‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World’ and how Native Americans shaped rock music

By Asia Butts, Staff Writer

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Contra Costa College held two showings of “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” inside the Fireside Hall on Nov. 8. The documentary, titled after a song by Link Wray & His Ray Men, explores the cultural impact of Native Americans on rock and roll, along with the effects of racism and erasure.

Several Native American musicians were featured in the documentary; including Link Wray, Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Mildred Bailey, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jimi Hendrix, Jesse Ed Davis, rock band Redbone, and Randy Castillo. Other influential musicians also commented, such as Iggy Pop, Taylor Hawkins, Quincy Jones, Steven Tyler, Slash, Marky Ramone, and more.

Prior to watching the documentary, I held the belief that rock and roll were born with the likes of Black icons like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. While this still remains to be the truth, it also can’t be denied that certain aspects of Native American music translated over to rock music, such as unique vocal patterns and percussion. It had never crossed my mind that there were Native American rock stars that ripped piercing solos and banged on drums like the average white rock stars heard on the radio and seen on television.

Looking back on the history of the United States, many didn’t want Native Americans and Indigenous people to be seen or heard, and they violently erased any evidence of them. Canadian singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie mentioned that she was blacklisted by American radio stations in the 1970s. 

“[I was] talking about Native American issues on big-time television and all of a sudden, everything disappeared,” Sainte-Marie said in the film.

The film also addressed solidarity between Black people and Native Americans – not only in relation to music but personal relations. What I found interesting was that many Native American people aided runaway Black slaves and allowed them to stay on their reservations. The Mardi Gras Indians, a group of Black carnival revelers featured in the documentary, took their name from these connections and dressed up in suits inspired by Native American ceremonial apparel.

I give this documentary a rating of four out of five stars. It was not only informative and educational but engaging. The filmmakers had a tendency to get up-close shots often, making the camerawork much more interesting, especially at certain parts that included dancing or playing instruments. The interviews were in-depth and diverse in terms of the musicians featured, including commentaries from younger and older musicians, from different genres and styles of music. Although the documentary was primarily about music, I appreciate that other aspects of Native American culture were spoken about. I believe that this is definitely an essential film to watch to understand the contributions of Native Americans to popular music culture.