Native American Perspectives in Music – Post #2 of 3

Arizona Navajo, Sir Harrison, with his blue Fender stratocaster guitar, fronts the Blues Kings.

Arizona Navajo, Sir Harrison, fronts the Blues Kings.



“With the power of soul, anything is possible.” – Jimi Hendrix


This is the second of three papers in the heading, “Native American Perspectives in Music”. In an earlier blog entry you’ll find my first paper and some background info.  In this essay we shall see that linking music with traditional and contemporary indigenous knowledge transforms human consciousness into the spiritual field.  One point that is made explicit by almost every author in this anthology is that legends, dance, music and song texts weave traditional and contemporary knowledge to generate power and transform consciousness.  Furthermore, with this transformation we learn that sound is a healing force.   Finally, we shall see how the preservation of ecology is related to the preservation of culture.



Understanding Native American Music Across the USA (Part 2)


“The sound takes me there.”

~ Margaret Paul; Passamaquoddy Traditional Singer (Browner 2009: 60)



Native North American’s weave traditional and contemporary knowledge by linking music with legend and dance to transform human consciousness into the spiritual field. This review focuses on a book, a website and a recording to develop understanding about Native American music across the United States. Specifically, key points from the Introduction and Chapters 3-9 of an anthology of scholarly case studies, Tara Browner’s Music of the First Nations, will be explored. Additionally, this author will summarize three stories at the PBS website, Circle of Stories-Many Voices, and explain why this author selected them and what was found to be important. Finally, using a musical piece from the CD accompanying Beverley Diamond’s book, Music of The First Nations – Tradition and Innovation in Native North America, this author will explain this musical piece’s contribution to the understanding of Native American perspectives discussed in this paper. Throughout the chapters and stories that we will explore, each writer utilizes a specific theoretical perspective that is interesting and compelling, with respect to the assumptions, methodology and conclusions that are drawn. Many of these approaches and methods are documented in this paper, but what interests this author the most is the phenomenological experience expressed by the characters and the relationship people have with music. For instance, in Chapter 3, “The Story of Dirty Face – Power and Song in Western Washington Coast Salish Myth Narratives”, the archivist for the ethnomusicology program at the University of Washington in Seattle (163), Laurel Sercombe, explores the role of music in the oral literature of the Pacific Northwest Coast region. As Sercombe analyses ten versions of “Song of Dirty Face”, she notes, “what unifies these renditions musically has primarily to do with rhythmic patterns and the interrelationship of rhythm and text” (46). Developing this linguistic/musicological approach she discovers that each of the versions share an undulating melodic contour and concludes that the word yela´b provides the rhythmic foundation for the song (46, 48). Sercombe’s linguistic analysis of stories that utilize embedded short songs within the narrative text illuminates how power is developed from the enchantment of the sung ritual words, which are enclosed within the myth narrative like a gift in a box. Sercombe asserts that “the presence of songs within myth narratives signals a communicative shift, alerting the listener to the proximity of power or the knowledge of power, moving the event into a spiritual frame” (49). The movement of the “event” into the spiritual frame is a phenomenological experience, a paradigm shift, fostering the musical performance to link the human and spirit worlds as the performance evokes power. Linking music with the weave of traditional and contemporary indigenous knowledge transforms human consciousness into the spiritual field. This sociological phenomenological experience is often shared in the context of social interaction, as seen in Chapter 4 “Drums, Songs, Vibrations – Conversations with a Passamaquoddy Traditional Singer”. Here, filmmaker and music professor Franziska von Rosen used a dialogic approach as she centers on those key issues that traditional singer Margaret Paul views as vital to an understanding of the current Maliseet/Passamaquoddy musical revitalization.

Margaret Paul

Margaret Paul

Paul mentions that the traditions were almost lost in the 1960’s because many of the elders believed that the traditions were irrelevant due to mass acculturation and the social splintering consequences of colonialism. Over a few hundred years, the populations of these communities had been decimated by smallpox and other diseases brought by European settlers. The erosion of traditional culture and the languages of the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy is a consequence of children being discouraged from speaking their native languages after they were removed from their communities to be educated in boarding schools (54).

