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Robbie Robertson: Remembering the famed storyteller and his roots in Six Nations, Ont.

Musicians from Six Nations, Ont. say Robbie Robertson’s impact was huge in the community, where he was embraced and celebrated — and now, fondly remembered. 

Robertson, a world-renowned musician and storyteller, died Aug. 9. He was 80. 

“I might be one of the most acclaimed native sons proudly from the ‘hood on the bush,” Robertson wrote in an email to friend Tim Johnson back in 2017. Locals know the reserve 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 for Robertson to become an enrolled member of the Six Nations community where his mother was born. 

It was also where he started playing music at 10 years old, inspired by relatives from the reserve who were all musicians, said Tim Johnson. 

People on stage
Photo is from the Lifetime Achievement Awards in Six Nations in 2017. Producers of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World were acknowledged at the awards. From left: Ryan Johnson, Robbie Robertson, Tim Johnson, Derek Miller. (Submitted by Ryan Johnson)

“He’s identified as being from this community, which was always completely legitimate. But to now finally have that formal recognition I think really for him brought it all home,” said Tim Johnson, Kanien’kehá:ka of Six Nations, who was with Robertson when he signed the papers for his status card.

He met Robertson in his office at the Village Recording Studios in Los Angeles when Johnson was curating an exhibit: Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., and New York City.

The same exhibit inspired the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World, on which Tim Johnson was executive producer.

The two hit it off because of their shared Mohawk identity.

Remembered as ‘friend and champion’ in community 

Ava Hill considered Robertson a good friend.

The former Six Nations chief 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 the welcoming remarks at the 2019 TIFF premiere of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary about Robertson’s early life and the group’s formation. 

WATCH | Robbie Robertson discussed The Band’s ‘timeless quality’ with CBC in 2016: 

Robbie Robertson on The Band’s ‘timeless quality’

Robbie Robertson reflects on the process of gathering music, sounds and rhythms during The Band’s early touring that contributed to their unique sound in a 2016 CBC interview.

It was around that same time, Hill asked Robertson to be an honorary chairperson on a committee to build a new Woodland Cultural Centre on Six Nations land in Brantford, Ont. 

In the wake of his death, the centre issued a memorial statement calling Robertson “our friend and champion.” 

Elaine Bomberry, Cayuga/Anishinaabe of Six Nations, worked in the Indigenous performing arts starting in the 1980s. 

Bomberry met Robertson in the 1990s and spent a week with him in Six Nations while he was filming the PBS documentary Making A Noise: A Native American Journey with Robbie Robertson.

Robertson and Chief Ava Hill on red carpet.
Former Six Nations chief Ava Hill and Robertson at the 2019 TIFF premiere of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. (@Visualbass)

In the 1998 film Robertson said he couldn’t tell people he was First Nations early in his career because there weren’t a lot of Indigenous musicians.

But Bomberry said once Robertson started telling people about his identity, it was empowering for musicians in Six Nations.

Bomberry recalled one powwow weekend in the summer and bringing Robertson to Six Nations musician Derek Miller’s garage where “he picked up a guitar and jammed.” 

“Oh my God, we got this legend here in the garage on the side road,” she recalled thinking of that day. 

Visits to community left impact

In presenting Roberston with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Tim Johnson said the musician’s visits with family in Six Nations as a kid opened “his mind to a fascinating world invisible to the dominant society,” and an “early education that what you’re being taught in school is hardly the complete story.”

It compelled Robertson to tell those stories, said Tim Johnson. 

Hill recalled an interview with Robertson where he talked about wanting to tell stories like the ones he heard growing up about Peacemaker — an important figure in Haudenosaunee culture.

Robertson with Tim Johnson
Robertson and Tim Johnson photographed on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario. (©MarkZelinski.com)

Eventually he’d write classics such as The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Up On Cripple Creek.

“He became this big international star and then in the later years I think he started digging more into his identity,” Hill said.

Robertson claimed his community before the media or government paid much attention to them, said Hill, and he started “doing 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 Olivanders. He was one of the musicians who honoured Robertson at the 2017 ceremony in the community. 

Playing one of Robertson’s own songs for him was surreal, he said. 

“I hope we did a good job and I’m sure he’s probably sick of hearing The Weight but it’s just great to see how nice 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, recalled Tim Johnson.

“Every now and then destiny shines upon a life to bestow particular gifts and talents and set that person on a journey of remarkable adventure and accomplishment,’ Tim Johnson said in his tribute. 

“We can never really know in advance … whether the outcomes will be straight and good, or crooked and twisted.”

WATCH | Music legend Daniel Lanois reflects on his friend Robbie Robertson: 

Music legend Daniel Lanois remembers Robbie Robertson

The producer of Robbie Robertson’s first solo album and Canadian music legend himself, Daniel Lanois, remembers his friend and collaborator’s creativity and ability to wander.

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