Native American musical cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everything has its song. A man would expand his musical knowledge by having repeated visions in which he learned songs and by moving through a series of age-grade societies, each of which had its songs. The old man, the most respected, was also the one who had learned the most songs. And further, songs are like objects [!]: they can be given, traded, bought, inherited—though just what constitutes the identity of a song is not totally clear—and as a result, it is believed that songs cannot be divided, or changed.

These are the kinds of things that show that indigenous peoples do indeed have complicated ideas about music and about the role of music in culture. I certainly had to change my mind about that, moving from an image of indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them to one of peoples whose systems of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs. […]

These thoughts led me to consider Native American music more broadly. It’s the music with which I’ve been concerned longest, and early on two things struck me as significant, things that were generally accepted in the scholarly literature up to that time. One was that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, each one geographically delimited; these areas correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. And second: many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, songs in stories, lullabies—and were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all people shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.

I’ve come over the years to realise that this is a very simplistic approach. Let me fast-forward to the past couple of decades in which I’ve begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before 1492. The advanced state of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe, and the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the United States, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near present-day St Louis—these suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic structures matched their European and Asian counterparts, and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphonic, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or complex melody-producing instruments. And we can’t talk about musical styles except in terms of 20th-century Native music. If we imagine that Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea what it sounded like. […]

And it’s not as if the contemporary Native cultures we do know about didn’t have some pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of them as the remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures. […]

These ideas relate to some hypotheses recently promulgated by Joseph Jordania and also Victor Grauer, proposing that relatively complex music—polyphonic singing, in Grauer’s approach—was once more widespread in indigenous societies than it is now, suggesting to me that while many of the world’s musical cultures have moved to increasingly complex systems, the opposite—simplification, abandonment of complex structures—might, for a variety of reasons, be another type of development. Anyway, I’ve had second thoughts; the typical history of a society’s music may not be unidirectional at all.

In Chapter 19, as a prelude to his useful taxonomy of musical change in world societies, Nettl speculates on the more recent history of indigenous groups (p.282):

Our understanding of change in the past in indigenous and folk societies is extremely limited. But as an example, trying a bit of reconstruction and conjecture, let us see in a bit of detail what can be know or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800CE, noting conditions parallel to some of those characterising the modern world. It is difficult to know when things happened in the history of the Plains Indians, but we know at least that certain things did happen. At some point, probably in the period between 1000 and 1500, a number of peoples from diverse areas collected in the western Plains. Their diverse origin is attested by the diversity of languages. In various ways, the area began to be culturally unified. Travel began to be widespread, related to the nomadic lifestyle adopted in part because of the horse. […] Relatively dramatic changes thus seem to have taken place, and we have in microcosm evidence of some of the characteristics of 20th-century world culture: technology, suddenly improved by the introduction of the horse and other indirect acquisitions from the whites; increased intertribal communication; a unified religious system overlaying more individual tribal traditions; and no nation-states, but a unified culture that led to tribal allegiances and intertribal languages, such as sign language and the widespread use of Lakota and, eventually, of English.

The evidence is extremely scanty, but there is a bit of an indication that rapid musical change accompanied or immediately followed this development. The geographic distribution of the so-called Plains musical style indicates rather recent origin, at least in the “classical” Plains culture, where this style developed its extreme characteristics. Distribution also suggests a diffusion to outlying areas—the eastern woodlands, the prairie tribes, and certain Salish and Great Basin peoples such as the Flathead and the Shoshone. Merriam particularly notes the Plains-like character of Flathead music and culture, despite the Salish background. The overlay of Plains music in the Flathead repertory, contrary to the homogeneous style of the coast Salish, appears to be recent, as does the introduction of the Plains style in the previously simpler and homogeneous basin repertory.

Again, it seems likely that rapid or at least substantial change in music and its surrounding social events occurred with, or perhaps followed, the development of technology, communication, and widespread standardisation along with knowledge and tolerance of diversity. But of course, this highly generalised ans speculative discussion is intended to do nothing more than suggest to the reader the possibility that certain kinds of cultural situations seem to be accompanied by large-scale change and others by its virtual absence.

More on styles (pp.325–7):

Physically, the Plains Indian groups, extending from the Blackfoot in the North to the Comanche in the South, are not particularly alike. Yet Blackfoot music is very similar to that of other Plains tribes, and so we rule out biological factors. There is a closer relationship between the distribution of the Plains musical style and the physical environment of the high Plains. But while it’s difficult to separate culture from ecology, the Plains musical style is also found in peoples living in other areas, and it has become a major component of the more recently developed intertribal powwow culture.