After the silencing of the drum for over two generations, Paul brought back the drum, the songs, the ceremonies, and the way of life that are respectful of the native traditions (4). In light of the generational patterns of induced ethnocide, Paul’s motivation speaks volumes with regard to her contemporary exertion of power as she helps members of her community learn traditional music. Additionally, this author can relate to Paul’s personal phenomenology as she says, “When I sing I’m in a spiritual place. The sound takes me there, just the sound” (italics mine). Many musicians and listeners, including this author, become enraptured by music’s sound and energy. Music can be an ecstatic healing experience because, as Rosen states, healing takes place when the right sound, tone and energy of a song are focused (62). This phenomenological healing experience is a benefit of the paradigm shift. Furthermore, not only is Paul correcting the consequences from the abuses of forced cultural assimilation by making sure that the next generation has songs to sing, her engagement with sound as a link to the spirit world is shared with her community as she informs younger generations. Paul feels that her weave of traditional and contemporary knowledge, that is linked with songs and drumming, is confirmed by the spirits on the other side who are listening (63). This confirmation empowers Paul to continue.

Just as Paul revitalizes traditional singing and music making in her community, we also learn that members of the Choctaw in Mississippi retain identity through cultural events that feature music, despite high levels of acculturation in their community. Christian missionaries have been active in Choctaw country since 1819 and their presence continues to be a critical factor in the degree of exhibited acculturation (68). In fact, research shows that from 1827 to contemporary times, many of the 160 hymns used in Protestant Choctaw churches contain texts that are similar in many respects to hitla tuluwa (dance songs) (69).   The texts are set exclusively in Choctaw and research shows that they were collaborations between the Choctaw and the missionaries. Additionally, following the practice exhibited in traditional Choctaw music, performance of the hymns is traditionally led by a male song leader with female parts doubled an octave higher, as in the hitla tuluwa repertory.   Furthermore, David Samuels (whose work we will later revisit) notes that music was a tool for assimilationist practices since the beginning of the reservation era, if not earlier (150). Music was used as a way to monitor social practices within Native communities. Once incarcerated, Native people were then taught to sing in unison and harmony because the euro-centric governmental forces not only found it more aesthetically pleasing but also associated this form of expression with the inculcation of democracy, modernity and Christianity (150).

In Chapter 5, “Identity, Retention, and Survival: Contexts for the Performance of Native Choctaw Music”, Choctaw musician and anthropologist David Draper illustrated his ideas with musical transcriptions that provide insight to the semantic level of the First People’s mystical and metaphysical domain (90). His transcriptions not only document events but also serve to illuminate his point of view that linking musical performances with specific community events provides meaning and power. Without the event, the performance often ceases. The contemporary hitla tuluwa repertory is used in the context of communal/social dance, an expression that intertwines secular and sacred activities, thus underscoring the traditional/contemporary transformation that we have seen in other North American tribes. In 1969, when Draper initiated field research on this music, the repertory was in danger of becoming extinct. However, with the hitla tuluwa repertory being introduced into Choctaw schools by the early 1970’s, a revitalization of traditional ways is helping to preserve Choctaw identity. Additionally, the community event and transcription is another way to participate with one’s environment. This relationship is shared with Sercombe’s linguistic and musicological analysis where dance, traditional indigenous knowledge and song, link to shift the paradigmatic perception of the mythology into the spiritual frame. Draper also comments on the transformation of acculturated musical forms such as country and western music. Since at least 1969 Choctaw musicians participate with white country and western ensembles.   This expression of modernity is covered in greater detail later in this paper.

