American Indian Music: Not Just Drums and Flute Anymore
Carolyn Dunn, 2003
American Indians are a people of great originality: the original inhabitants of North, Central, and South America; the First Nations on the original continent; and the original artists without borders. In our traditional societies there was no such thing as borders between Nations. Certainly, there were conflicts between Nations, but rarely were these conflicts over land usage that would result in land ownership and use of borders, use of fences and boxes and things that delineate "me" from "you" — "us" from "them", Indians being always the "them" to mainstream culture's "us"; the "you" from America's "me".
American Indians have never really fit into convenient boxes or been subjugated by borders. No matter how hard governments have tried to contain us, we still survived and continue to survive into the future. The boxes and borders that have tried to keep us out, or in, depending upon whose perspective one is approaching the topic from, have always crumbled because of our resilience. Our art, our literature, our music, and our languages have survived cultural onslaught and have changed with our migrations. Thus, we are the original artists without borders, people popping up all over the world, not just in the convenient little borders America has placed around us.
People think of Indians as stoic, archaic, unmoving. However, we are great gossips. We love words. We love music, we love art, we love the land, and we love to move. To cross borders is our specialty – we've been doing it for thousands of years.
Paula Gunn Allen has a saying: An odd thing occurs in the minds of Americans when American Indian civilization is mentioned: little or nothing. It is as if our lives and our legends, our landscapes, our art, our poetry, our music has disappeared off the face of the earth, known only to us in our secret ways of speaking: through the moccasin telegraph. People think of Indians as stoic, archaic, unmoving. However, we are great gossips. We love words. We love music, we love art, we love the land, and we love to move. To cross borders is our specialty — we've been doing it for thousands of years.
That odd thing that occurs in the minds of Americans also happens when applying that template to our music. For so long staples of Indian music has been pow wow drums (traditional men singers singing in either the Northern, high pitched, almost a falsetto singing style as compared to the lower pitched, more rhythmic Southern style) which come out of the pow wow traditions of the Northern and Southern Plains peoples; the other staple being the lovely, almost plaintive flute music popular across Indian America. Many musicians are taking these styles of music and moving them away from the Indian mainstream (yes, folks, there is such a thing as Indian mainstream!) and crossing borders as we always have done: effortlessly and purposefully.
The Northern style of pow wow singing comes from the Northern Plains peoples: the Blackfoot, Ojibwe, Sioux; and into Canada with the Cree and Blackfoot and Ojibwe that reside there. Pow wow music transverses borders, as the purpose of the original pow wows was the coming together of nations separated during long winters. These gatherings were ceremonial and social, accompanied by dances whose traditions speak of centuries of cultural survival. Traditionally, the singing of pow wow songs around one large drum was a role only for men in these communities. But when the pow wow culture began crossing borders from the north and south to east and west, and across the oceans into other worlds, we began to see changes that normally occur when border crossings and adaptations happen. Women began singing with many of the men, standing behind them and singing on the ends of verses, adding their higher voices to the men's' near falsettos, creating a tension of beauty in song. As pow wows crossed even more borders, many family drums, including Black Lodge Singers, Kicking Woman Singers and Little Boy Singers, began inviting mothers, sisters, and daughters to be members of the drum. Many coed drum groups began to appear, such as CathedralLakes and several all–women drum groups have come together since the late 80's/early 90's, most notably the Mankillers from California.
The Mankillers formed in 1991 in Humboldt County, are made up of members of the Humboldt State University Student Drum, the Red Cedar Drum, and other women in the community. The original members of the group were all active within their own tribal communities as well as the Native community surrounding Humboldt State University. One night, while on a break from singing at Captain Jack's Stronghold, original members Irma Amaro–Davis, Michon Eben and Maggie Steele started singing together, and noticed how well the women's voices blended together. "We should start a women's drum and call ourselves the Mankillers," Michon joked. The name stuck.
Partly in honor of the former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Wilma P. Mankiller, whose name derives from traditional Cherokee warrior society names, The Mankillers (Irma Amaro–Davis, Michon Eben, Maggie Escobedo Steele Carolyn Dunn, Tina Toledo Rizzo , Kristy Orona–Ramirez, Genevieve Markussen, Sawar Young, April Carmelo Frank, Renee Dove Jeude, Valerie Estrada, Danielle Estrada and Geneva Shaw) began by singing other drums' songs, particularly those of Black Lodge and Kicking Woman, as well as Northern Cree, Rattling Thunder, Red Sand, and other established drum groups. Certainly women's drum groups were controversial, and the Mankillers when they first started the pow wow circuit found themselves often passed up when it was their turn to sing. But slowly folks began to accept the Mankillers' border–crossing." By the mid 90's, members of the Mankillers began composing their own songs, in their languages — Choctaw, Towa, Paiute — as well as English and vocals, and their first CD All Woman Northern Drum, was released on Without Rez Records in 1997. Since then the group has traveled nationally and internationally, performing in Hawaii, Canada, Minnesota, Arizona, and at the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan. The group released a second CD on Without Rez Records entitled Comin To Getcha in 1999, and in 2002 released Killing You Softly on their own label, MK Records. The intertribal group continues to perform across the nations as well as riding the pow wow circuit in their native California.