Language also appears not to be a factor. Although the minor musical difference among Blackfoot, Crow, and Comanche (members of three language families) might in part be related to differences in language and speech patterns, the main thrust of the musical style of the Plains peoples is the same, even though the languages belong to four or more language families.

On to matters of culture. The Blackfoot in their recent “precontact” history were a hunting-and-gathering society in the western Plains, but there is evidence that they came from farther east and once enjoyed a different lifestyle, possibly including some horticulture. Marius Schneider’s description of the music of hunting cultures sort of fits them: it is “interspersed with much shouting, is formed from free-speech rhythms, and has little tonal definition”. But Schneider’s correlation of hunting with polyphony and with metric predomination over melody doesn’t apply here at all.

Here’s my summary of traditional old-time Blackfoot culture, coming from standard ethnographies: based on human and animal energy, it had little social stratification. The social organisation was quite complex, revolving about the individual’s association with a nuclear family, with a band, with various societies, and with other individuals who shared the same guardian spirit, and so on, all however within a rather informal framework. For all of those characteristics, we can easily identify close relationship to musical concepts, functions, behaviour. But when it comes to musical style, we look far and wide for correlation. The variety of social relationships is paralleled by a number of musical genres with stylistic boundaries that are blurred, reflecting conceivably the informal approach to life’s rules. The lack of complex technology is reflected in the predominantly vocal music. In a more speculative vein, we would associate the great difference between Blackfoot singing and speaking styles to the supernatural association of music.

Referring again to McFee, Nettl concludes:

In the end, some of the most obvious musical traits cannot be related to a culture core, however defined, and we are unable, say, to associate pentatonic scales with bravery and heptatonic with cowardice. […]

In traditional Blackfoot culture, […] there was a great difference in cultural role between men and women. In most respects, human relationships were informal and easy. A person was associated with several social groups. Political hierarchy was absent and authority temporary. People did cooperate and showed little hostility to each other, but most actions were carried out by individuals, while collaboration was not pervasive.

In Blackfoot music, there are also substantial differences in men’s and women’s activities and repertories. The singing styles differ considerably. Informality is evident in many aspects of music, notably in the difference between theory and practice, between stated rules and execution. Thus, songs are said to be repeated four times, but recordings show a lot of variation. The musical system is exhibited as a large body of separable songs, but in fact the difference between similar songs and sets of variants is not easily drawn. Songs have texts but may also be sung with newly created words or meaningless syllables. As a person is associated with several groups, a melody may be associated with several uses. Musical authority resides in part with song leaders, who, however, hold musical power temporarily and informally.

Change more recently: intertribalism, the powwow, and white music
Bringing the discussion into the modern period, Nettl goes on:

In a powwow singing group—a “Drum”—there is a male (or, recently, sometimes a female) leader whose tasks are mainly administrative. He also leads more song performances than others, but the leadership role in a song’s structure is confined to the beginning, after which others, again informally determined, hold roles of prominence. Singing in groups is common, but in earlier times solo singing predominated. In group singing, a loose kind of musical cooperation is necessary, and articulation of notes and drumbeats must be in good unison, but singers make little attempt to blend voices and it is easy to hear the individual. Nonmembers of singing groups may be welcome to sit in, and a singer may perform with several groups tough mainly associated with one. Those elements of style that can be best related to components of social relations and conceptions of life are those that are conventionally called “performance practice” and are present throughout a musical performance. But Blackfoot culture and other things we know about the Blackfoot people really haven’t given us an explanation of the particular sound and style of their music.

Under the global theme of minorities under a dominant society, he ponders the influence of white contact upon Native Americans (pp.410–414):

Native American peoples of the north Plains readily distinguish between “Indian” and “white” music, both of which they perform and hear. The two are symbolic of the culture in which Indians move. “White” social contexts, such as drinking in a bar or going to a Christian church, are accompanied by white music performed by Indians. The traditional contexts of Indian music may be largely gone, but when the people are engaged in activities in which they wish to stress their Indian identity, such as powwows, social dances, or gambling games, they use Indian music.


Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916. Source: wiki. Cf. Bartók in 1907.

Nettl goes on to adduce the Native Americans as a case study of “a minority overrun by immigrants to their territory who became the majority”:

But their musical cultures have not been studied very much from this perspective. […] I have in mind issues such as these: how being a minority has affected a Native tribe’s musical culture, how the music of the majority has affected them, how they have used music in relating to the (white) majority, or how they affected the music of the white majority. Typical studies of American Indians have essentially treated each culture or tribe in isolation, trying to reconstruct their musical life as it might have been before and without majority intervention—before the coming of white people and their music.

