My first NDN Kar was called, The Spy Car. I bought it from a teacher for one hundred dollars. It was a blue 67 Newport Chrysler; complete with its own bear dent (bear wasn’t hurt), and an eight-track tape player that was easily worth two hundred.
This is how I wrote the song NDN Kars:
I was 21 years old, the year was 1978, and I was headed on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota. We stopped in Winton, MN at the municipal liquor store. It was last stop at the end of the line where the pavement becomes dirt on US 169. The Muni had a great juke box and pool table and was the last chance to get a cold one before entering the BWCA. In the restroom someone carved Indian Cars on the wall. I remember telling my friend Chuck Rikala, “When I get back, I am going to write a song about Indian Cars.” At that time the connotation of an Indian Car was negative. To me, it’s about the richness of being poor.
The Spy Car looked like it had a Mohawk with the canoe tied down on top. We travelled by water from Fall Lake, to Basswood, through Pipestone, and Jackfish Bay. Straddled the international border, fished some walleye and turned around. Our motto was: if you want to paddle through rock you must use a stone canoe. Etched in my mind on a granite tablet carved from the Canadian Shield was NDN Kars. When I returned home from the canoe trip it took a few months for my thoughts to ripen.
I was living in the Mountain Ash Berry district of Virginia, MN. In the fall the birds outside my kitchen window would become inebriated eating the fermented mountain ash berries. They would sing boisterous melodies. Sometime they would fall from the tree to the ground. If they were un-lucky the neighborhood cat would pounce on them. One morning after watching this drama play out, I started writing NDN KARS. It took me fifteen minutes to write the song. I took me fifteen years to learn how to perform it.
I was in a band. We called ourselves, The Swartz Bros. We were the Black sheep of the Iron Range, MN. One of our first gigs was at a little bar on Main Street in Virginia, the Pick Wick. I sang NDN Kars and another song I had written called Lord Help Us Sinners. At the end of the night I remember the bar owner telling Sharon Rowbottom (singer) that the only two songs she did not like were the religious song and the song about Indians— both were mine. She said she did not want her bar turning into an “Indian Bar”. Sharon told her to, “F off!” We never played there again. I was proud of Sharon. We were punks, but mostly we were for the people, and I knew the song had meaning for the people. I didn’t even bother to say anything to the bar owner.
In 1983, I had moved (hitch hiked) from the Iron Range, with one hundred dollars, twenty pounds of manomin (wild rice), an acoustic guitar and a backpack. I got let off on route 66 in Albuquerque, NM the day before Thanksgiving. There was a little café there called the Morning Glory. I got a gig at the café on Thanksgiving Day for twenty dollars, a Thanksgiving meal, plus tips. I performed there a few more times after that. I remember the positive response people had when I sang my new song NDN Kars.
In 1987, I played in Esthete, WO with the Sand Creek Band made up of the Ridgley brothers, Eugene, Ben, and Gail from the Arapaho Nation. We did a gig over in Rapid City, SD and it was Eugene Ridgley who showed me the art of playing 49 on an electric guitar. That was it. Put a 49 melody in the chorus of NDN Kars and sang it along with the guitar. It worked from the very first time. Later that year, The Sand Creek Band came down and we recorded NDN Kars at Radical Recording studio in Tempe, AZ. We did it in one afternoon—tracking, overdubs and lead vocals.
The first Indian radio station to play NDN Kars, was Kili, in Porcupine, SD. I sent a cassette tape up with my friend Russ Zephyr to drop off. He said that by the time he reached the end of the driveway it was blasting over the airwaves. When something catches on in the underground it sticks. The song went on to become a cult classic and an anthem for our people. Many bands add it to their live set lists and other artists have recorded their own versions of NDN Kars.
The essence of the song is in the line, “I got a sticker says ‘NDN Power’. I stuck it on my bumper. That’s what holds my car together.” Belief in a higher power.
In 2010, we recorded the Punk (Skate) version. My son Keith is on drums, his friend Joey Dougherty is on guitar and vocals and Jimmy Vickers is on bass. Two old punks and two young punks, one great song, really fast. (2:06)