As the above events often unite multi-dimensional perspectives while simultaneously celebrating the joy for life, musician, researcher and Ph. D. candidate in ethnomusicology, T. Christopher Aplin describes a spiritual ceremonial experience and joyful celebration along with his concerns in Chapter 6, “ ‘This Is Our Dance’: The Fire Dance of the Fort Sill Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache”. He expresses concern over the erosion of the distinctiveness of Chiricahua Apache ceremonialism and musical expression due to the plethora of other southern Plains Apaches who share a related Athapaskan linguistic background. Retention of the Chiricahua culture and language is perpetuated in the distinctive Chiricahua ceremonialism of their annual Fire Dance, which Aplin vividly describes (98-101). The traditional ceremonial context merging with the contemporary environment is finely nuanced, as in the way fire illuminates the night. For the Chiricahua, the central importance of this cultural practice is the role of the dance as a vehicle for tribal history, values, and beliefs (107). However, this multi-disciplined interwoven transmission of music, legend and dance also functions as a way to open the experience to the spiritual frame. The attention to the distinctiveness of a cultures ceremonialism and musical expression links Aplin’s paper with Chapter 7, “The Creative Power and Style of Ghost Dance Songs”. It has taken decades of research for ethnomusicologists to distinguish the most important characteristics of the Ghost Dance musical style. In 1935, ethnomusicologist George Herzog noted, “(the songs) fall into sections so symmetrical as to be startling in primitive material” (119, italics mine). Unfortunately Herzog’s musicological lexicon, and narrow Eurocentric perspective, was too undeveloped to perceive more finely nuanced details. Seventy-six years later Native American cultures continue to grapple with outsider’s ignorance of the richness of Native American musical cultures. Fortunately, microscopic attention to detail sheds light on unique characteristics that are found as compliments to musical repetition such as narrow vocal pitch variations, contrasts in vocal timbre, and rhythmic displacement of sung themes (122). After ethnomusicologist Judith Vander summarizes a brief description of the Ghost Dance religion, she focuses on a point that is made explicit by almost every author in this anthology; that legends, dance, music and song texts weave traditional and contemporary knowledge to generate power and transform consciousness. As traditional indigenous knowledge (TIK) is relational with one’s environment (Diamond 2008:10), a distinguishing feature in Vander’s essay is the declaration that every animate and inanimate object has power, that ‘song is a mirror of nature’, and that “the communication and transfer of power from the natural world to people is made through, or as, song” (114, italics mine). This aspect of TIK does not contradict aspects of Native American modernity, as Browner demonstrates in Chapter 8, “An Acoustic Geography of Intertribal Pow-wow Songs”, that power does not always have to come from indigenous text. She shows that as intertribal songs fill the sonic void, power comes from the transformation of space within the environment of that performance.

Browner offers a compelling contrast to traditional understanding of TIK, as she uses an interpretive approach to answer her question, “(do) intertribal songs maintain any sense of connection to their original cultural and tribal source (?)” (2009: 132). Browner mentions that intertribal pow-wows began around 1880 and that pow-wow music, being an expression of Native American modernity, is in an ever-evolving state of sonic transformation (133, 138). The word “contemporary” is used to describe pow-wow songs that utilize a generic mode of performance outside of tribal or regional customs. The songs lack indigenous text, entirely using vocables or four-to-five word phrases that are most easily pronounceable by those not intimately acquainted with the language. Browner sees the purpose of these songs as complementing dancing and for listening pleasure although they may also contribute to an intensification of the self (139). Neither Browner nor any cited Native American specialist states that the integration of text, music and dance used in intertribal pow-wow songs fosters transformation of consciousness into the spiritual field, as earlier essays reference the use of music in ceremonies. Despite this, contemporary pow-wow songs are another facet of useful contemporary Native North American expression, as is contemporary country and cowboy music, mentioned earlier in Draper’s essay, as well as in Chapter 9, “Singing Indian Country”. Here, ethnomusicologist and linguistic anthropologist David W. Samuels, employs an interpretive analysis as he strives to answer, “How can Native Americans sing cowboy music?” Cultural contradictions develop with regard to “meaning” of the song, through integration of the song’s lyrics, the singer and audience perception. Although some amount of Native American acculturation and appropriation is used as an ironic reference, Samuels goes on to express how musicians, both Native Americans and white working class exponents, have been exchanging a variety of ethnic identity markers including clothing styles, turquoise jewelry, and electric instruments. Samuels makes the case that we should question the dominant historical ideologies about what a proper expression of Native identity should be (143).   Supporting this point of view, Beverly Diamond notes that the concept of fusing styles, although commonplace in contemporary music, may be perceived by some as a “dangerous crossroads” where “the potential for political alliance and artistic innovation may be threatening to power brokers who want to keep everyone in their place” (2008: 113). Samuels shows that the choice of country music style by Native peoples brings about other types of participation and expression that is different from other musical frameworks like jazz, rock, reggae and hip-hop. Samuels sees the country music voice as a foremost means of expressing sentiments attached to the past (Browner 2009:147). Many native country music singers do not fully appropriate country music vocal styles. Samuels mentions that The Fenders, an early country group from the Navajo Nations, used their own Navajo-English dialects, as opposed to adopting verbatim, sonic features of the Appalachian, Ozark and mountain South dialects into their pronunciations (144). Additionally Samuels considers a variety of musical processes of composition and performance that transform country music into a powerful contemporary expression of Native American identity (152). Native language texts are incorporated as a way to transform country music, evoke indigenous identity and to link social memory with sociopolitical position. Thus the use of TIK in a modern genre such as country music interweaves with contemporary expression to transform consciousness into the spiritual realm. Transformation of traditional and contemporary knowledge is represented in this situation, as well as each of the essays stated above, demonstrating that diverse Native American expressions of modernity are unique to each Native community.

