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Waylon Jennings, John Wayne and the Navajo

by David Orr

I was on the Navajo reservation last weekend. You may know that the Navajo people have long had a major fondness for and relationship with Waylon Jennings, moreso perhaps than any other musician. The relationship goes back many years, when Waylon began making regular tour stops on the rez.

So I was listening to a radio show (I think it was KGLP-FM out of Gallup) and they were playing a WJ retrospective, complete with commentary–mostly in the Navajo language–on the personal experiences of the DJ and other guests about the time they met Waylon, or the time their family had Waylon over for fry bread and mutton stew. It was remarkable, as much as I could make out, given my lack of understanding of the Navajo language.

The irony, or maybe the logic, of the Navajos’ love for Waylon was that Waylon was of course known for his hard-drinking lifestyle, certainly one that many Indians could relate to, at least on the level of getting fucked-up all the time, but it is also full of meaning that he died of complications from diabetes, which is the result, in part, of a hard-drinking lifestyle. Last year, Waylon had a foot amputated. There are, sadly, many Din? who can relate to that as well.

“Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” no doubt had a certain poignancy for many Indians, many of whom have chosen the cowboy persona, which is no doubt part of the attraction to Waylon of their culture. At the same time, the brutal Long Walk of the Navajos that occurred 150 years ago, at the hand of Kit Carson and the U.S. Army Cavalry, is frequently on the lips and minds of ordinary people and tribal leaders. Why it is that they embrace cowboy culture in light of their still-raw wounds visited on them by the cowboys’ front men may be seen simply as a paradox–perhaps even a manifestation of the “Stockholm Syndrome” (the Western version might be termed the “Livestock Syndrome”).

Maybe it was the very idea of “outlaw country”–a renegade form of music and idolatry–that held the attention of so many Navajos. The only other iconic figure of 20th century bilagaana (white) Western culture that I know of that Navajos seem to hold in reverence is, of all people, John Wayne. The Duke is, for many people on the rez, literally a cardboard cut-out hero (see him for yourself in Kayenta at the restaurant on the east side of town). This is mostly the result of The Duke being the biggest Hollywood star ever to spend a lot of time in and around Monument Valley (he was in a number of films shot there). We might think of John Wayne as an “outlaw” in his own right, since he often whupped up on “bad” white guys–presumably the same subclass of characters that whupped up on the Navajos and other Indians. I’ve met some Navajos that seem to project a God-like quality onto John wayne, and that’s the only explanation I can come up with. And Waylon may have taken the Duke’s place in the pantheon of the younger generation.

[If you ever get a chance to see the film “Return of Navajo Boy,” it’s a great documentary about the painful legacy of both the uranium mining era in Monument Valley and the missionary/boarding school era. You’ll also see a story about a boy named John Wayne Cly, named by his parents when the Duke came through to shoot a movie.]

In any case, there is no doubt that something about Waylon Jennings’ music held more than passing appeal that may have as much to say about the Navajos’ own evolving culture and their relationship with the bilagaana world–and its iconsas it does about the individual songs Waylon sang and lyrics he wrote.

* * *

I heard a story on that radio program that Waylon’s memorial service was held last week in Luckenbach, Texas, a small town near Kerrville (2 hrs west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country). There was quite a crowd–perhaps the largest number of people to gather in Luckenbach in many years (even fifty people gathering in Luckenbach might qualify as a major crowd, but I assume it was a substantially greater number than that). A number of celebrities made appearances, including Jerry Jeff and Willie. I’m guessing there was plenty of Lone Star, Pearl, and Shiner Bock beer to go around. Maybe even a few Heinekens for the high-end drinkers.

Luckenbach is a small place that would, other than the highway sign, appear not even to be a town in the eyes of many motorists passing through on their way to the LBJ Boyhood Home National Historic Site or to Pedernales Falls State Park.

I’ve been through Luckenbach many times when I lived in Austin, as I often travelled to Kerrville (you may know it as the home of the Kerrville Folk Festival). I sure wish I’d’a been in Luckenbach last week.

And I’m sure there are lots of Navajo families that will name kids after Waylon in the years to come.

David Orr is program diretor of Living Rivers, a Moab, Utah-based group that is working to bring down Glen Canyon Dam and revive the Colorado as a free-flowing river through the canyonlands of Utah and Arizona. He can be reached at: david@livingrivers.net

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