Inventing Pasts

Krista pointed me at the news of a new release from Karen Dalton, wondering if I’d heard of her. I hadn’t. I clicked through to the video, and was saddened by the fact that she died homeless in NYC in 1993. Further clicking about lead to videos from Peter LaFarge. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was related to Oliver LaFarge, author of Laughing Boy and, more important to my research, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow whose illustrations were designed by Edward Rosskam—a long time research interest of mine.

It turns out Peter LaFarge was his son. Small world and all that. I didn’t know that he was the one who wrote the Ballad of Ira Hayes, which is also a favorite song of mine. I thought about that song a lot, especially in 2002 when I was working on my “heroes” research. Strange to stumble into all this when I’ve been teaching Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this semester. I’d really like to see the documentary, which has uncovered the convenient fiction of LaFarge’s Native American heritage.

Is he diminished if his past is a lie? I’m not sure what I think about this.

Peter was a genuine intellectual, but he was also very earthy, very proud of his … heritage, and very aware of the wrongs done to his people and other Native Americans. The history he knew so well wasn’t known at all by most white Americans in the early 1960s – though that would certainly change in the coming years – so to some extent, his was a voice crying in the wilderness. I felt lucky to be hearing it. Peter was great. He wasn’t careful with the Thorazine though.”

-Johnny Cash, Cash

2 thoughts on “Inventing Pasts”

  1. and very aware of the wrongs done to his people and other Native Americans.

    Jeff, while there is certainly a degree of ambiguity in Cash’s quote it strikes me that what I’ve quoted there says he is a native. – it’s the “his …and other..” that make me think that because if he wasn’t Cash ought to have said “his people and the Native American people” – placing a separation between then.

  2. Peter LaFarge identified himself as a Native American across his career, as did all of his friends (including Cash). The fact is, he wasn’t. I doubt most of his friends would have cared that he had no proof; if you believe something strong enough, it becomes convincing anyway.

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