Neil Young on Colonialism

Neil Young,a former Winnipegger and student at my old high school, wrote several songs dealing with colonialism, racism in the South and human rights during the 60s and 70s. Based on the lyrics to “Pocahontas”, what is Neil saying about the “John Smith” story and the American experience in general? What is he trying to say in “Cortez the Killer”?

Both tracks can be found here.

21 thoughts on “Neil Young on Colonialism

  1. While listening to both "Pocahontas" and "Cortez the killer I was able to arrive at a conclusion where both songs seem to have lost their intial meaning.Both songs have a different concpetion of history and how it is presumed. "pocahontas" illustrates in a much deeper sense the hardships between the natives and the whites and pocahontas herself represening in a figurtve way, a bridge that some how tied them together. When Neil refers to both Brando himself and Pocahontas, it in some way could represent the gathering of the white man (Brando who was quite the sterotypical) Neil acting as a some what middle man towards the issue and Pocahontas the victims. In a more though out perspective we can come to a conclusion of certainty that the songs meaning falls along the lines of human supression and the meaning of equality among all.This second piece "Cortez the killer" could hold more than one meaning. The first meaning being literal to the title of the piece, and the second meaning more of an emotional killer or even love to some sense.When we look or remeber Cortez we remeber a fierce ruthless conquistador that dominated most f mexico, what Neil young is trying to accomplish to some extent is to try a and find a more deeper may even more compassionate side of Cortez while still having the idea of a killer still present. It all revolves around the idea of a two faced killer one being bad and one maybe being good.When we look at these songs in a ideal fashion, we can analze that both these songs hold a deeper message than what is sung and written. They relate to the co-existence or the wanting of such in the most need placecs. Whether needed to live in peace or shed a brighter picture n our history.

  2. "Pocahontas" explains how the white men oppressed the Indians, killed them, separated mothers from children, took their land, built cities where there was once open space and buffalo and the person Neil Young is writing about how he longs to be back in a time where the Indians had a real homeland in their natural environment before the white men came. In "Cortez The Killer", Young portrays how the natives were living peacefully and trying to build things. However, Cortez and his men came and disrupted the Indians; essentially by destroying their peacefulness and taking away all that the Indians had.

  3. The first song "Pocahontas" explains how the European settlers came to America and took over the Native American Land. John Smith the European "Hero" was told to be a noble man. Contradictory to popular belief John Smith was really a murderer. He killed many Native American people and stole their land. It is also said that John Smith was the lover of Pocahontas but he never wrote about her at all until 17 years after the events happened, so did he really love her? Generally the song illustrates the hatred and violence the European Settlers portrayed when they come to America. "They killed us in our tepees and they cut our women down. They might have left some babies, crying on the ground." These lines show how the Europeans mastered the Native American tribes.In the second song by Neil Young "Cortez The Killer" he shows the brutality of Cortez and his crew. The Aztec tribes lived peacefully with each other until Cortez showed up and ruined everything. Instead of attempting some sort of fair trade or even living separately Cortez immediately massacred possibly 1000s of Aztec people for his own personal benefit. He came to their land without any notice, killed all of their people and took all of their belongings. To summarize the song, Cortez was crazy and he killed 1000s of Aztec people.

  4. American HistoryAn examination of Neil Young’s Prose Regarding the Effects of Colonialism in the AmericasAllen LiuMr. Henderson’s American History ClassWith the careful listening of “Pocahontas” and “Cortez the Killer”, an audience can come to witness the opinions of Neil Young on American colonization. The songs in themselves depict a unique conception of history, which unravel much meaning and insight. “Pocahontas” depicts, or more so, describes to the listeners the pains and sufferings of the aboriginal peoples as the Europeans came to settle. This song illustrates death and massacre and by right of opinion, Young sides with the view of the natives. In doing so, we see how the Europeans prospered at the expense of the aboriginals. Later on Marlon Brando is mentioned and could represent another figure of superiority, again, showing the inferiority of the native population attacked by the Europeans in Pocahontas’ time. The inherent qualities of righteousness and equality may then be deduced from this song by which an understanding of discrimination and social injustice is so well exemplified by Young. The latter piece of prose, “Cortez the Killer” is an analysis of Cortez’s treacherous conquest of Mexico and the Aztecs. However the song encompasses not around the gory details of murder, death, and darkness of such European influences, but rather gives description of the ways prior to Cortez’s appearance in America. It is almost as if, he had not come, and there was no such burden of war. The natives lived and worked in the utmost serenity. Then, by some unexpected and unfortunate fate, everything was lost in havoc and chaos. Towards the end, the narrator cannot recall how he and his society [Aztecs] lost their way of life. Thus, it was Cortez and his remarkable conquistador traits that deemed him the great killer of perhaps the greatest civilization to exist in ancient times. When looked at collectively, Neil Young has viewed colonialism with a critical eye. We see his passionate connections of the past to present and the values of righteousness and equality. In this fashion, there is a link bridging the necessity of peace with the subsequent suffering that must take place to garner the society we see and live in today.