Reflecting on the contemporary pow-wow, images of concentric circles of people around the dancers and musicians at such ceremonies reminded this author of the use of geometric images, as a manifestation of nature, that continue to inspire personal compositional approaches.[i] At the PBS site, “Circle of Stories” the first story this author read was by Black Elk (c.1863-1950), an Oglala Lakota.

Black Elk (circa 1971)

Black Elk (circa 1971)

Years ago, the books Black Elk Speaks and Wovoka and the Ghost Dance made a strong impression on this author. Black Elk believed that everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. He talked about the form of the circle, it’s many manifestations in nature, and the metaphor it has in man’s life such as the sun, celestial bodies and their orbits, the nests of birds, and the cycles of seasons. Also at this PBS site an elder and spiritual leader of the Newe (Western Shoshone) people, Corbin Harney, sings “The Water Song”.

Corbin Harney

Corbin Harney

This song, a mirror of nature, is an expression of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as it expresses man’s respectful relationship with Mother Earth. Harney sang in his Native language while playing a drum. Between each drumbeat, a strong triplet rhythm is expressed in his low-pitched, grain-timbred voice. This author chose this story in order to hear Harney’s musical expression of respect for Mother Earth. The preservation of ecology is related to the preservation of culture. Water nourishes the vast biological diversity, which is inextricably related and linked to man’s cultural diversity. This is close to home for this author.[ii] This author perceives Harney’s expression as a prayer, a type of wish fulfillment. The use of prayer is also expressed through legends for wish fulfillment. A Native American from the Siksika and Narragansett tribes, Tchin, tells the story of “Rabbit’s Wish For Snow”.



Tchin’s hometown (notated on a digital map), Perrinville, NJ, is near where this author grew up and this was enough to want to hear Tchin’s story about the transformative process that wish fulfillment has on one’s nature and in one’s environment. Without a drum or other accompaniment, Tchin performs the story with expressive vocal dynamics, inflections, humor and an ascending melodic contour in his vocal cadence that invites and engages the listener. This author believes the performer was motivated to use these techniques to shift the perception of the mythology, generate power and transform consciousness. Continuing with the rabbit theme, the CD accompanying Music of The First Nations includes the recording “Peter Cottontail (Eskanye)” by the Old Mush Singers. The song touches on several concepts mentioned earlier including the role of music in oral literature, song as a mirror of nature, cooperation with the environment, regional singing styles, variation from exact repetition, and group/self-identification through the transmission of cultural legends.

Throughout diverse Native North American cultures we see that “traditional and contemporary knowledge are not presented as dichotomous and separate realms” (Diamond: 154). Ceremonial and community contexts that incorporate music perpetuate the retention of linguistic traditions, which are expressed through indigenous modernity. Through the use of dance, legends, music and song texts, Native North American music weaves traditional and contemporary knowledge through sonic transformation to generate power and transform consciousness. Through transformation, one may reflect on one’s idealized self. The power that individuals feel through the transmission and reception of musical expression brings about a transformation of consciousness that unites one with all of one’s culture and environment. This empowers the individual to cope with contemporary forces as the culture itself is sustained, fostered and renewed.


