On the Red Road

Robby Romero's long walk for social change

by Lynne Robinson
Posted 6/18/20

"I was sitting in a prison, looking at the civil rights and the anti-war movement passing us by. I wanted to get out so bad to be a part of this movement. It was a new feeling out there, of a different kind of patriotism. Patriotism to human rights, to life instead of death. I wanted to be part of it. Just going to the police department en masse, there was like 200 of us. Just two weeks before that, we were scared to go by ourselves. We found strength in 200 of us, all Indian people, who had been beaten, mugged, arrested. Now here we were, we were going back to that same police department that arrested us and we were demanding action. It felt good to finally sense that there was power in unity, power in numbers."

- Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement co-founder

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On the Red Road

Robby Romero's long walk for social change

Posted

"I was sitting in a prison, looking at the civil rights and the anti-war movement passing us by. I wanted to get out so bad to be a part of this movement. It was a new feeling out there, of a different kind of patriotism. Patriotism to human rights, to life instead of death. I wanted to be part of it. Just going to the police department en masse, there was like 200 of us. Just two weeks before that, we were scared to go by ourselves. We found strength in 200 of us, all Indian people, who had been beaten, mugged, arrested. Now here we were, we were going back to that same police department that arrested us and we were demanding action. It felt good to finally sense that there was power in unity, power in numbers."

- Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement co-founder

During the early '90's, Robby Romero's groundbreaking videos for MTV and VH1 merged music and activism, using his unique platform as a tool for social change. Romero created several public service announcements for MTV's Free Your Mind Campaign during that period, and these video clips helped to dispel long-held misconceptions about Native peoples among a younger generation of viewers.

These videos, and the politicized "Rockumentary" films that followed, placed Romero on the front lines of activism against ingrained prejudice, cliché stereotypes, "noble savage" mythology and the derogatory labels that accompany them. In January of 1994, Free Your Mind won the Industry's prestigious CableAce Award.

In the summer of 2014, Romero, a lifelong Taos resident, approached the Town of Taos to change the name of Kit Carson Park. Carson, a controversial figure, is not remembered fondly by the Native peoples of the region.

The ensuing announcement by the Town declaring the official name change of the park sparked national and local controversy, with the town of Taos then rescinding, while still voting that the name would in fact be changed but to what, and when, they did not know.

With global protests taking up as much space as the coronavirus pandemic, Romero is once again lobbying for the name change.

Tempo caught up with Romero last week to talk about the current political climate in America, among other things.

The American Indian Movement was founded in 1968, in Minneapolis - can you please give us a little background and tell us why?

In the face of genocide, oppression and deculturalization that began in 1492, AIM was initially founded to stop racial injustice, violence, and police brutality against Native peoples on the streets of Minneapolis. From there, it grew into an indigenous rights movement to ensure both the sovereign rights of Native nations and the civil rights of Native peoples.

Native peoples are the unseen victims of a broken U.S. justice system -- incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average. We fall victim to violent crime at more than double the rate of any demographic in the U.S.

In 1973, at Wounded Knee, AIM brought world attention to the transformative power of the people. Indigenous peoples have long been at the forefront of human rights, the cutting edge of social justice and on the front lines of climate change.

Today, as we stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers with #BlackLivesMatter and the Movement 4 Black Lives, AIM (exempt from curfew by the Minneapolis mayor's office) has been in the streets protecting Native neighborhoods. As the call to end systematic racism and inequality for people of color echos throughout Turtle Island and around the world, let us never forget the countless lives that have been taken by the hands of racial hatred that threatens the realization of human rights and justice for all.

You have been on the Red Road a long time -- your mother, Rita Rogers, was of Apache and European decent and a huge influence on you, please tell our readers a little about your mother.

My mother was a beautiful, mystical woman. She believed in the art of altruism, and taught me many things -- including to show up and never give up. After graduating high school, she left the Land of Enchantment for Hollywood and danced her way into show business. She signed with MGM and appeared in numerous TV shows and motion pictures, including a series of Elvis Presley films. During my teen years, when I first played the troubadour in Hollywood, my mother was there with her quixotic smile -- dancing and playing her tambourine along side me.

