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Don’t Drink the Water: The Persecution of Native Americans

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When first hearing Dave Matthews Band’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” you might believe the song is about the apartheid having knowledge of Matthews’ country of birth but when you continue to listen to the song the listener will discover a different story behind the song. Matthews moved to The United States when he was two leading him to write about different events in America’s history. Through the different stanzas Dave Matthews Band’s lyrics criticizes the story of America’s massacre and removal of the Native Americans in the 1800’s.

In the first stanza Dave sings “Come out come out, no use in hiding,” then continues on a few lines later with “not room for both, just room for me, so you will lay your arms down, yes I will call this home,” signaling the first effect of the Americans on the redistributing of the Native Americans. In the early 1800’s America, many Americans wanted more land as their population increased which therefore meant moving west into territory already claimed by the Native Americans. The Native Americans, after being moved countless times before due to the arrival of the Europeans (turned Americans), did not want to give up this land. Both sides (The Natives and Americans) knew neither could coexist with one another, hence the lyrics “not room for both, just room for me.” To come up with a solution to the Native Americans living in land that the American’s wanted the Indian Removal Act and Dawes Act were created and adopted by the US Congress that ultimately took the land of the Natives and moved them west of the Mississippi and then dispersed the land taken from the Native Americans amongst the Americans.

The dispersion of Native Americans led to the creation of Reservations, which were pieces of land given to the Indians that were much out of the way of the American settlers. The people of the United States and the Government together viewed the Native Americans land as “an uninhibited or unimproved wasteland that a god wanted to be populated by Europeans, versus inhabited by aboriginal peoples” (Niezen, 2003, p.150). It is clear that in interpreting the second stanza you can see Matthews speaking of the removal of the Native lands (more than 25 million acres) by the American settlers in “so you will lay your arms down, yes I will call this home” and continues with the lines “away, you have been banished, your land is gone, and given to me,” With the views of Americans at that time, the settlers moved the Natives out and took over their land but the Natives did not go down without any commotion that led to an unfortunate set of deaths for many.

In his novel, The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity, Niezen describes indigenism as not only the similarities of “legal category and an analytical concept but also an expression of identity,” which can be transferred to the beliefs of the Native Americans whom identified themselves with the land that was being possessed by the American settlers, they considered the land to be their land. Natives were being banished from a land that they identified with and moved somewhere completely different without many of the necessities they needed to continue their tribe successfully. “What’s this you say, you feel a right to remain, then stay and I will bury you,” After being uprooted before by the settlers, many Natives tried to fight against their removal.

As a result of the law “The President to send any eastern tribe beyond the Mississippi if he wished, using force if needed,” (Unger 235) The Indian Wars began with the Natives fighting the Army. The President during the time of the Indian Removal Act, Andrew Jackson, said to Georgia’s governor “starvation and destruction await them if they remain longer in their present abodes,” (Jackson) speaking of the Cherokee tribes that did not want to move from their land. Thousands of Native Americans were killed in these wars by many different means with very few American casualties, leading America to commit one of the world’s largest genocides and take over the Natives lands and homes once again and name it their own home. In the song Dave is singing about taking over their land and killing any that refuse to go, with force “move on or I will bury you,” which is what happened many times when America “adopted Indian genocide” (Bradford 519) to any that didn’t leave they either forced out or starved them to death. One of the most notable forces of removal to the Native Americans is the Trail of Tears “the Cherokee nation forced in the dead of winter to walk a thousand miles” (Bradford 519).

During the Trail of Tears 46,000 Native Americans were moved from Tennessee across many states east of the Mississippi river to lands that were unwanted by the American settlers (at that time). During the Trail of Tears many of the natives didn’t have shoes and very little clothing. With lots of disease passing through the natives, they were not allowed to stop in civilized towns to get more materials in threat of passing on disease. Many natives died from freezing to death, starving, and malnutrition. The American settlers did not care about them as can be seen in the last few lines of the song “I live with no mercy,” they didn’t care that they had killed many Native Americans and as a result this event was categorized as a genocide. A genocide being a destructive want to kill off a group that share an ethnic, racial, or religious identity this being a racial and ethnic.

