Canada by signing the Leap Manifesto.

7. Anthony Keidis

The lead singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers is said to be of either Mohican or Apache ancestry on his mother’s side. A heritage he is very proud of, which he has tributed with a tattoo of a Chief Sitting Bull on his upper right arm and a large stylised Haida thunderbird on his back. He has written several songs supportive of Native rights, including Kick a Hole in the Sky, Fight Like A Brave and Ghost Dance, based on a real dance that North American Indian tribes did to protect themselves from the white settlers and the religion they imposed upon them.

6. Neil Young

Back in 2012 Neil Young put a Native horseman on the cover of his album Psychedelic Pill, but he has always had a fascination with Native American culture. Native themes feature in much of his music, including “Cortez the Killer,” “Pocahontas,” and “Broken Arrow” but let’s not  forget his backing band Crazy Horse is named after the Oglala Lakota leader of the Great Sioux Nation, who fought fiercely (and sadly failed) to protect the land promised to his people from being revoked after gold was discovered on it.

It was a deja vu situation for Native Indians when former Canadian PM Harper made deals with oil companies that would strip the Athabasca First Nations of their land rights after it was discovered oil could be extracted from the tar sands on the land designated as an Indian reserve; Young was right there to support their struggle.

5. David Suzuki

According to the Canadian environmental activist, scientist and academic David Suzuki, Aboriginal people are our best bet for protecting the planet. There was a time when human kind was creative in finding ways to exploit surroundings. Our brains were our great evolutionary advantage, conferring massive memory, curiosity, inventiveness and observational powers. But with  the overuse of technology we are obnubilating our foresight skills. This is why indigenous knowledge, that has built up over millennia, will never be duplicated by computer science; it has a better propensity in relating with the flora and fauna of Planet Earth and gain a perspective on our place in nature.

Suzuki has been supporting Indigenous Values for many years now, saying that we should be turning to their wisdom to help live in harmony with nature and save the planet.

4. Zack de la Rocha

Zack de la Rocha is one of the biggest and most well-respected names in alternative music, known equally for his militant political activism as for his passionate vocal delivery. In the nineties he rose to fame as frontman for Rage Against the Machine, and his band’s first video, Freedom (see below) served as a mini-documentary to highlight the injustice and brutality by FBI agents who were sent to ‘neutralise’ 200 Native American activists on the Pine Ridge Reservation after they protested a mining company’s move into their land. He is also passionate about and the plight of Leonard Peltier, who was wrongly convicted of killing two of the agents in the attack. Zack is constantly fighting for the rights for the oppressed, including the Native Americans, even though Rage Against the Machine has broken up.

3. Tom Morello

The Harvard graduate and exceptional guitarist made his name with Rage Against the Machine and then later, Audioslave. Morello has been a relentless activist fighting for the oppressed and discriminated, including Indigenous people – so much so, that back in 2014 he was honoured with The Spirit of Courage Award for fighting for a fairer and more just world for Native Americans. He is also an environmental activist, and supported Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy based partly on his pro-environmental position. His version of ‘This Land is Your Land’, below, includes the final, original and often censored verse, which makes the well-known tune what it was actually meant to be – a protest song.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash had some Cherokee blood in him. That fact, along with a strong sense of justice, provides fuel for the passion that pervades the album that almost ruined his career: “Bitter Tears”.

Most of the songs on “Bitter Tears” come from the songbook of a Pima-Indian, Peter LaFarge. LaFarge served in the Korean War, worked with Cisco Houston, made numerous recordings for Folkways and Columbia, and died in 1964 (of either suicide or stroke). Johnny Cash wrote “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves”. LaFarge wrote the remaining songs except J.Horton’s “The Vanishing Race”. The album contains nothing but outstanding songs, many of which refer to real people or events.

“As Long as The Grass Shall Grow” sums up the history of broken treaties. After the American Revolution, the United States found itself very weak. To placate the American Indians (many of who fought on the side of the British), the US government offered numerous peace treaties promising land “as long as the grass shall grow and the waters flow”. US Courts later interpreted such phrases as pure metaphor, and denied claims to land that the treaties promised.

Cash received a lot of flak for making the record, but stuck his neck out even farther when he learned of a shadowy boycott against the record and its single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, then died a disillusioned alcoholic at 32. Cash took out a full page ad in Billboard magazine in protest, and wrote: “D.J.’s – station managers – owners, etc., where are your guts? Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam,” he said of cites with racial tension and struggles, and the war that was beginning to tear apart the nation.

1. Marlon Brando

True, the ‘greatest actor in the world’ is no longer with us, but his name deserves a (very) honorable mention here because he arguably did more for native rights than any celebrity or politician has since. It is well know that to protest the fact that Native Americans were only ever portrayed as ‘savages’ in films, Brando refused to collect his Oscar for the Godfather, sending the Native Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather instead to deliver a speech (which was cut off – but you can see the whole thing here). Brando had a true passion for Native rights, and was deeply involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM) with Leonard Peltier (who was wrongly accused of killing two FBI agents, as mentioned above) during the early 1970s. He sought Littlefeather’s help to protest the ongoing Wounded Knee Incident standoff, which began on February 27, 1973, when approximately 200 people occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The protest was due to the failure of an effort of the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) to impeach abusive and corrupt tribal president Richard Wilson, and followed Native demands to have a spokesperson represent their interests at the White House. Additionally, protesters attacked the United States government’s continuous failure to fulfill long standing treaties with Indian people and demanded the reopening of treaty negotiations.

Brando witnessed the brutality of the National Guard himself, who killed four of the protesters and wounded many more.

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