Like mothers everywhere they sang lullabies and they sang to ward off evil. The women sang as they scraped the skins, pounded the pemmican or prepared medicine. When the men were away hunting or at war they chanted and sang prayers for their safety and success. They mourned their dead, often for years. There were songs of greeting, or going, and of loneliness, and of joy.
Men sang too – sang to the Great Spirit. Alone on a high place to greet the dawn or to give thanks for animals that had allowed themselves to be slain for food. There was the holy song sung privately, the song that had been given by the sacred animal – guardian, to be the “death song”, sung publicly only when death was at hand. There were the songs around the fire in the tipi at night when the elders taught the history and folklore of their tribe to the children, and kept history alive. For the Indian, truth, tradition, history and thought was preserved in the ritual of poetry and song. The songs record the teachings of wise men, the great deeds of heroes and the counsel of peers.
Composers of great songs were honoured, for their words were poetry. The Indians spoke in poetry. To learn the very language, such as Cree, was “like learning to sing”, for the words were full of symbolism. They cannot easily be translated into English because many thought-patterns have no counterpart in English. Even those who know the language may not understand the songs unless they know what meaning lies behind the symbolic words. As well, the listener needs a knowledge of the event which called the song into being, the legend with which it is connected, or the ceremony of which it is a part. There were songs so ancient that even the Indians did not know the meanings of the words. Some, like war songs, were wordless or ended in meaningless but unchanging syllables like “we ho he ye ye he ye yo”, just as many white man’s songs end in syllables like “fa la la la la la lah”. There was social singing at the feasts of rejoicing over the birth of a child and the attaining of manhood and womanhood. Songs were sung at the great summer gatherings for the hand-games and gambling, and for the dances that renewed the unity of the clan and of the people with the Great Spirit. It is said, “To the Indian, song is the breath of the spirit that consecrates the acts of life. Not all songs are religious but there is scarcely a task, light or grave, scarcely an event great or small but has its fitting song.”
The Indian was very sensitive to natural things he saw about him. Seeing spectacular northern lights, a new waterfall, a view from a high place, or any other natural experience might move a man to compose a new song. Usually these personal songs were short, and impressionistic – rather like a Japanese haiku, but less structured – at least in translation, but with much repetition of lines.
Nothing that we have found to date in Canada does for Canadian Indian music what the late Natalie Curtis Burin’s The Indian Book (reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1963 from Harper Bros. 1923) does for the United States. In 1906, when she began the work that preserved nearly one hundred and fifty of the old songs, she needed the personal written permission of President Teddy Roosevelt to go onto American Reserves to record them. The Department of Indian Affairs had absolutely forbidden the singing of traditional music in Indian Schools. The older Indians were afraid to sing for her for fear of angering the authorities, and a scientist working on one reserve told her that if the government official heard her recording tribal music on her phonograph, (no tape recorders then) she would be expelled from the reserve.
“The wealth of indigenous music, poetry, and legend was not only neglected, but was being rapidly obliterated by the steady pressure of the government’s effort to crush the Indian as rapidly as possible into the white man’s mold.”
In Canada, there was less active repression. However, since much Indian education took place in church-run schools, there was much attention to Christian hymns and chants. Several Indians have told this writer that “I know the whole church service in Latin but I don’t know a word of what it means.” However, until the advent of the radio and TV our northern Indian elders, having very little contact with the white people until after 1899, kept the old songs alive. The sociable Crees have mixed more with the white people than the Athapaskan speakers and have adopted more “white” songs, but they still remember their own.
The Beavers, Sikanni, Slaveys, Chipewyans and Dogribs are said to have more of the primitive style of singing but that, too, is passing. The Ridingtons, Professor Robin and his wife Tonia, have preserved on tape some of the Beaver music, and the voice of the last prophet, Charlie Yahey. Also, American researchers Lurie, Dorothy Durath, June Helm and Nancy Oestreich have made a study of the Dogrib tea dance and stick-game music.
This writer will attempt only to compile, as carefully as possible, general observations on Indian singing from published material that is not likely to be available to students in local libraries.
Indian singing has melody which ranges between “a sort of falsetto tenor to a bass so low as to scarcely sound the pitch of any given note.”
Natalie Cutis records that Indian tribes differ as widely in their music and in their manner of singing as in their life and customs. But there is one peculiarity that is almost universal. “This is a rhythmic pulsation of the voice on sustained notes somewhat like the effect produced on the violin when the same note is slightly sounded several times during one stroke of the bow.”
