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The Blind Spot In The Great American Protest Song

Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" has long been offered as an "alternative national anthem," performed by musicians from Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger to Chicano Batman and Sharon Jones. Its message seems fairly simple — we are all equally entitled to the rights of this country, including the land we stand on. But Native Americans will just as soon point out that the core of the song, that "this land was made for you and me," is a wholly colonialist message.

Ever since Jennifer Lopez performed the iconic folk tune within a medley at President Biden's inauguration, alongside "America the Beautiful" and her own "Let's Get Loud," the song's relevance and inclusivity has been called into question, especially as we enter into a new administration that seeks to unite a divided country.

"I think it was disappointing," says Rebecca Nagle, host of the This Land podcast and member of Cherokee Nation, about the song's inclusion. "I mostly experienced the Inauguration on Twitter. It was like I was living in two worlds, where my non-Native Twitter was talking about how great J.Lo is — and she is — and then Native Twitter was like, 'Seriously? "This Land Is Your Land" is how we're gonna celebrate today?'"

Although the song is often recognized as a patriotic anthem, Native Americans argue that the song plays into America's continual erasure of Indigenous peoples in culture. Many pointed out that America rests on stolen land, while others called it "tone deaf" for such a ceremony. This is not a new issue: Cree musician Buffy Sainte-Marie refused to perform the song with Pete Seeger in 1966, telling the Village Voice in 2017, "I just cried through it. I thought, 'This used to be my land and you guys aren't even smart enough to be sensitive to this?'"

Mali Obomsawin, an Odanak Abenaki First Nation activist and musician with the band Lula Wiles, agrees. "In the time that we're in, I think that a lot of people are trying to break through the bubble of white ignorance," she says. "I think having J.Lo sing a song that is supposed to unite all Americans — except for Natives of course — is really just in line with that performative social justice that the government and people higher up in the American system are being called to address."

Obomsawin has previously broached her issues with the song in an essay for Smithsonian Folklife, which deconstructed the song's origins as a socialist protest anthem, and provides the background of American conquest to the song's different interpretations.

"In the context of America," she writes, "a nation-state built by settler colonialism, Woody Guthrie's protest anthem exemplifies the particular blind spot that Americans have in regard to Natives: American patriotism erases us, even if it comes in the form of a leftist protest song. Why? Because this land 'was' our land."

Guthrie himself was not entirely ignorant of Native Americans or their struggles — his song "Oklahoma Hills" makes note of the Osage Nation and previously included lyrics listing other tribal nations, which were later cut when it was adapted by his brother Jack. He wrote in an unpublished poem, "My blood beats Spanish and my breath burns Indian and my soul boils negro," and he also said in a 1949 performance, "They used every kind of a trick to get these Indians to sign over their lands."

It is likely that Guthrie did not intend the song to either be wholly patriotic nor wholly colonialist. Rather, the song was likely meant as a message of unity for the common American. What his lyrics do tell, instead, is that his message was more tone deaf than anything, especially when read in the 21st century at a massive public event like the inauguration.

"As a country, we're sort of telling ourselves the story of who we are," says Nagle. "In that ceremony, we're telling the story of what our history is, who we are today, and where we're going. And when you leave Indigenous people out of that story, that's how anti-Indigenous racism functions, is through erasure."

The song has to be considered within the context of how it is presented, Obomsawin also argues — in this case, during a ceremony that included very little recognition of Native Americans at all. In different iterations of the song, we are oftentimes lent a new perspective. Guthrie's original recording was in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," for example. Others sing it to remind Americans of the diverse cultural backgrounds of its citizens. White musicians like Pete Seeger and Dave Matthews have even added in Indigenous-minded verses that put the original's in stark relief.

"This land is your land," goes one verse written by activist Carolyn "Cappy" Israel, which Seeger often performed, "but it once was my land / Before we sold you Manhattan Island / You pushed our nations to the reservation / This land was stole by you from me."

Likewise, some of this country's best anthems are those that offer a critique of what it stands for — songs like Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and Childish Gambino's modern classic "This Is America." Springsteen's song is also one that often gets trotted out for big ceremonies under the guise of hardcore patriotism, but anyone who's listened to the song will tell you it takes a sharp look at the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Guthrie intended his song to take a critical stance against this country, in a way that was pretty radical for its time. But he also recognized that this country has a lot of beauty to give, which has been corrupted by private interests. It proves it is possible to offer critique and refuge simultaneously. Maybe that same sensibility can be applied to the song itself — taking the good and bad just the same.

Obomsawin does admit that this song has become a lightning rod for discussion among those who consider the song an essential part of America's folklore.

"I think because America is such a new country and it has some identity problems," she says, "there is this obsession with preserving things from the past. And Guthrie is a source of pride for a lot of people, especially activists.

"It just doesn't really seem that precious to me, as a Native person. It's really more of a matter of: Is America willing to address the problems that are represented by the blind spot of this song?"

Nagle agrees that, Guthrie's intended meaning aside, it's more important to focus on bigger-picture issues facing Native communities. "You know," says Nagle, "maybe [Guthrie] had good intentions and he wrote a dumb verse that now has taken on a new meaning, but why is that the point? Why is the point not: In this moment of symbolic significance for the United States, why are we going through this ceremony erasing Indigenous people?

"I don't care if you think Woody Guthrie is good or bad, I want to live in a country that believes in the rights of Indigenous nations."

Indigenous citizens are so often left out of the larger conversation that it is no surprise Guthrie's omission has not had any impact on its ascendency to anthem status, evidenced even by its entry in NPR's list of the most important American musical works of the 20th century, which fails to note this issue. "This Land Is Your Land" is not the problem, but that many offer the song without critique may be more telling than the lyrics themselves.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.