  5. Niel Young is trying to say that the "John Smith" story isn't as pleasant as many believe it is. He describes how the Natives were murdered and how the Europeans treated them so poorly. Niel says that the John Smith story was not a cheery disney fairytale, but a story hatred and cruelty towards the Native people.In Cortez the Killer Niel is trying to say that Cortez was a terrible man. Niel describes how Cortez just marched into a peaceful civilization that meant him no harm and he killed them. Niel also describes what a great civilization it was before Cortez came. He talks about their great craftsmanship and kindness to one another and thanks to Cortez they are no more.

  6. In the song Pocahontas, Young sings about the Americans and how they barged in and killed indigenous people in there teepees! The song also says " they cut our women down" and "they might have left some babies crying on the ground". The song is about Neil Young, and how he wants to be in that time where there was no one around and only the Indigenous people ruled the Americas!Cortez the Killer is about how Cortez came across the water and felt like he ruled all. He stood tall with his men and weapons and pushed everyone out of his way! I get the feeling as if Young was speaking as if he was there at the time when Cortez came, and everyone disliked him so he fought and killed the Native people!

  7. In my opinion Pocahontas is a song that tells about how the white settlers took advantage of and cruelly killed many Native Americans. It tells us that the Natives were victims and he uses Pocahontas as an example. Neil Young contradicts the popular myth of John Smith being a hero.The second song, Cortez the Killer, is about Cortez's conquest of Mexico, and his interactions with the Aztec people. In my opinion, it mostly describes how the Aztecs were great and how Cortez ruined the Aztec civilization. Neil Young tries to say that Cortez destroyed one of the greatest civilizations of all time.After looking at both of these songs, we see that Neil Young looked at the Colonization of America negatively.

  8. Pocahontas starts off by talking about the Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights. Through out verse 1 its talking about the race for the "white man", meaning people from Europe, to get to America. Neil young is talking through the song about how the white man killed them in their homes, sometimes left their babies, and talked really about how he would give anything to sleep with Pocahontas. Hes saying that it was wrong that the white man killed many Natives, and is telling us if"John Smith" really loved Pocahontas.Cortez the Killer is a song about Cortez coming across the ocean looking for the new world. When he arrives he comes across the Aztecs. He then talks about how everything was beautiful and was built by hand, he also said people still can't do this today. What Young is saying is that the Aztecs were very friendly, they were hard working, had beautiful women. But yet he still killed them all.

  9. Neil Young's song "Pocahontas" shows shows us that the singer was empathetic to the plight of the Native peoples at the time when America was being colonized. He portrays a wish to go back and speak to those people, to find out they're side of the story ("I would give a thousand pelts/to sleep with Pocahontas/and find out how she felt"). Th mention of Marlo Brando in the song, in my opinion, can be interpreted two ways: representing the materialistic and uncaring lifestyle of the white men who oppressed the Natives, or as another way to express Young's empathy, as Brando was a known civil rights activist."Cortez the Killer", on the other hand, appears to take an opposite spin on things, describing Cortes as an almost godlike figure, "dancing across the water". One line, "Hate was just a legend/And war was never known" particularly intrigued me. This and the last line, "Cortez, Cortez/What a killer", suggest the Young is being ironic, and is again looking at the debacle from the perspective of the oppressed.

  10. The song “Pocahontas” talks about how the Indians land was completely taken away by the Europeans. The Europeans killed many if the Indians, Took babies away from their mothers and created their own settlements where the Indians homes used to be. Neil Young sings about how the Indians should have had the right to their own land, and that he didn’t agree with the European settlers.The second song “Cortez the Killer” Neil Young sings about how the aztec tribes had a great life before Cortez came along and ruined it. Cortez came and killed almost everyone in the aztec tribe in this area, ruining everything that the aztecs had there. Although the song is mainly NOT about Cortez, we still see the meaning behind the song.

