Native Americans Giving Back: Martha Redbone

Not every singer has a voice for blending her upbringing with an echo of mountain holler and values distilled in the South since before America was founded, but one does:  Martha Redbone.

Raised on Appalachian folk music and Piedmont blues, Martha Redbone grew up on Clinch Mountain (in Virginia), in Harlan County, KY and in Brooklyn, NY. Choctaw-Shawnee, Redbone is an unchained talent and sought after collaborator. Establishing her career in London and New York City, she has worked with legends such as Walter “Junie” Morrison (of Ohio Players and P-Funk fame) and Shola Ama (British Grammy winner).

Redbone’s music was strongly influenced by the downhome blues of fellow Kentuckians Jim Ford and Jackie DeShannon – long before her forebears Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rita Coolidge brought Indigenous concerns to rock and roll in the 1970s.

Perhaps best known for “The Garden of Love – The Songs of William Blake,” Martha recorded that album in Nashville. In it, she sets to song the poetry of William Blake, calling up old-timey, rustic Americana, with underpinnings of folk and roots music and acoustic blues, offering up “visions of coal mines, simple living and ancestors living at one with the land.”

While prior releases “Home of the Brave” and “Skintalk” (now part of the permanent collection of contemporary Native music at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)) also explore rhythm and blues, “The Garden of Love” is considered Martha at her best, focusing on vocals and allowing her deep communion with the spirits of her ancestors. Raising her son, losing a mother and aunt, and facing other trials during the writing of this album, it was a 5-year work of art giving voice to these turbulent times. Lyrics like “C’mon, brothers and sisters, and get yourselves back to some semblance of The Garden” give comfort and meaning and appeal to plain folks hungering for a simple truth. It was voted one of the best albums of 2012.

Yet Martha’s contributions don’t stop there. She talks on indigenous rights, the role of arts in politics, and Native identity at universities, and she talks on motivation at reservation grade schools. After the infamous Red Lake shootings, Martha donated 100 “Skintalk” albums to the tribal youth council. For being an exemplary ambassador to Native and African youth for the National HIV/AIDs Partnership, she was recognized by the U.N. with a Red Ribbon Award.

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at bit.ly/MarthaRedbone

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at bit.ly/MarthaRedbone

Currently featured as a popular artist in NMAI’s exhibit, “Up Where We Belong,” Martha holds a Traditional Music Workshop annually in the United Houma Nation (LA), teaching children the music of her Choctaw and Cherokee heritage and integrating the tribe’s Houma-French language. And after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Houma communities along the Gulf Coast, Martha single-handled generated publicity to raise awareness about the forgotten Gulf tribes, generating over $30,000. She also performed with Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Bonnie Raitt to help raise over $130,000 for the Clyde Bellecourt Scholarship Fund (allowing full-tuition for 12 Native students who have overcome adversity). Finally, as indigenous affairs consultant and creative advisor to the “Man Up Campaign,” she helps eradicate violence against women and girls.

Like Martha, National Relief Charities was there providing disaster relief for the Houma after Katrina and Gustava and Ike. We too are furthering college scholarships for motivated Native American students and supporting programs focused on domestic violence. Last year alone, we helped domestic violence programs on the reservations assist nearly 2,500 participants. National Relief Charities acknowledges Martha Redbone for steadfastly supporting causes she believes in and bringing leadership to Indian country.

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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