My principal experience has been with the Blackfoot people of Montana, and this conventional approach was the one I followed when I studied, principally in the small town of Browning and its surroundings. Looking back now, I could have come up with a somewhat different ethnographic and musicological picture if I had looked at the Blackfoot people as a minority among the various culture of North America. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things on which I might have concentrated:

Basically, the Blackfoot say they have both Indian and white music, and in their musical lives Indian music is a minority music, but it has special functions in the modernised Blackfoot culture. Their most important musical activity, the powwow, is used to negotiate and to a degree resolve conflicts. For example, at a large powwow there is the daily presentation of the US flag with an American military colour guard to the accompaniment of unmistakably Indian music. The functions and uses of the traditional repertory have shidted in accordance with culture change. While powwows are explicitly modern events, some of the older and at one time central Blackfoot musical traditions that were wiped out, forgotten, or abandoned are being reconstructed, and there are some musical styles of white-Native fusion. The participation of non-Blackfoot Native Americans, and also of white dancers and singers (usually referred to as “hobbyists”), in certain components of Blackfoot musical life would be important to study. Now, coming initially from a tradition of scholarship that emphasised the purity and authenticity of the tradition to be investigated, I have to criticise my research tradition for treating these issues as merely the result of corruption or pollution.

But the Blackfoot picture is made more complicated because their main town of Browning, Montana, population around 8,000, is not homogeneous but consists of several groups perhaps best labeled as minorities. When I worked there, around 1966–83, there were a small number of whites, including the majority of professionals and business owners, the wealthy; there was a majority of people who called themselves mixed-bloods, although this was a category less biological than cultural, as biological descent is hard to specify, indicating allegiance to a mixture of cultural values and practices; and then there was a smallish population of so-called full-bloods, largely poor people whose cultural interests were closer to older traditions. They were treated like a minority by all of the others, and this included customary stereotyping with undesirable connotations—drunkenness, laziness, ignorance of modern ways. This kind of a mix goes back to prewhite days, when the various and complex ways in which traditional Blackfoot divided themselves socially—including the special role of women—had its musical analogues.

And so, as with most Native American peoples, the musical culture of the Blackfoot, despite their small population, was not homogeneous. To put it very simply, not all people knew all the songs. On the contrary, the Blackfoot repertory was divided among formally constituted age groups, among people associated with different guardian spirits, among different bands of people who separated during winter, by gender, and more.


Source here.

Very significantly, some of this situation was the result of the events of the 19th century when Native American peoples came to have a minority status among the white invaders. The musical repertories experienced both centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, as tribal allegiance of individual Blackfoot people began to vary and among some to simply disappear, the typical musical idiolect (the individual’s musical experience) became more varied. Some people held on to many songs, even singing songs to which they traditionally would not have been entitled. Others again forgot most Indian songs and learned “white” music—church music, vernacular music, folk music. On the other hand, as the extant repertories of most Native American peoples shrank because their functions declined or disappeared, and as member sof once separate tribes were thrown together on common reservations and in cities, some songs became a core of common property that, through the intertribal powwow circuit, came to be shared intertribally.

Like most American minorities of European origin, a large proportion of Native Americans in the United States today live in large cities, maintaining a tenuous, perhaps love-hate relationship to the reservations from which they came and where relatives still live. Like the Europeans (more properly, Euro-Americans), they have developed national festivals celebrating music, dance, foodways, the most important being the already mentioned powwow. Thus, for example, about half of the nation’s Blackfoot people live in large cities in the North—mainly Seattle and Minneapolis—and many schedule annual visits to relatives in Montana so as to participate in the main four-day powwow. But while there are anthropological studies of urban Native American communities, not much has been done to learn about their musical culture. How is it like and unlike that of Italian Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Hungarian Americans? Although there are, perhaps surprisingly, interesting parallels, one is struck by the significant contrasts.

Further to the idea of expressing various kinds of identity (p.271):

The major midsummer powwow, North American Indian Days, is a kind of event that would not have been conceivable in earlier Blackfoot history and even in the first part of the 20th century. It is polysemic, overtly and subtly expressing
1) Blackfoot national identity—the emcee says so, and occasionally speaks Blackfoot;
2) Native American ethnic identity (or is Blackfoot the ethnic group, and are Native Americans the nation?)—again, the emcee tell us, the Drums, the singing groups, come from many reservations in the United States and Canada, and the dancers perform a widely intertribal repertory;
3) US national identity—much is made of the presentation of the colours by military veterans;
4) age identity—there are dance contests for different age groups; and
5) personal identity—there’s the incredible variety of costumes.
There is plenty of “white” music going on in town at the time of the powwow; country music and rock at dances for older and younger folks, respectively; US patriotic song recordings on sale at an “Indian” rodeo. But at North American Indian Days, while all kinds of appurtenances from “white” culture are in evidence, from flags to tape recorders, the music is totally “Indian”, even for the presentation of the military guard. The association of music with identity is very strong here.

