Musicians from Six Nations, Ontario. they say Robbie Robertson’s impact was enormous in the community, where he was welcomed, celebrated, and now fondly remembered.
Robertson, a world-renowned musician and storyteller, died on August 9. He was 80 years old.
“He might be one of the most proudly acclaimed native sons of the ‘Back in the Bush,'” Robertson wrote in an email to his friend Tim Johnson in 2017. Locals know the reservation as “the bush.”
Six years earlier, despite his many accolades, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Juno Awards and admission as an officer of the Order of Canada, it was important to Robertson to become an enrolled member of the Six Nations community where his mother was born.
It was also where he began playing music at age 10, inspired by relatives on the reservation who were all musicians, Tim Johnson said.
“He’s identified as part of this community, which was always completely legitimate. But now finally having that formal recognition, I think it really brought it home for him,” said Tim Johnson, Six Nations’ Kanien’kehá:ka , who was with Robertson when he signed the papers for his status card.
The same exposure inspired the 2017 documentary. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, in which Tim Johnson was an executive producer.
The two hit it off due to their shared Mohawk identity.
Remembered as ‘friend and champion’ in the community
Ava Hill considered Robertson a good friend.
The former Six Nations boss said she remembers seeing The Band’s the last waltz when it was in theaters in 1978. Robertson wrote songs and played guitar in the group.
She also recalled walking the red carpet with Robertson and giving welcoming remarks at the 2019 TIFF premiere of We were once brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary about Robertson’s early life and the formation of the group.
It was around this same time that Hill asked Robertson to be honorary chair of a committee to build a new Woodland Cultural Center on Six Nations land in Brantford, Ontario.
Following his death, the center issued a commemorative statement calling Robertson “our friend and champion”.
Elaine Bomberry, Cayuga/Anishinaabe of Six Nations, has worked in indigenous performing arts since the 1980s.
Bomberry met Robertson in the 1990s and spent a week with him at the Six Nations while filming the PBS documentary. Making a Noise: A Native American Journey with Robbie Robertson.
In the 1998 film, Robertson said that he couldn’t tell people he was First Nations early in his career because there weren’t many indigenous musicians around.
But Bomberry said that once Robertson started telling people about his identity, it was empowering for the Six Nations musicians.
Bomberry recalled a powwow weekend in the summer, and took Robertson to Six Nations musician Derek Miller’s garage, where he “grabbed a guitar and played.”
“Oh my gosh, we have this legend here in the garage on the side street,” he recalled thinking about that day.
Visits to the community left an impact
Presenting Roberston with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Tim Johnson said the musician’s visits to his family in the Six Nations as a child opened “his mind to a fascinating world unseen by mainstream society” and an “early education that what you are being taught in school is not the whole story.”
It forced Robertson to tell those stories, Tim Johnson said.
Hill recalled an interview with Robertson in which she talked about wanting to tell stories like the ones she heard growing up about Peacemaker, an important figure in Haudenosaunee culture.
He would eventually write classics like The weight, The night Old Dixie was shot down, and At Cripple Creek.
“He became a huge international star and then, in the last few years, I think he started to dig more into his identity,” Hill said.
Robertson affirmed that his community before much attention was paid to them by the media or the government, Hill said, and he began “to make more music that our people would appreciate.”
Musician recalls playing Robertson’s own song for him
Ryan Johnson, who is from Six Nations, plays bass with The Ollivanders. He was one of the musicians who honored Robertson at the 2017 community ceremony.
Playing one of Robertson’s own songs for him was surreal, he said.
“I hope we did a good job and I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing The weight but it’s great to see how kind of a person he was to cheer us on for playing one of his songs,” said Ryan Johnson.
Robertson gave the musicians a standing ovation that night, Tim Johnson recalled.
“From time to time destiny shines upon a life to bestow particular gifts and talents and set that person on a journey of remarkable adventure and achievement,” Tim Johnson said in his tribute.
“We can never know in advance…whether the results will be right and good, or crooked and twisted.”