  11. In Pocahontas he tells the story of how the "Indians" lived under the white people as a second class. It tells us that the families were separated and murdered. He says that the white men built cities where the "Indians" lived and started to colonize other peoples land.In Cortez the killer Young depicts a land where the "Indians" were living peacefully before Cortez came. He says that the Indians did not know what war was before Cortez showed up. He is saying that if Cortez would not have come The Indians would not know of war and would have lived in peace. Cortez was the beggining of the end for the Indians

  12. I think my last blog entry was too little for Mr. Henderson to bother publishing, perhaps that was a good thing, there were no blog entries last night when I attempted to post but now the page is full of thoughtful comments. I pretty much agree with what most have said. I would like to add that the Cortez song strikes me as being paternalistic. The lines about hate not existing and war never being known reminds me of lines like 'the innocent savage." Part of Cortez's success has to do with deep divisions among the Aztecs (such as all the conquered Aztec slaves looking to rebel). If Cortez had landed a hundred years earlier, the colonization of America might have gone much more favourably for the Azetecs. I do agree with the general message of the song, Cortez committed a lot of atrocities. The line in Pocahontas about the babies being left to die outside of the tepees is very powerful and pretty much a direct quote from witnesses of Wounded Knee. Neil Yong and Marlon Brando have made it known that they don't have much use for the awards that Hollywood has to pass out and Brando famously sent a First Nation's woman dressed in buckskin to the academy awards to decline his best actor award and instead give a speech on native rights. So at their fireside chat I don't think they will really be talking well of what can be got at Hollywood. Ironically, Brando and Young owe a lot to the media business (Hollywood). Young couldn't wait to leave high school and go to California to make it big. I had a lot of the same teachers as Young and no one remembers a sighting of him after the snow fell in grade 10. His stay at Kelvin was very brief. I love his music and am glad that a younger generation is also enjoying the messages he has to share.

  13. "Pocahontas": This song suggests that while the europeans were settling they were being very harmful to the "Indians" and killed them. The Europeans saw themselves more superior to the natives. In the song one line is dedicated to how they split up the families. This causes people to be angry and scared. Neil Young sides with the natives in how the lyrics are written."Cortez the Killer":This song explains how Cortez is a bad man who had a mission to conquer mexico and the Aztecs. Neil Young does not focus on what the Europeans did but instead the was it was in America before they came. When Cortez came it caused lots of tension between the people. In conclusion, the song shows how the Aztecs lost their way of life.

  14. Both “Pocahontas” and “Cortez the Killer” have the same general concept. In Pocahontas, Neil Young is trying to portray how the Europeans had such a negative impact on the Natives. He carefully describes how beautiful and perfect life was for the Natives before the Europeans came. He depicts the cruelty of the Europeans and makes their arrival seem like such a hardship for the Natives. He proves how difficult life must have been for Pocahontas. I believe that Neil Young’s opinion of the Europeans is a bit harsh. The Europeans may have made life worse for the Natives, but he exaggerated the utopia before the Europeans arrived. In Cortez the Killer, he also describes how destructive the Europeans were to the Natives. He shows that Cortez dramatically changed their way of life and it had a negative impact on them. However, I believe progress was bound to take over. Present day North America had to be developed at some point. It could not stay as natural Native land forever.

  15. "Pocahontas" Talks about the Natives fleeing from the whites, the whites killed them in their sleep, killed the women, left the babies to die, massacred the buffalo for just their pelts, just how the whities affect and 2nd rate the natives. Marlon Brando supported civil rights. He refused an oscar from his performance in "The Godfather" and had an Apache native american woman represent him instead. She stated that because of the poor treatment towards native americans in the film industry he would not accept the award."Cortez the Killer" In the song it shows a bit of aztec culture, how the healthy the Aztecs were before the war and disease how the could not be prevailed by any other civilization. Cortes did kill and destroy the aztecs, their culture and their buildings that were created by them. It does not really say what Cortes did, but just about what the Aztecs were.

  16. "Pocahontas" talks about the first settlers who came from Europe. It tells how they killed the men and women in the villages and how they spared the babies and left them to starve which isn't any better. Later on he sings, "And maybe Marlon BrandoWill be there by the fireWe'll sit and talk of HollywoodAnd the good things there for hire."At this point of the song he is singing about how Marlon Brando refused his Academy Award for best actor for the Godfather to protest the way Native Americans were being treated."Cortez the Killer" does not say exactly what Cortez did but it lays subtle hints to like when Young sings, "He came dancing across the waterWith his galleons and guns."Although he doesn't say that he murdered the Aztecs the notion that he has guns implies that Cortez is up to no good. He then sings about the Aztec society and how beautiful the people were, how peaceful it was and how they were master engineers. He then again hints at Cortez's massacre when he sings, "Cortez, CortezWhat a killer."

  17. Jess:In the song “Pocahontas”, Neil Young tells the story of how the Europeans took over the “Indian” land and completely changed their way of life. He talks about how the “White Man” killed people in their homes and took their babies. Neil Young does not see what the Europeans did as a positive thing. He seems to want to go back into time and speak to the “Indians” to hear their side of the story. In the second song “Cortez the Killer”, Neil Young sings about the Aztecs way of life and how they had a very nice, peaceful lifestyle and lived beautifully in tribes before Cortez arrived and changed everything for the worse. At one point Cortez is portrayed to be “god like” as he “danced across the water”. Neil Young describes the land to be very beautiful and things were built by hand. The Aztecs were very polite, handy people and the women were gorgeous, yet Cortez killed them all.

