Native American “Indian” Music and Culture
By Martha Mead Giles
If you have ever gone to an “Indian Powwow”, you were likely to be impressed with the Natives, wearing colorful costumes of feathers and
beads, dancing proudly, singing and drumming. Anadarko, Oklahoma or “Indian City” is a good place to see such festivals of Native
dancers, and it is where you can get a good helping of “Navaho Fry Bread” or “Indian tacos.”
There are many other places around the country at different times of the year when Natives celebrate various traditions and rituals such as
the Green Corn Dance of the Muskogean Creeks in Muskogee, Oklahoma, or further west in New Mexico and Arizona for the summer
rituals of the Navaho and Hopi. You can even catch some of their dances in Washington, DC at the annual “Folklife Festival” in July.
The first powwow I went to was just outside Littleton, Colorado at the White Buffalo Council annual festival. Native Americans came from all
over the country to compete in “Fancy Dancing” contests and to enjoy the fellowship of their tribal families. A huge “Plains” drum was set
up in the middle of the dance arena and six or seven drummers gathered round it to pound away and sing in the Plains style of singing and
dancing. There were dancers from all over the United States as far north as North Dakota, east to Georgia, and south all the way to Mexico,
singing and dancing around the great drum.
The Plains style of dancing seems to have become the nationally accepted style even though there are traditions of many other styles from
different tribes around the United States and south to Middle America and South America. These old traditions are still performed in some
places but too many have been lost through time and history. Today, we see two kinds of Plains dances: “traditional” and “fancy”
representing a more popular, current style danced by many tribes around the United States.
As I watched the dancers, I remembered my doctoral research on Native American music and culture, for it was that study that led me to
develop a theory on the evolution of Native American music from pre-historic times to recorded history and down to the present day. In my
research, I found collections of old songs and dances harkening back to as early as the beginning of the 20th century and recordings made
of songs in the 1920s and 1930s of much older types of songs. These were not the songs or dances of the modern Plains style but very
different styles of singing with quite different uses.
For example, there were hunting songs that were meant to weaken the power of the animal, and “apology” songs to the animal after it was
killed. There were songs lauding the eagle or “thunderbird” and other “sky deities” as well as songs and dances to invoke rain. There
were clan songs and totem songs. I found many songs for growing crops such as corn growing songs, and corn grinding songs. Many of
these songs were incorporated into entire lengthy rituals, some lasting as long as eight days. The Sun Dance Ritual of Plains Indians and
the Green Corn Ceremony of Southeastern tribes are still observed in modern times and are meant to be observed as a renewal ceremony.
As I compared these songs to various stages of evolution in Native American culture, I could see that the songs were an integral part of
their belief systems and rituals. For example, the words from a very old Navaho hunting song clearly means to mesmerize or lull the animal
into a hypnotic state and allow the hunter to make his kill:
Buffalo Bird Woman Remembers What was Lost
I am an old woman now. The buffaloes and black-tail deer are gone, and our
Indian ways are almost gone. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I ever lived
My little son grew up in the white man's school. He can read books, and he owns
cattle and has a farm. He is a leader among our Hidatsa people, helping teach
them to follow the white man's road.
He is kind to me. We no longer live in an earth lodge, but in a house with
chimneys; and my son's wife cooks by a stove.
But for me, I cannot forget the old ways.
Often in summer I rise at daybreak and steal out to the cornfields; and as I hoe
corn I sing to it, as we did when I was young. No one cares for our corn songs
Sometimes at evening I sit, looking out on the big Missouri. The sun sets, and
dusk steals over the water. In the shadows I seem again to see our Indian village,
with smoke curling upward from the earth lodges; and in the river's roar I hear
the yells of the warriors, the laughter of the children of old. It is but an old
woman's dream. Again I see but shadows and hear only the roar of the river; and
tears come into my eyes. Our Indian life, I know, is gone forever.
From Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost, ed. by Colin G. Calloway
(Boston: Bedford's St Martin's, 1996), p.156
|Anadarko, Indian City, Oklahoma: Memorializing Kiowa Chief Hunting Horse.
|Kiowa Chief Hunting Horse and his family. From the Library of
Congress American Indian Collection.
|Culture of Song: Native American Music
by Martha Giles, P.h.D.
These old animal songs possibly represented some of the very oldest types of songs that were passed down to their clans through time
and sung well into the 20th century while Indian culture continued to change. Over time, Indians took up an early stage of farming and
began growing crops such as corn. From this later stage of development, corn growing songs were developed to encourage the growth
of crops. In time, these songs were incorporated into lengthy rituals such as the Green Corn Ceremony that could be found not only in
the Southeast but the Northeast and Southwest.
With the coming of Europeans to America, there was a clash of cultures and concepts of ownership regarding the land. Indian treaties
were written only to be violated by the United States Government, and eventually a series of wars developed between the
European Americans and Native Americans. The buffalo, a major source of food for Plains and many other tribes, was slaughtered by the
millions by European American hunters, wanting only their hides and heads. War songs and dances as well as songs of death
became common during this period.
By 1890, the wars had resulted in major defeats of Native tribes and they were herded together onto small reservations of poor land and
provided little or no opportunity to hunt or farm. The Indians became deeply grieved at the loss of their native homes and the right to
roam freely across the land. A kind of hysteria broke out across many of the tribes when a Paiute prophet named Wavoka began to
preach “The Ghost Dance.” This dance was meant to return the Native peoples to their ancestors’ spirits, where there would be no white
men and no more sickness or dieing. It was something akin to what Europeans would describe as Heaven.
The Ghost Dance was a hypnotic dance which was danced in a circle for hours on end until dancers fainted and were “carried to the spirit
land” and were reunited with their ancestors. The dance spread very quickly across the native tribes on reservations in Oklahoma and
the northern Plains.
The United States Army became alarmed by the popularity of the dance and suspected some kind of national uprising of the tribes. The
Army marched on Wounded Knee in 1890 and slaughtered some 150 old men, women, and children. That became a turning point in the
movement and the Natives decided that it did not work. The Ghost Dance was abandoned after a short period of ten or less years.
In its place, some Natives turned to songs associated with the Peyote Ritual of Mexico while others took up Christianity and began to
learn Christian hymns. Senator Henry Dawes, who felt sorry for the Indians, decided that what they needed was to be “civilized”, and he
encouraged Congress to enact laws that would help the Indians learn farming and European American ways of living. Schools were
created for Indian children so they could move away from their native cultures, languages and learn English and how to live as European
The great tragedy was the Allottment of Indian Lands law which divided up land held “in common” by a particular tribe and divided it into
160 acre farms for individual Indian farmers. When the allotment was completed, there was a great deal of excess land left over and that
was “given” to anyone who wished to claim it. Thus, free land was allotted to many European Americans at the end of the 19th century
that had previously been held by an Indian tribe “in common”.
When Native American cultures began to disappear as they had been known before European arrivals, anthropologists began to collect
songs and study rituals and the cultures of native tribes before they were completely gone. Anthropologists who had some training in
music, recorded their songs and described their dances. Frances Densmore and Natalie Curtis were two of the most prolific collectors of
native songs from around the United States and Canada. Later, when the record player was invented, anthropologists such as Frank
Speck, William Fenton, Gertrude Kurath and others recorded a great deal of Indian songs and dances and rituals.
Around 1890, a Hungarian composer, Anton Dvorak visited America and was moved by not only African American folk music but the music
of Native Americans. He encouraged his American students in music composition to write music that was based on these materials and as
an example of that concept, he wrote “The New World Symphony” which utilized music materials of Negro Spirituals as its theme. This
symphony became quite popular as young American composers began a quest for an “American sound” to their music.
Composers such as Charles Wakefield Cadman and Arthur Farwell began composing songs in a quasi-Indian music style. Even an opera
about an “Indian Maiden” was written by Cadman, “Shanewis” or “Robin Woman” in 1918. It starred Tsianina Redfeather, a fullblood
Choctaw with a lovely operatic voice. She sang the role at the Hollywood Bowl in 1925 with a cast some 400 Native Americans.
