Styles & Forms | Native America | World

The music of the indigenous peoples of North America is tightly bound to their struggle for self-determination, human rights and land, as well as the traditional ceremonies that were created to develop spiritual ties with nature, to provide strength for battle and to relate great victories. The arrival of Europeans altered the details, but not the essence.

However, such is the precarious nature of a culture founded on oral history, even the most emblematic of ceremonies raise some controversy. The origins of the powwows that today bring together representatives of tribes from all corners of the continent, and which climax in elaborate celebrations featuring dances, drumming, vocable chanting (singing sounds that have no meaning outside the chants) and the throat-singing shared with Mongolian and Siberian nomads, may date from hundreds of years ago, but sceptics argue that they were the creation of white settlers and are about as authentic as a Wild West show or John Wayne movie.

Hollywood Cliché

In its early years, the all-pervasive influence of the Hollywood western reduced many of the Native Americans’ sacred beliefs to cliché. The true significance of rain dances, war dances (particularly the Sioux Ghost Dance that eventually led to their final defeat in 1890), medicine men and the sacred use of smoking have become hard to comprehend or even take seriously for outsiders. However, as European and Native American cultures started to trade influences on an equal footing (and Hollywood started revising its image of the ‘Injun’), new musical forms started to emerge.

Among the first Europeans to venture onto the reservations were missionaries, and gospel music has a strong tradition among Native Americans. However, just as in other continents where Christianity has been introduced to a population with its own beliefs, hybrid strains have grown up, fusing animism, shamanism and hallucinogenic cacti. Chester Mahooty, Robert Tree Cody and the Sioux/Navajo duo Verdell Primeaux & Johnny Mike have become the foremost practitioners of peyote-inspired sacred music, singing prayers over drums and ambient electronics.

Singing For Civil Rights

In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the United States, a new breed of Native American singers started making themselves heard with music that was both contemporary and held hard-hitting messages. Born on a Saskatchewan reservation, the Cree singer Buffy Saint-Marie was the first politicized Native American to make real headway. Her 1964 breakthrough album, It’s My Way, tackled topics such as war, incest, the destruction of the indigenous way of life and the perils of drug addiction. Although her singing career foundered in the 1970s, she later married the Phil Spector and Rolling Stones collaborator Jack Nitzsche and shared an Oscar with him for the theme to the film An Officer And A Gentleman.

Robbie Robertson was another with roots in the Canadian reservations. In the 1960s, he was Bob Dylan’s guitarist on the folk singer’s early electric tours; he then became one of the pioneers of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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