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Taken in 1894, this is the oldest known footage of Native American drumming and “The Ghost Dance”

Neil Patrick

Music and history are tightly interwoven in Native American life. A tribe’s history is constantly told and retold through music, which keeps alive an oral narrative of history. These historical narratives vary widely from tribe to tribe, and are an integral part of tribal identity. However, their historical authenticity cannot be verified; aside from supposition and some archaeological evidence, the earliest documentation of Native American music came with the arrival of European explorers.Musical instruments and pictographs depicting music and dance have been dated as far back as the 7th century A.D..

Many music genres span multiple tribes. Pan-tribalism is the syncretic adoption of traditions from foreign communities. Since the rise of the United States and Canada, Native Americans have forged a common identity, and invented pan-Indian music, most famously including powwows, peyote songs, and the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance spread throughout the Plains tribes in the 1890’s and many of its songs are sung today. They are characterized by relaxed vocals and a narrow range. Apache-derived peyote songs,prayers in the Native American Church, use a descending melody and monophony. Rattles and water drums are used, in a swift tempo. The Sun Dance and Grass Dance of the plains are the roots of inter-tribal powwows, which feature music with terraced descent and nasal vocals, both Plains characteristic features.

An example of an inter-tribal song is the AIM Song, which uses meaningless vocables to make it accessible to people of all tribes. However, because of its origins from the Lakota and Ojibwe people, it still retains some Northern Plains and Great Lakes characteristics.

John Trudell (Santee Dakota) launched a new genre of spoken word poetry in the 1980’s, beginning with Aka Graffiti Man (1986). The next decade saw further innovations in Native American popular music, including Robbie Robertson (of The Band) releasing a soundtrack for a documentary, Music for the Native Americans, that saw limited mainstream success, as well as Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike’s modernized peyote songs, which they began experimenting with on Sacred Path: Healing Songs of the Native American Church.

Waila (or chicken scratch music of the Tohono O’odham) has gained performers like the Joaquin Brothers fame across Native American communities, while hip hop crews like With Out Rezervation and Robby Bee & the Boyz From the Rez (Reservation of Education) have a distinctively Native American flourish to hip hop. In the 21st century the leading light of contemporary Native American music has been Martha Redbone whose award-winning albums Home of the Brave (2002) and Skintalk (2005) have incorporated both traditional song and culture references into a brew of soul, funk, rock and jazz that has reached audiences across Europe and Japan as well as into the urban communities of the US. Meanwhile, young Native musicians such as Red Earth (see “Zia Soul” (2003) ), DJ Abel, Derek Miller, Ethnic DeGeneration,War Water, and Casper are producing outstanding underground music (ranging from hip-hop to funk to reggae to metal) defying stereotypes of Native people (without label support).

American Indian opera is an inter-tribal music tradition, created when Gertrude Bonnin, a Yankton Dakota activist collaborated with a classical composer William Hanson to create the opera, Sun Dance in 1913. Cherokee Nation mezzo soprano opera singer, Barbara McAlister has performed in many opera troupes and has sung at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Brulé Lakota band Brulé and the American Indian Rock Opera create full-scale contemporary musical performances, including “Concert for Reconciliation of the Cultures.”