Among the Dogribs, only the men sang, but the professors noted “an extreme fondness for pulsation”, which they said, “is produced by a rhythmic propulsion of short breaths on one note in the manner of gasping. Dogrib men use three kinds – a melodic reiteration of “he he. . . ” in moderate tempo at the same speed as the drum, a melodic pulsation twice as fast as the drum, and an atonal low, rapid pulsation which is very soft and sounds like a chuckle. Some songs consist of pulsation and sound “like a flock of geese in flight.” Combine all of the above with “vocal embellishments” – strange throaty sounds slurs, staccato accents and, on some long notes, a tightening of the throat that produces a sort of quaver. Then one can understand why Natalie Curtis says that Indian music cannot be performed on a percussion instrument like a piano, but can be played best on a stringed instrument like a violin.
Indian music does not employ harmony – there is no “part singing”, – all in unison. However the Metis children’s school choir from Kelly Lake had learned to sing eight-part harmony unaccompanied. The unusual and indescribably “different” quality of their rendering of English folk songs undoubtedly had something to do with their native singing style.
Indian singing has rhythm. The Indian lived with rhythm — the pulsing of his own blood, the lapping of water and the running of the animals. The swing of the paddle, the pounding of the pemmican, the beat of wings, the rocking of a baby — all are part of the natural rhythm of their lives.
Natalie Curtis, herself a musician, says “No … music has such complex and changing rhythm as has the music of the American Indian”. The Indian does not need a drum for singing and not even for dancing. It is said that “The Indian can dance without a drum, but no Indian can dance without a song.” The singers set the rhythm – the drummers follow, sometimes in 1/4 time but also in 1/8 – 3/8 or 3/4 time, as shown in the notation of Natalie Curtis. In 3/4 time, when it is counted “one (omit two) three”, it is called “thunder drumming”. Generally it is monotonous to our ears, but three or four times in each song the drummers accent the beat to keep the singers “on time”. On these accented notes the singers and dancers bow low to honour the drum.
Among our northern tribe the drum might be a hollow log with skin stretched over it and bound with rawhide. Generally it was a hoop with skin stretched taut over one side, but Charlie Yahey’s ceremonial drum is unusual in that is has two heads. Some of the northern Indians had strings of sinew stretched across the head to give the effect of a snare drum. The instrument could be struck with the hand, or a drumstick the end of which was a piece of buckskin stuffed and sewn like a ball. From time to time the drum had to be heated to restore its tone.
Not all of the songs were accompanied by drums, – the tea dance, for instance, which was a feature of the big traditional summer meetings, was not accompanied by drums. The Dogribs had a repertoire of twenty-five songs, sung in any order chosen by the song leader, who had an important role in the tribe. Professors Lurie and Helm recorded the “their voices rise and fall in melodies and cadences of a compelling beauty once one’s ears become accustomed to them.” Dances seem to accompany all singing.
Whenever there was drumming there was action, either in the motions of the body and arms when the men were seated at a hand-game, or, in the more usual way, in “steps” and postures. The Indian men being forbidden by tradition to show their emotions even in expression of the face, threw themselves into dancing as an emotional release that was as natural as breathing.
John Frederic Gibson, in A Small and Charming World, records an incident to illustrate this. He had been recording the singing of an elderly man who remembered the old songs, although the people had adopted modern music for their dances own use. Gibson was testing the tape.
At the time, he wrote, “the children were coming home from school, wandering up the grass path in the summer heat. We could look out from the doorway and see the small figures [drawing] near. I switched on the tape recorder and listened again to the drum beat and the strong voice of the old man. The effect was electric; it was immediate. Everyone started to smile, and the children threw down their books and began to dance. They danced into the house so that the dust flew up from the wooden floor. Their bodies moved back and forth and their feet pounded in time with the drum. People came running over from the other houses and I felt as if the whole community was coming around after being anaesthetized. When I switched off the tape recorder the laughter continued like an echo and the children stared at one another as if wondering what had happened.”
Another incident of the almost hypnotic effect of drumming occurred at the opening of the Metis housing development at Chetwynd. A touring group of champion native dancers were performing. Near us an aged local Indian and his wife were standing. Only a tapping of their feet like a musician keeping time showed their response to the music. Then a solo-dancer began to perform the “Eagle Dance”. The rhythm of the drums, while still monotonously regular, took on a new urgency. Suddenly the old man’s face lit up and his whole body began to dance “in place”. It was not that he was following the same stylized steps and postures of the Eagle dancer. It was as if he was responding like a harmonic to a vibrating string. With rapt face, and eyes turned upwards he was performing as impromptu ballet which we watched with fascination, wishing with all our hearts that we had a movie camera, which of course, would have been an invasion of an old man’s private emotional world. Suddenly he became aware of what he was doing and stopped. The prize-winning performance on the platform, wild as it was when it approached the climax of the upswept “wings”, did not have the genuinely emotional pull of the old man’s spontaneous performance. As he stopped we realized that if “white” conditioning had not held us back, we would have been joining him!
