Spirit of the First People: Native American Music Traditions of Washington State

    -- edited by Willie Smyth and Esmé Ryan, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999, 201 pages + CD.

“We are told by our grandfathers and grandmothers that for as long as there are Indians there will be songs, and as long as there is song there will be Indians. As long as we sing our songs and someone learns them, there will be new Indian people, for song is our survival tool as a people.” (Cliff Sijohn, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, p. 48)

This book is a presentation of information that was originally collected for the 1992 Northwest Folklife Festival to commemorate the 500 years since ongoing European contact in Americas. ‘Spirit of the First People,’ as the successful 1992 gathering of musicians, dancers and elders was called, represented many tribes throughout the state of Washington. The gathering inspired the compilation of written material and a recording that could be shared with a wider audience in book/CD format. This volume and recording is that celebration of song and ongoing survival.

The book is not intended to be a comprehensive summary of all Native American music traditions in Washington State. It is, rather, a sampling of some of the stories, the exhibits and the performances that were shared by various groups at the gathering in 1992.

The volume is also an effort to express some of the shared feelings and viewpoints of the First Nations people. For example, Brycene A. Neaman of the Yakama tribe writes,

I see this book and recording as a great beginning to educate the mainstream population and correct stereotypes. It is a book that will help restore the pride of being Indian. When I listen to these songs, I crave for more. I hope that new listeners will feel the same way” (p. 72).

He explains some of his fears about being involved in this project: “...In American history the ‘melting pot’ attitude prevailed. ‘Melt away the Indian’ was the philosophy, and this was a true injustice to our people. So the proposal to share our songs, language, and customs makes us hesitant—justifiably, in my opinion (p. 77). But Neaman has chosen to share in hope:

Our people can only benefit, I believe, from the increased understanding that sharing our heritage can bring. If there is no attempt at communication, it is our children who will suffer (79).

While I read this book I was struck both by the information that is presented and the manner in which it is presented. “Spirit of the First People” honors contemporary research values of giving the cultural insider a voice along with the outsider. Compiled primarily from different Native elders and individuals in the state, the book gives a strong voice to these people. The first 8 chapters are their ‘insider’ views told in their own words. After this follow 3 chapters written from ‘outsider’ scholars who have studied the music of the area extensively. As a blend of individualized inside perspectives and broadly researched summaries, the book communicates a depth of feeling as well as a wide range of information.

Because a different person writes each chapter, the book does seem to be lacking somewhat in continuity, but this weakness is a byproduct of the strength of giving a voice to so many different people. (As a side note, the indexing and extensive explanatory notes for the selections on the CD are found in Chapter 11. This is not the first place you think of looking for these, but perhaps the editors knew that the CD is really more meaningful after reading Chapters 1-10.)

To Native people, song has great power and deep spiritual significance:

Today, whether the song accompanies someone’s work, guiding their hands or step, or whether the song is for healing or hunting—it is prayer.  (Roberta Haines, Wenatchee Tribe, p. 13)

As they tell their stories of song the Native writers reveal much about their unique worldviews and the turbulent history of contact with Europeans. They highlight the intense drive for cultural survival, the various ways of passing along oral traditions, and the unique methods of musical composition. Other writers share about the special heritage of song ownership, the experienced spiritual power of music, and the feared dangers of ignoring and/or losing traditional belief systems.

For Christians, part of the history shared on these pages reveals again a long-standing tension between Native spirituality and the message the early missionaries brought. In the words of Bruce-subiyay Miller from the Skokomish Tribe,

Songs and the rituals and movements that go with them form a part of our culture that we call shuy, the spiritual foundation of our lives. It is the thing that gives us a true sense of well-being” (p. 27). After the tumult of change that came with European contact, Miller says, “Many turned to Christian religions in an effort to find a new shuy–a firm place to stand again… for most of these people… it meant they had to cast aside any mention of their ancestral ways, which were considered creations of the devil. The things that they venerated, that gave them their vital life force and their strength for survival, suddenly were condemned as evil (p. 29).

For some people, a unique blending of the two belief systems in the Indian Shaker Church has minimized the tension between Christianity and Native Spirituality. Despite the similar name, the ‘Indian Shaker Church’ is not connected with the ‘Shaker church’ that arose on the east coast of the US. Founded in the early 1880-s, tracing their roots to the Puget Sound area, these Shakers are known for their emphasis on healing power, often visually demonstrating the ‘gift’ of outward shaking. As they have syncretised beliefs from Christianity and traditional spirituality, their music is also a blend of these two influences. As in the traditional music system, the Shakers emphasize that songs are powerful and originate from spiritual forces. Songs are generally owned by individuals and the song form uses a single melodic line.

In place of the traditional instruments of rattles, whistles and drums, however, the Shakers use hand bells and rhythmic stomping to keep the pulse.

Although not an exhaustive reference book, this volume includes excellent resources. The CD contains songs from a broad geographic area and a wide range of styles. The contributors are said to be well-respected representatives of their tribal areas. The research documents many traditions and material culture that was prevalent in the past as well as honoring what remains in the present day. A map in the beginning of the book highlights the federally recognized tribes in Washington State, giving the reader a reference as the text progresses. The three appendices give extensive information about the historical research that has been done in Washington by various ethnographers and ethnomusicologists. Included in this section is a chart showing where all the known research recordings of Native American music from this state are currently held. There are also brief summaries of the contents of these scattered collections. The bibliography is extensive and includes recommended recordings, movies, and videos as well as articles and books.

The book is a valuable introduction to those wishing to learn about the Washington State area. For those interested in a broader context, the book also gives some insight into the general musical issues that face First Peoples in North America. It shows one method of documenting oral traditions and gives the reader a window into some unique and differing worldviews.

Understanding the worldview of local people is essential for anyone working in the area of ethnomusicology. Vi Hilbert, an elder from the Upper Skagit tribe, shares her view that music traditions should be valued and retained because they are irreplaceable. She says,

The sacred will ever be sacred. What is the definition of sacred? Very simply and profoundly it is this: That which can be destroyed but not created (p. 5).

As you might imagine, a viewpoint like Vi's has quite an impact on how quickly people are willing to try something like writing a new song. If you view songs as sacred then you may not feel a freedom to write one, no matter what the applied ethnomusicologist suggests. You have to be given a song from the Creator – you can’t create the sacred. If songs are gifts from the Creator and you try to compose one on your own, how can it be as meaningful and important as other songs?

    --reviewed by April Longenecker

April grew up in Northwestern Ontario among the Ojibwe people and for the past three years has lived among the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Campbell River, BC, Canada. While reveling in the extravagant beauty of the West Coast she has been working in the area of ethnomusicology with SIL, on loan to NAIM, North American Indian Ministries.


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