When I was 13, she sent me to meet with Dennis Banks and other leaders of the American Indian Movement at an encampment in Diné territory on the Navajo Indian Reservation. It was there I first heard concepts like Red Power. It was there Dennis Banks first recruited me.

My mother remained my closest confidant, friend and ally throughout her life.

Your rock 'n' roll life has given you a platform for your fierce commitment to social change, beginning with your MTV PSAs music videos and "Rockumentary" films in the early 90s. You continue to be active on many fronts from Hollywood to Standing Rock. Can you talk a little about all that?

MTV provided an opportunity to introduce Native rock music to the music television generation. Throughout the years viewers have been turned on to the music, the movement and the need for national and international accords like the "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" (UNDRIP). I was calling for the end to racist stereotyping of Native Americans with those PSAs.

On the front lines at Standing Rock, we conducted concerts to #StandWithStandingRock and helped generate awareness and support for the #NoDAPL #WaterIsLife movement. I invited Patricia Arquette and her organization GiveLove to come and work with Native Children's Survival and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Together, we helped protect the sacred waters of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers by bringing safe, sustainable sanitation to Oceti Sakowin Camp and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Recently, we had a major victory in our fight against environmental genocide when a Federal Court ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the return of Blue Lake to the Red Willow People. You have long pushed for the renaming of Kit Carson Park to Red Willow Park. Tell us about that.

When the opportunity presented itself, I suggested that the town of Taos change the name of Kit Carson Park to honor the people of the Red Willow and to bring our multicultural community together. I made the suggestion to kindle a conversation about one-sided perspectives that are more often than not "his-story -- not history." My understanding is that the name was officially changed in June of 2014, but was never removed from the park. It was changed by a 3-1 vote.

Editor's Note: After reporter Jesse Moya reached out to the town to follow up on this, Town council member Fritz Hahn explained that "two weeks after the initial vote to change the park's name to Red Willow Park, the council rescinded its directive after a huge public outcry. Again, a 3:1 vote to rescind. About two or three years ago or so a representative of the Tony Reyna family asked the town to consider naming the park after him. Those discussions never evolved. Other than that there has not been nor is there a plan to change the park's name."

As a result of the current Black Lives Matter marches, a statue of Columbus was toppled in Minneapolis, a petition to remove a Custer statue in Michigan is gaining traction, NASCAR said it would ban the Confederate flag from its events and properties. Furthermore, the Republican-majority Senate panel, after top Pentagon officials expressed openness to removing Confederate Civil War names from army bases, military installations, monuments and memorials, added a provision to a defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to change these names. The time of glorifying murder and massacre, slavery and white supremacy is at an end.

The town of Taos has an opportunity to, as brother Spike Lee so eloquently put it, "do the right thing," and remove Kit Carson's name from our park. Why not call it something else -- something that doesn't bear the burden of malevolence, suffering and sorrow for any peoples, maybe … "Taos Park."

What do you see happening in Taos now that COVID-19 has definitively changed the tourist model of Taos, for the forseeable future?

The spirit and legend of Taos, from the pueblo to our multicultural art colony, is what has historically attracted not only tourists, but artists, game changers and individuals from every walk of life. Perhaps these days of prophecy and pandemic present an opportunity to reflect on how we want to thrive, both individually and collectively.

Leonard Peltier is still in prison -- please talk about that, and the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples.

Leonard Peltier has been an indigenous political prisoner for more than 40 years now. The last time I saw Leonard was in the early nineties when Mitch Walking Elk and I played at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

The last time I spoke to him was Sept. 12, 2016, from Oceti Sakowin camp, Standing Rock. Joan Baez and I were singing songs for the people in the camp that day -- and honoring Leonard on his 72nd birthday.

The National Congress of American Indians passed a historic resolution on Peltier's behalf. Governments, dignitaries and human rights organizations from around the world, including Amnesty International, have also called for Peltier's release. You can learn more about Leonard at the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.

Where is America headed now?

America was conceived in violence, theft and corruption. We bear witness to this historical trauma every day. In the spirit of the indigenous rights movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, women's suffrage, the ERA and LBGTQ, the power of the people will prevail. Real change comes from within, in a moment of clarity, or through a window of opportunity. Now, more than any other time in my life, real change is coming.

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