Other Native artists continue to branch out, weaving traditional songs and languages into very modern styles. Joy Harjo, the acclaimed Muskogee poet, in her late 30's decided to learn how to play the saxophone and put her words into song. Backed by her band, Poetic Justice (John L. Williams, Susan M. Williams, William Bluehouse Johnson, Frank Poocha, and Richard Carbajal, with guests César Bauvallet, Kyle Johnson, Frank Leto and Clay Benard), Harjo released her critically acclaimed CD Letter From The End of the 20th Century in 1997 on Silverwave Records. Letter was a remarkable achievement, a spoken word/reggae/jazz fusion blend that busted out of the boundaries of what "typical" Native music sounded like. The CD won many awards, including a First Americans In the Arts Award for 1997, and helped establish Joy as an interstitial artist. Perhaps it is in her blood as well, the fluidity of borders that influence her work. She was born in Oklahoma, educated in New Mexico, and has lived in Arizona, Los Angeles and Honolulu. Currently at work on her second cd, Native Joy, scheduled for release fall 2003 on her own Mekko Records label, the sax–playing poet stretches her artistic boundaries by singing. And singing really well. Backed by her new band, consisting of Michael Sena, René Camacho and Erez Ginat, the new record is world music, traditional Native fusion — jazz, blues and rock that proves to be the next evolution for this continually evolving, migrating artist.
Keith Secola has been called the Native Neil Young, (a label which really doesn't apply) among many things. The renowned Anishnabe singer/songwriter/guitarist and his Wild Band of Indians are perhaps one of the more well known contemporary Native artists blending musical styles. Progressive rock meets the blues meets traditional Native drum with a dash of country, socially conscious lyrics in both English and Anishnabe make for an artist who crosses borders with ease and great flourish. Secola's CDs, Wild Band of Indians (1994) Circle (reissued 1994), Fingermonkey (1997), the EP Kokopelli Blues and his latest, Homeland, all released on his Akina label. His music has been featured prominently in movie soundtracks including the critically acclaimed Dance Me Outside and his anthem "NDN Cars" is a classic.
Ulali the acapella trio made up of Pura Fe (Tuscarora), Soni Moreno (Yaqui/Apache/Mayan) and Jennifer Kriesberg (Tuscarora) was founded fifteen years ago. Known for their lush harmonies and intensely powerful vocals, the group seamlessly and effortlessly blends traditional musical stylings, language, with a contemporary Style that is unique. They have performed in many venues, including the Atlanta Olympics, Smithsonian's Folkways Anniversary Gala, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, 1998 World Music Festival, Madison Square Garden, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and many others. Their songs have been included on soundtracks from the movie Smoke Signals, and TNT's Emmy–winning series The Native Americans. Their live shows are boundary–busting events, beautiful to watch and listen.
Many other Native artists are crossing borders musically, including Red Hawk, Martha Redbone, Sharon Burch and many others. J. Poet's extensive study in Indigenous Peoples Magazine last year (Sept/Nov 2002) on Native musicians presented a history of the border crossings in Native music.
Recently, I participated in a radio program in which we discussed cultural literacy, and how important this topic is in encouraging Native children to maintain their ancestral ties to their cultures. Native peoples are no strangers to migration; as I mentioned earlier, we've been moving a long time. Our stories were carried across borders and into regions new and different. In this modern world, nothing changes. We continue to do so, but now stories and borders are crossed through music, through language, through song.
About the Author
Carolyn Dunn is a poet, playwright and scholar whose poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Her poetry has been collected in Outfoxing Coyote and the forthcoming Echolocation; she is the editor of two anthologies: Hohzo — Walking in Beauty (with Paula Gunn Allen) and Through the Eye of the Deer (with Carol Comfort); and she is the author of a children's book, Coyote Speaks (with Ari Berk). She is the founding director of the American Indian Theatre Collective and her play Ghost Dance is currently in development with the Los Angeles Theatre Project. Dunn is also a songwriter and member of the all–women Native drum group The Mankillers, whose fourth cd will be out in early 2009. More about Carolyn can be found at www.carolyndunn.com.