Hollywood made its entrance into films about early pioneers and the clash with Indian “renegade” tribes in the early 1930s, and utilized
some of the theme music by these “Indian music” composers. Thus, an even more distorted version of Native music was written and the
“Cowboy and Indian” films were born!
Meanwhile, many Natives were floundering in a total loss of identity with their original Indian culture but were forbidden to become a part
of the American milieu. Alcoholism, insanity and suicide became common among Native tribes. When World War II began, many Natives
saw that war as an opportunity to become “Americans” and many joined the various branches of service. Returning Native American
veterans began dancing yet another new style of music, “The Gourd Dance” and other songs to honor those who had fought in the war.
Native Americans were trying to find their new place in their homeland, now occupied by “White Eyes”.
By the 1950s, young Indian boys, stuck out on reservations, longing to be a part of the American scene, began to organize Indian rock
bands complete with guitars, drums sets, and keyboard, but the songs were often sung in their native tongue about their own native
concerns. These young men eventually developed some fine organizations and brought in Native women to sing a new modern style of
Indian music that is flourishing today. Robbie Robertson and his Redroad Ensemble is perhaps one of the most famous. R. Carlos Nakai
has become a renowned Indian flutist as has Fernando Cellicion.
Other arts have been complimented by Native American artists such as N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winner for “House Made of
Dawn”, and Paula Dunn Alan for her writings about Native women. In the visual arts, Acee Blue Eagle, Alfred Momaday, Dennis Belindo,
Sharron Harjo, Alan Houser, Blackbear Bosin and DeGrazia are but a few. Dance was not neglected either. Maria Tallchief was the prima
ballerina with the Ballet Russo for many years, as was Evonne Chateau. The Native American Dance Theatre has danced around the world
showing native dances and songs of the past as well as modern Indian music.
The world of Indian music has evolved over time, always changing with the time, with historic events, and cultural changes. Native
American culture has changed as well and continues to do so. Our native peoples are still with us and are flourishing in the arts and
music which was never static and never will be.
1. Curtis, Natalie, The Indians’ Book, Avenel, New Jersey, Gramercy Books, 1994, p. 245.
2. Hyde, George, Indians of the Woodlands: from Prehistoric Times to 1725, Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 1962,
3. Speck, Frank, “Ceremonial Songs of the Creek and Yuchi Indians,” Anthropological Papers. Philadelphia: Museum of University of Pennsylvania, 1907-11.
4. Kurath, Gertrude, “Antiphonal Songs of Eastern Woodland Indians,” Musical Quarterly. 42, 1956.
Copyright 2005 by Martha Giles. This essay cannot be reproduced without express permission by Martha Giles.
|The Indian becomes a relic. From the Library of Congress American
|“Navaho Hunting Song”
Recorded by Natalie Curtis (1)
“Comes the deer to my singing,
Comes the deer to my song.
Comes the deer to my singing,
He the blackbird, he am I.
Bird beloved of the wild deer,
Comes the deer to my singing,
From the mountain black,
From the summit down the trail.
Coming, coming now,
Comes the deer to my singing
Thro’ the blossoms, thro’ the flowers,
Coming, coming now.”
When Miss Curtis notated this song in 1907, she was told that the old hunters could entice a deer to come to their singing so that they
could get a good shot with their arrow. The power of the song brought the deer closer, ever closer to the hunter
so that he could make his kill.
After the deer or animal was killed, often a song of apology was sung or song of placation which according to Hyde (2) was based on a
fear of animals, among other things, and whose power was greater than theirs. If they killed an animal, it was important to sing a song of
apology to the animal’s spirit, or something
bad could happen.
Animals represented an important power to Native Americans in pre-recorded history. They even believed that they descended from
certain animals; thus clans such as the horse clan, or the turtle clan, or duck clan, etc. were the names of various families within a tribe.
The clans’ songs were to honor these ancient animals from whom the Indian descended. Speck (3) collected many of these types of
songs from the Yuchi and Creek tribes of the Southeast, for example.