[i]Several years ago I began a composition called “Six Circles” that dealt with the intertwining sounds of six musicians. Concomitantly this passage by David Mitchell provided inspiration, “Kusakabe pointed at a puddle, and spoke softly. ‘Circles are born, while circles born a second ago live. Circles live, while circles living a second ago die. Circles die, while new circles are born.’ (Mitchell 2003: 269)”

[ii]For the past five years environmental groups and the NY Times have expressed concern about the hydro-fracking methods and practices by natural gas companies in the Marcellus shale Delaware River Basin of the Northeastern United States. All over the United States, many instances of groundwater contamination have occurred from horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing projects. An east coast catastrophe of the natural aqueduct would directly affect tens of millions of people. A recent article may be read here: <>.

Works Referenced

Browner, Tara (editor). Music of The First Nations – Tradition and Innovation in Native North America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2009.

Diamond, Beverley. Native American Music in Eastern North America:  Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Carson City, Nev.: Grace Dangberg Foundation, 1990.

Kaplan, Thomas. “Millions Spent in Albany Fight to Drill for Gas”, NY, 25, Nov. 2011, Web. 03 Dec. 2011. <>.

Mitchell, David. Number 9 Dream. New York: Random House, 2003.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

“Rabbit’s Wish For Snow”,, Circle of Stories, Web. 30 Nov. 2011.<>.

Scupin, Raymond and Christopher R. DeCorse. Anthropology: A Global Perspective (6th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.

“The Water Song”,, Circle of Stories, Web. 30 Nov. 2011.  <>.

“You Have Noticed That Everything an Indian Does is in a Circle”,, Circle of Stories, Web. 30 Nov. 2011. < >.



About admin

Bruce Eisenbeil is a composer, improviser, and guitar instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of modern guitar techniques through the growth and evolution of modern composition and improvised music. He has twelve CD’s released on a variety of labels including: ESP, New Atlantis, Pogus, Nemu, Konnex, Cadence, C.I.M.P and Nine Winds. Eisenbeil has performed and recorded with some of the best musicians throughout the USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Brasil, and at many festivals. Eisenbeil has been living in New York City since 1995. In addition to his musical developments, Eisenbeil is trained in advanced mathematics, physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, computer languages, electrical engineering, acoustics, art history, philosophy and psychology. He has worked as an electrical technician, mechanical draftsman, auto mechanic and in construction. Although Eisenbeil was born in Chicago, he grew up in Plainfield, NJ which is where he began playing the guitar when he was 4 years old. He has been performing professionally since he was 15. Mostly self-taught, he studied with a few great teachers including Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Dennis Sandole – teacher of John Coltrane and Pat Martino. Despite the fact that Eisenbeil is singular artist with his own personal sound, those critics who write comparatively associate him not only with guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Grant Green, Billy Bauer, Derek Bailey, Sarnie Garrett, Sonny Sharrock, Curtis Mayfield, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck but also with saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. Eisenbeil’s ensemble writing has garnered a lot of attention for his unique counterpoint, textures, and sound masses. Because his work is tough to describe, critics have associated Eisenbeil’s writing with that of Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Brian Ferneyhough, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble. Eisenbeil has performed and/or recorded with some of the best musicians in the world including: Cecil Taylor, Katsuyuki Itakura, David Fox, David Murray, Evan Parker, Rob Brown, Ellery Eskelin, Aaron Ali Shaikh, Jimmy Stewert, Biggi Vinkeloe, Steve Swell, David Taylor, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Michael Manring, Alex Blake, William Parker, Kent Carter, Lisle Ellis, Wilbo Wright, Hill Greene, Tom Abbs, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Tom Hamilton, Charles Cohen, SKFL, Milford Graves, Badal Roy, Andrew Cyrille, Edgar Bateman, Nasheet Waits, Jay Rosen, William Hooker, Lou Grassi, Ian Ash, Lukas Ligeti, Shiro Onuma, Michael Lopez, and many others. In the 1980’s he worked with Jeff Buckley, Paul Gilbert and in R&B bands. His trio, TOTEM>, includes Tom Blancarte and Andrew Drury.