We have found nothing describing the solo dances of the Peace River Indians. It is reasonably certain that the otherwise universal custom prevailed here. The shamans, at least, would have performed them, especially while trying to effect a cure. The custom of wearing caps made of the heads of animals, masks, beads, amulets, feathers and ornaments seems to have been universal. Skins of small animals, such as ermine, fastened to the clothing, was not just for whim or ornament, but symbolized events in which a knowledgeable person could read a story
Other wild dances were the so-called “war-dances”. Before going out to battle, braves dressed themselves in their best clothing, painted their faces, and brandished their bows and arrows, but not to scare their enemies, as the white man assumed. The performance was essentially a prayer that they might die well and bring honour to the tribe. The Indian warrior did not aspire to long life. The greatest honour was to die in battle and have his body hacked in pieces; the greatest disgrace was to have one’s enemy show mercy. Further, the belief that one went through the hereafter attired as he left this world made him adorn himself with the symbols of his exploits.
The steps of the war-dance were “wild” and the actions spontaneous because the warriors were working themselves up to a high pitch of emotion much as the early Christians did by hymns and prayers before being thrown to the lions, for martyrdom was sure entrance to heaven. While the men were away, the women danced their own prayers for safety and victory.
After the successful war party returned the real war dance or victory dance took place. Stories of courage were reenacted and thanks given to the Great Spirit. These dances were said to be more individual and innovative.
Our country’s Indians never adopted the Sun Dance of the Plains, although the Sarcees did. The Kiowa Apaches (kindred Athapaskan speakers) are said to be the best dancers in the U.S.A. where Indian dancing is being revived and even taught in schools where dance competitions are held yearly. The old people deplore the fact that the dances have lost their religious feeling.
Those who are researching the traditional Indian dances says that they are anything but the shuffle that most white people think of, and that is shown in movies and TV. To dance properly, the posture should be correct – “back flat, rump in, no hunching of the back, although a dancer may lean forward, – hands always relaxed, fingers half or completely closed, but never rigid. Every movement is controlled, not wild, and, while often fast, is always smooth except in war dance.”
Mary Weekes writes in Indians if the Plains that the dances of men were sometimes rapid and violent, while those of the women were less forceful. In general the men lifted the heel and ball of the foot, then slapped them down with great force and swiftness. The dance of the women, a peculiar rocking or swaying motion, has been likened to the waving of a wind-rocked stalk of corn.
As well as war dances, there were hoop dances, “sneak-up” dances, the “chicken dance”, “rain dance”, “ghost dance”, “pipe dance”, and many others.
In the Peace country the two most often mentioned are the drum dance, preceding a feast or gambling session, and a “tea dance” after the gambling.
The “drum dance” is done in a circle. The dancers face clockwise, and dance tight up against one another making it almost impossible to maintain any semblance of a step and even to keep the beat. There are no partners; people crowd in wherever they can get in. The drummers stand at one side, decide on the songs and lead the singing. The drum dance was not as popular as the tea dances.
In the tea dance the men and women dance in any order, elbow to elbow, facing the centre of the circle. The commonest steps were:
- A simple flat side step, with no emphasis in either foot or raising of heel or toe.
- A step with some emphasis on the lead foot.
- A step, by some men, throwing the heels outward.
- A short hop with feet together, done only by old ladies
The knees were relaxed, shoulders drooping, – “a relaxed looseness”. Many danced with arms folded at waist level, hand holding a wrist. No one among the Dogribs broke out to do any fancy dancing, – the accompaniment was by voice only. Professors Helm and Lurie remarked that although the dancers were in close bodily contact, and the dances went on for five or more hours, there was no suggestions of any sexual connotations. The very old women often out-danced the men.
The absence of sexual overtones is not surprising considering that Indian dancing was a reaffirmation of close tribal unity, and of unity with the Earth Mother. Therefore they were always performed on the bare earth, even after a rain. They were frequently prayers – prayers for rain, prayers for game when food was scarce, prayers of thanksgiving.
In any case, among a people rigidly trained in self-control and suppression of any show of emotion, singing and dancing was an emotional release.