Native American Music

Native American Music
Chapter 11
By: Hannah Gregor
Native American
 Songs in Native American
culture are very short, like a
nursery rhyme or hymn
 In ceremonies, songs are placed
in large groups to perform
 Religious ceremonies last hours,
or even days
 Example: Yeibechi (“Night
Chant”)of the Navajo
requires nine days and nights
to perform
 Even in secular performances,
songs are grouped together to
 Example: performance of
Stomp Dance
 Each tribe had its own musical
culture, repertory, musical style, uses
of, and ideas about music
1,000-2,000 individual tribes in North
America, each with a distinct
 Some tribes still maintain their
 Others have been forced to share
reservations with other tribes, and
have developed a unified culture
 Some ceremonies are intertribal
 Most Native Americans have
conformed, but in music and dance,
they express their roots and culture
Native American Music
 Native American music is almost
always monophonic and mostly
 There are many distinct vocal styles,
but they all share a tense sound and
the pulsation on longer notes
 Three types of forms dominate
Strophic songs – like folk songs or
hymns, a stanza is repeated many
Very short songs consisting of one or
two lines repeated many times
Two contrasting sections alternate
 Almost all singing is accompanied
by percussion
 Each tribal group has its own
unique repertory, and musical style
 Even neighboring tribes differ from
each other
 Seven music areas
 Plains
 Eastern United States
 Yuman (Southwest United States
and parts of Southern California)
 Athabascan (Navajo/Apache, also
Southwestern US)
 Pueblo (Papago, Southwestern US)
 Great Basin (Nevada and Utah)
 Northwestern Coast (Washington,
Oregon, and parts of Alaska)
Ideas About Music
What is it and what
does it do?
 Why are the songs so short?
 Oral traditions make it difficult to
pass on complex compositions
 If you listen carefully, the music is
complex on a microscopic scale
 Native American music is judged
using different values than
Western music
 Music has supernatural power in
Native American cultures, so
every ceremony has an
appropriate song
 Songs that come in dreams have
special power
Music reflects culture
 A Blackfoot singer said, “The right
way to do something is to sing the
right song with it.”
 Women had a smaller and
separate repertory, but may join in
men’s songs
 Women have a different singing
style – more nasal and smoother
with pulsations being ornaments
rather than rhythmic references
Musical Instruments and
 Most music is vocal and almost all instruments are percussive
 Solo drumming is rare
 Most widely used melodic instrument is the flute
 Some reeds and trumpets are used on the North Pacific Coast
 The musical bow is similar to a hunting bow but is used as a
musical instrument
 Songs do not necessarily have words nor do need to be
 COMPLETE texts of two Blackfoot songs:
 “Sun says to sing” – from Song of the Sun Dance ceremony
 “It is spring, let others see you” – sung at the beginning of a medicine
bundle opening ceremony, prior to the bundle being opened
Native American Musical
 Little direct evidence, but circumstantial information allow
reasonable deductions
 Since Native American music shares traits with Asian music,
scholars deduce that Native Americans arrived from Asia in
waves beginning at least 14,000 years ago
 South American and North American Native American music
share some aspects, but differ in others
 Shared: forms and singing styles are similar, as are ideas about
 Different: in South American Native American culture, women
participate more heavily than in North American, as well as more
instrumental music
Native American Music in
the Present
 Since the coming of white people, Native American musical culture has been
greatly reduced
 As Native Americans were relocated and epidemics swept through their
populations, most ceremonies and songs were lost
 Some Native Americans adopted the idea that music is composed by humans
and are not supernatural, and the idea of music as entertainment was accepted
 Other Native Americans began to use music to fight against the oppression and
to preserve their culture
 The Ghost Dance songs enriched the Plains Indians’ music
 The songs of the peyote religion (peyote is a drug from cacti) are easily
recognized and aspects of the music have come from different tribes
 There are Christian hymnals with Christian songs in the traditional Native
American style
 Powwow style music began in the late 20th century from Plains music and
 Part of the powwow repertory are 49 songs with mildly amusing and romantic
English lyrics
Women in
• Women’s roles in music differed from tribe to tribe
• In some tribes, women were not permitted to sing in public
• In others, women played important roles in ceremonies
• Women often know the music repertory better than men
• Women have become more prominent in Native American
musical culture
Native American Popular
 “Indian rock music” genre combines Native American
traditional tunes, percussive sounds, and texts from or referring
to Native American culture
 Some Native American artists performed Western music that
discussed Native American issues
 Most of the modern Native American popular music speaks to
environmental issues due to the fact that their land is
threatened by pollution, factories, mining, etc.
 Much of the Native American popular music does not differ in
sound from Western popular music, but instead deals with
issues faced by Native Americans

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