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Opinion. Music icon Robbie Robertson (Mohawk/Cayuga) walked on last week after a long illness at the age of 80. His manager of three decades, Jared Levine, said Robertson was surrounded by his family as he moved to the spirit world. 

He was born Jaime Royal Robertson on July 5, 1943 to Rosemarie Dolly Chryler, a Cayuga and Mohawk woman. For the first six years of his life, Robertson, an only child, grew up on the Six Nations Reserve, an hour’s drive from Toronto. He often said later in life that when he was a kid, everyone he knew on the reserve played an instrument. “All my cousins, my uncles,” he said. “And I thought, I’ve got to do this.” 

Editor's Note: This Opinion was first published by Native News Online on August 15, 2023.

In his teens, his mother told him that James Robertson, the man she had married while pregnant, was not his biological father. His natural father was a Jewish man named Alexander Klegerman, who died in a highway accident before he was born. 

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Given the long history of Native Americans and Jewish people suffering injustices, Robertson wrote about himself in his memoir, Testimony, “You could say I’m an expert when it comes to persecution.”

Perhaps this expertise helped fuel his extraordinary talent as a songwriter and musician. His contributions to popular music have made him one of the most renowned songwriters and guitarists of his time. In the 1960s, he rose to worldwide fame touring with Bob Dylan as part of the Minnesota singer-songwriter’s backing band, which eventually became known as The Band. 

The Band’s blend of traditional country, folk, blues, rock and some occasional old-time music won them critical acclaim in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, laying the foundation for roots music that later became known as “Americana” — which is slightly ironic given that Robertson and three of his four other Band-mates were born in Canada.  

After The Band broke up, Robertson embarked on a solo career that included solo records, soundtracks, a memoir and a handful of film appearances. He maintained a 55-year working relationship with Martin Scorsese, writing scores for the award-winning filmmaker’s Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983) and Casino (1995), among others. Robertson’s last collaboration with Scorcese was to craft the music for the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, which follows a string of murders of Native people in 1920s Osage County.

What is particularly great about Robertson, who gained worldwide fame as a multi-talented music artist, was that he never forgot who he was as a Mohawk and Cayuga person. In 1994, he teamed with the Native American group called the Red Road Ensemble for Music for the Native Americans, a collection of songs composed for a television documentary.  

In 1998, he released Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, an album that blended Aboriginal Canadian music with electronic, trip hop and modern rock sounds. The album demonstrated his true ties to his Native American heritage and his support of the mission of the American Indian Movement.

One particular song on the record, Sacrifice, highlighted the plight of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was serving two life sentences in prison for a crime he did not commit. The song mixes traditional singing and drums with Robertson’s own voice singing the chorus and a recording from a phone call with Peltier in prison, where the Lakota man tells his story: 

“My name is Leonard Peltier
I am a Lakota and Anishnabe
And I am living in the United States penitentiary
Which is the swiftest growing
Indian reservations in the country
I have been in prison since 1976
For an incident that took place on the Oglala-Lakota Nation.”

Robertson amplified Peltier’s story in interviews with the press, telling Rolling Stone magazine: “Of the three people who were charged, the other two were found not guilty by means of self-defense. When that happened, the authorities said ‘Hold on, what’s happening here? Who do we have left?’ Leonard was the one who hadn’t been put on trial. They hand-picked the judge, they moved his trial to another state — he was a sacrificial lamb.” 

Peltier remains imprisoned. His attorney, Kevin Sharp, told me on Saturday night that Peltier has been in lockdown for some time and believes Peltier may not even have known of Robertson’s passing.

On Friday, the American Indian College Fund issued a statement about Robertson’s passing: “Robertson’s Indigenous heritage had a profound impact on his music, and he continued writing and exploring his heritage through music. He said he supported the American Indian College Fund because of its wide reach across Indian Country and ability to help Native communities through education.

“They’re the best charity in Indian Country,” Robertson said in a 2007 press release after he teamed with Martin Guitars to create a limited edition guitar modeled on the 1919 Martin he used to write the Band’s hit single “The Weight.” Sales of the special edition helped benefit the American Indian College Fund.

Even as he rose to worldwide fame, Robertson never forgot his roots as an Indigenous man, who also happened to be part Jewish, part Canadian, and an architect of American music in the 1970s. Like his music, Robertson was transcendent, a one-of-a-kind mix of bloodlines, influences, styles and life experiences who gave so much to the world—throughout all of Indian Country and far beyond.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].