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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 13, 2002 - Issue 65


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Original Gangstas
They were making music before there was America

by Thomas Hayden U.S. News
credits: Photos of Grand Entry at the Mahkato Wacipi courtesy of Dan Zielski

Grand Entry (hang on it will take a while to load)

First there are the dancers: They twirl, bob, and sway, 800 men, women, and children dressed in 800 variations on the theme of feathers, beadwork, and bells. The sight is intoxicating, but it is the sounds–of thousands of bells on dancers' ankles and "jingle dresses," of the chantlike singing, and, most of all, of the pounding, insistent drums–that stay with you for days afterward. This is "the song," the heartbeat of the powwow, passed seamlessly among a dozen groups of men seated around a dozen picnic table-size drums from the first Grand Entry to the final steps of the last competitive dance three days later.

As America grew, the new nation swallowed an almost unfathomable diversity of indigenous peoples and cultural traditions. The music they played–for ceremony, for courting, for fun–was no less diverse, ranging from the Florida flute players encountered by conquistador Hernando De Soto in 1539, to the Sioux and Ojibwa songs the ethnologist Frances Densmore recorded on wax cylinders in the early 20th century. Early collectors of American Indian music thought they were saving the last sounds of a disappearing culture. Some traditions and songs have been lost, says UCLA ethnomusicologist Tara Browner, author of Heartbeat of the People. But even when governments banned ceremonies and languages to force assimilation in the late 19th century, she says, "the songs didn't die. They were just hidden away."

On the road again. Starting in the 1950s, old musical traditions, including the Native American flute and Navajo peyote songs, began to be revived and revitalized. And today, a growing number of contemporary Indian musicians–rappers and rockers, folkies and pop stars–are blending traditional sounds and languages with European musical traditions. The most visible expression of this musical resurgence is found on the powwow circuit. Dancers, drummers, and whole families spend the summer months traveling from coast to coast and through Canada, meeting to compete for prize money, celebrate their cultures, and play the songs.

The powwow, or gathering of tribes, has deep historical roots. Based on the social dances held after religious ceremonies like the annual Sun Dance of Great Plains tribes, powwow dancing and the music that drives it first took on its modern "exhibition sense" when American Indian dancers developed new forms for Wild West shows in the 1870s, says Browner, herself a Choctaw and a powwow dancer. Competitions came later, in the 1950s, but while dances and regalia continue to evolve, she says, "the music you hear is very old; the styles date back to the early 1800s. Old forms survive side by side with newer forms."

The Boyz, one of the four "host drum" groups at the Red Earth powwow in Oklahoma City last month, play in the traditional Northern style. All eight members beat out a steady rhythm on a central drum while singing a combination of lyrics and the syllables known as vocables. But the 20-something members live in the Twin Cities, not on a reservation, and dress in T-shirts and jeans, rather than traditional buckskins. Across town from Red Earth, in a grotty strip-mall bar surrounded by four "gentlemen's clubs" and a bingo parlor, the members of O.I.T.–Old Indian Trick–play hard-charging rock music. Several members say they "sing for their tribe" as well, but lead singer H. C. Ynguanzo says, "We live in America, and rock is the universal language. It reflects who we are, too."

The beat. The Boyz also live in modern America, but like many Indians today, they straddle two cultures. "It's a lot easier to buy a $10 shirt than to go hunting for three days" for buckskin, says Boyz member Ramon Benton-Benai, his white golf shirt contrasting with long hair shaved from forehead to crown in the traditional Ojibwa manner. "We live in these two worlds."

For Indian musicians, their CDs often consigned to the New Age bin at record stores, defining their own music and experience has an added significance. "People try to tell us who we are all the time," says Benton-Benai. Even the standard pop culture "Indian drumbeat"–"dum da dum dum, dum da dum dum"–has no basis in real American Indian culture. (It was actually based on the Russian "primitivism" school, brought to Hollywood by émigré composers in the 1920s.) "No one drums like that," scoffs Boyz leader Hokie Clairmont. "You couldn't even dance to it."

Maybe, but the Cherokee rapper and actor Litefoot says that adopting new styles need not mean abandoning tradition. "The elders tell us that music is medicine," he says. His raps are often about native identity, history, and pride. "At a powwow, the essence of drumming is to encourage the dancers," he says. "That spirit, of encouraging our people, is in what I do too, no matter what the form is." Back out on the powwow circuit, Benton-Benai agrees. He may pass the time between songs at Red Earth playing computer games, "but I'll never leave this either," he says, tapping the group drum twice. "This is my heart; this is my life."

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