  18. Niel Young is trying to explain to people that the Pocahontas story is not as happy as disney makes it seem. In his song he talks about the fact that the natives were killed and the Europeans treated the natives terribly. Niel Young tells the truth about the fact that the John Smith story was not a fairy tail like Disney makes it seem. Niel Young tells the truth about the story which is that the natives were horribly mistreated. In the song “cortez the killer Niel young talks about what a terrible man Cortez was. In the song Niel talks about how Cortez would cause tremendous issues by murdering people in civilizations who had no intention of causing any harm. Niel talks about how wonderful the civilization was before Cortez murdered the people. Niel young tries to tell us that Cortez ruined one of the greatest civilizations for no reason.

  19. In the first song Niel young is trying to explain to everyone that the story of Pocahontas is not what we all imaged.Its not some sort of disney fairytale.The truth is many natives where treated horrifically and where massacred by Europeans. He talks about the robbery of the first nations land, and how the Europeans believed they could do whatever they wished. Niel Young strips John Smith of his media created hero look and gives us a reality check.In the second song "Cortez the killer" Niel young depicts Cortez as a murderer and a horrible man instead of a great explorer. He shares the story of the many natives that where murdered even tho they where willing to help and interact peacefully with the Europeans.It explains how Cortez ruthlessly destroyed the natives way of life. Cortez had no regard for the their hard work and beauty.

  20. It is hard for me to admit this now, but I didn’t really know who Neil Young was before Mr. Henderson showed the video to class, but now I've really enjoyed Young's work (especially Rust Never Sleeps, XD).Neil Young’s songs like Pocahontas and Cortez the Killer and were based on first nation history. Setting of these songs brings attention to people in history that have been forgotten or overlooked and to make clear on the darker part of North American history. Neil Young has brought to light the historical injustices that made by white to First Nations.In my opinion, the main idea that Neil Young was trying to express in Pocahontas is the brutalities from white setters to First Nations and those brutalities haven’t been made right until now. For example, the line from the first verse, “the homeland we’ve never seen” refers to present day First Nations still not being able to observe the homeland of their ancestor because early European settlers (especially British people) stole their land and transformed the land into resent U.S states and Canada’s provinces. And the line from the fourth verse “I wish a was a trapper” continues this theme by showing the Native view (the land belongs to everyone) which is totally different from white colonists’ prospective. In Spanish’s’ opinion, Cortes was a great explorer who colonized the New land. However, Neil Young showed a darker side to Cortes’ legacy in “Cortez The Killer ” . As “hate was just a legend, and war was never known” mentioned, Cortes brought the things like violence and conflict which Aztec people never thought before. In Neil Young’s eyes, Hernan Cortes was a “plenty bad man”. Instead of the great explorer, he was a ruthless ruler who destroyed a great civilization.

  21. I know this was written 12 years ago, and I doubt any of the people here are going to read this. But I can’t help myself from adding a reply.

    It’s hard for me to take anyone here seriously when they all agree and take for granted the notion that the Natives in Mexico were living peacefully. It’s a rather ignorant and racist view.

    For starters, we call it the Aztec/Mexica Empire for a reason. You see, empires are not, by their very nature, peaceful. They’re expansionist political entities which are constantly pushing their borders outwards adding new territories and peoples through war and diplomacy.

    The Aztecs warred against smaller tribes, they made them their vassals, forced them to pay tributes, and took enemy prisoners which they would sacrifice to their god of war by ripping their hearts out while the victims were still alive and then eating them.

    Do you really think 500 Spaniards conquered an empire of 5-6 million all by themselves? Of course not, those 500 Spaniards had the help of thousands of Indians who rebelled against their Aztec oppressors. To this day, descendants of these tribes still exist in Mexico, but they have their story swept aside by Mexican nationalism which identifies Mexico with the Aztecs and their condition of victims of the Spaniards (rather than the oppressors of the other tribes in the area).

    So the claim that “Hate was just a legend. And war was never known” is absolutely not true.

    It’s not just ignorant and false, but it’s also incredibly racist.

    It’s racist because it comes from the assumption that Native Americans are/were like naive children incapable of feeling greed, or ethnic hatred, or religious extremism… And of course, if they’re children, it’s only fair we tell them how to manage their communities and how to live their lives.

    It’s very similar to the sexist notion that presumes women the weaker sex and demands they’re “protected” which of course translates into taking their autonomy and managing their lives for them, because “we know better”.

    I’m honestly baffled by knowledge of history being so, so very poor even in the age of information, where literally just reading the first paragraph of Wikipedia for the entry Aztec Empire would tell you they were not peaceful and serene at all.

    We’re still repeating racist stereotypes from hundreds of years ago while pretending to oppose racism. It would be funny if it didn’t speak so poorly of people’s character.

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