School Drop Out Robbie Robertson Wants Better Shot For Aboriginal Youth

By Karen Bliss 10/14/14 |

Robbie Robertson — promo shot, 2013.
“Education. It’s all about education. It’s a very sensitive issue for me,” Toronto-born music legend Robbie Robertson tells Samaritanmag when asked what causes he supports.  His two picks are the American Indian College Fund and The National Museum of the American Indian — one provides an education for Aboriginal people and the other educates the public about Aboriginal history.

The man who penned such classics as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for The Band, and the solo hit “Somewhere Down The Crazy River,” says, “I’ve always been involved in North American indigenous people. It’s part of my heritage and I have felt over the years that I could lend a hand in some way and I have done a lot of things.

“I really enjoy it and care about it — about having less fortunate First Nations people have a better education, a better shot at things. These are forgotten people and I don’t think casinos completely do the trick. Anyway, that’s the thing that I reach for the most.”

According to its web site, The American Indian College Fund “provides Native American student scholarships and programmatic support for the nation's 34 accredited tribal colleges and universities located on or near Indian reservations to provide access to an affordable, quality higher education.”

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is part of the Smithsonian Institution, and “cares for one of the world's most expansive collections of Native artifacts,” it says on its site. There are facilities, in Washington, D.C., New York City and Suitland, Maryland, all of which offer educational programs.  An off-site so-called "fourth museum” includes websites, traveling exhibitions, and community programs.

But it goes deeper for him than simply being of Mohawk descent. He dropped out of school in the late 1950s to pursue music.

“I started playing professionally, on the road, making a living when I was 16, with Ronnie Hawkins, so I had to figure out another way to educate myself. I became a book worm,” says Robertson, 71. “Because we played a lot of universities in the south and a lot of schools all over the place, when we played those schools something about that made me feel a certain vacancy in my growing up.

“I didn’t get to experience a lot of things that kids did when they were growing up so I tried to make up for it by just reading. I read all the time. And it fulfilled something in my mind to somewhat make up for that piece of the puzzle that was missing.”

Today, he can add “published author” to his list of accomplishments. Last year, he co-wrote a coffee table book for kids called Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World, and has another book for young readers coming out soon called Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. “It’s a story that I heard when I was like 8 years old on the Six Nations Indian Reserve where my mom is from,” Robertson says. “It’s a fantastic story.”

He is also completing his autobiography. No doubt it will include his memories of his first exposure to music and picking up the guitar as a kid during the summers he spent on the reserve. 

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