Not only via the Trail of Tears but massacre of natives that stayed, it is seen through the lyrics of the second stanza that Dave Matthews Band is singing all about Americans at this time in the 1800’s willing to kill anyone that does not move off of the territory that the Americans want they showed “no mercy.” In the third stanza, the song moves on to singing about the Native Americans leaving and American settlers needing no reason as to why they can take over this land. Dave sings out “I have no time to justify to you, fool you’re blind, move aside for me,” representing Native Americans want for justification but like many other events in American history no information is provided, the land is just ceased and they are forced to move out. Throughout many other events in the early Native American history, American settlers have forced the Indians out of their land providing no validation for why the land belongs to them as opposed to those Native Americans of who were the original settlers. For those that refuse to move death is often the result for those people. Many of the American settlers at the time would kill the settlers that refused to move with their more modern technology.

Some settlers wouldn’t even care if they showed no resistance but would kill for the sake of not wanting the Native Americans on that land anymore. It is in the last stanza that the darkest lines of the song come out ultimately showing Americans, at this time, careless thoughts about the massacres they have created and instead enjoyed their new land. “Now as I rest my feet by this fire, Those hands once warmed here, I have retired them,” this shows Americans horrific appreciation for their newly received land. The settlers are now sitting my warmth where the natives once sat and resting when in the native’s world they are going on a harsh journey through cold winters or have been “retired” the nice term for killed. From the views of the American settlers the song continues in the last stanza with “Upon these poor souls, I’ll build heaven and call it home, ‘Cause you’re all dead now,” another horrific reference to the slaying of the natives whose land they have officially taken over and successfully turned into their new home for which they killed many of the Native Americans for.

Many listeners believe this song is about Apartheid, the racial segregation in South Africa from 1947 up until early 90’s, but Dave Matthews in an interview with VH1 storytellers stated “this is about erasing somebody, taking someone’s whole life away” and to be a reminder that “a little bit of our history has a lot of poison in it,” in hopes that we won’t continue with this trend hence in the fourth stanza “don’t drink the water, there’s blood in the water,” which can also be another term for the more common saying “drinking the kool-aid.” The blood in the water Dave is singing about is a metaphor representing a poison that can be passed from one to another of taking part in awful things due to malicious greed such as killing or abusing one.

The reason people might analyze this song as a representation of apartheid is that during apartheid the people of South Africa were segregated based on their ethnic identity, much like the natives were from the settlers. Groups were forced from their land to different areas and some were killed but those that were killed was due to resistance of segregation not of specific land being taken over for the benefit of a certain group. Dave Matthews Band take on the role of story teller in their song “Don’t Drink the Water” by telling of the genocide that American settlers caused in the 1800’s during the Indian Removal Act and as a result led to the Trail of Tears and Americans to take over the land for their benefit, leaving many Native Americans to die harsh deaths. The hopes for this song are to give a reminder of American past in turn to stop a repeat in history of a horrific event by informing the listener “don’t drink the water,” the water being a poison that can be seen as greed for something in the case of the Indian Removal Act being the land of the Native Americans in the south.

Niezen, R. (2003). The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press. Unger , Irwin. These United States: The Questions of Our Past. 3rd. 1. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print. Governor Wilson Lumpkin to Jackson, 9 February 1835, Bassett, Correspondence, V: 327. Bradford, William C. “Acknowledging
And Rectifying The Genocide Of American Indians: “Why Is It That They Carry Their Lives On Their Fingernails?”.” Metaphilosophy 37.3/4 (2006): 515-543. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. Dave Matthews Band. Before These Crowded Streets. RCA, 1998. CD. “Dave Matthews Band.” Dir. Dave Diomedi. Vh1 Storytellers. Vh1: 15 2005. Television.

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