More on the powwow (pp.351–2):

If one were to look for a ranking of musicians among modern Plains Indians, one could do it most conveniently by comparing ensembles of singers who habitually perform together and by examining the social and musical structure of the individual ensemble. At the major Blackfoot powwow […] in the 1960s, several Drums (singing groups) alternated, each performing for an hour or two. The groups were associated with towns on and off the reservation—Browning, Heart Butte, Starr School, Cardston (Alberta), and so on. Members did not need to be residents, and membership was informal and floating; a singer from one group could occasionally sing in another. Each group had a leader who began many but by no means all of the songs and who assembled the singers. Each singer in the group could lead songs, for example, determining what song to sing and to begin it by singing the first phrase solo; there was no set order for the leading of songs. On the surface, at least, the situation was one of informality and equality. Most of the time, little was made of distinctions among groups and singers. In the powwow sector of the culture, there is only one class of individuals who make up something of a musical elite, the class of (mainly) men known as “singers”. But the Blackfoot do distinguish quality and status of musicianship. The singing groups competed for prizes, and during my stay with the Blackfoot there was one that had the reputation of being the best, its superior quality attributed to the members’ musicianship,with details unspecified. Individual singers were also singled out as being particularly excellent. The criteria included knowledge of a large repertory, as well as the ability to drum well (quality of singing was evidently a less important criterion), with emphasis on the ability to drum in a precise “off the beat” relationship to the vocal rhythm, and in perfect unison. Men who made songs were also (automatically) regarded as superior singers but not put into a separate class as composers. Since the 1960s, the culture and social organisation of powwow Drums have become much more formalised and commercialised; it is now similar to that of professional musicians in American society as a whole, and the music has become part of American mass-mediated musical culture.

Nettl also reflects wisely on the scholarly use of Native American music in education. In Chapter 9 on comparative study he again considers changing academic perspectives, giving instances of student reactions to his lectures outlining musical styles over 25-year intervals (pp.122–3).

Native American culture again features in Chapter 29 in a highly pertinent discussion on applied uses of ethnomusicology and social activism (cf. Guo Yuhua), “Are you doing anyone any good?”—including sections on healthcare, the politics of representation, and “Trying to make peace”.

Music and learning
Nettl points out that while such music may seem “simple” in certain parameters, it’s quite complex in many other respects (cf. What is serious music?!).

In his very opening discussion of how to define “music” in the first place, he observes that rather like the Hausa of Nigeria, Native American societies have no word to tie together all musical activities (p.24):

The Blackfoot have a word, paskan, that can be roughly translated as “dance”, which includes music and ceremony and is used to refer to religious and semireligious events that comprise music, dance, and other activities, but this word does not include certain musical activities, such as gambling, that have no dancing. They have a word for “song” but not one for instrumental music [cf. the care needed in approaching “music” in China (cf. here; in traditional north China it doesn’t apply to vocal music, or even other genres of intrumental music, but narrowly to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble!].

Among his instances of teaching, learning, and rehearsing in a variety of cultures around the world, he wonders how traditional Native American societies worked (pp.381–3):

Blackfoot people traditionally believed that humans could learn music in two interconnected ways, from supernatural powers such as guardian spirits in visions and from other humans. The ideal was the learning of songs from the supernatural, and the concepts of learning and creating music are therefore closely associated. The way in which songs were thought to be learned in visions, normally in a single hearing, has influenced the concepts that people have about learning music in an entirely human context. In the culture of the Blackfoot, “once” may presumably mean four times through, so the concept is there, but the idea that the guardian spirit teaches you a song simply by singing it to you is important, and human teachers instruct similarly. Thus, a medicine bundle, with its attendant songs, was transferred from one person to another by a single performance of the ceremony, during which the new owner was expected to learn the songs. Today, when people learn songs from each other and recognise the process as such, they say that quick learning is desirable and certainly possible, though lately often subverted by the ever-present cassette recorder. The standardisation of form and the possibility of roughly predicting the course of a song from its initial phrase also facilitate quick learning. […]

There is evidence that those cultures that demanded the precise rendering of music for validation of religious ritual also required systematic practising and rehearsing and looked at it all competitively. We are told this about the Navajo and the North Pacific coast peoples […]. Rehearsing was essential, mistakes were punished, and rituals in which mistakes were found would have to be repeated entirely or in part in order to be valid. Some northern Plains peoples took a less formalist attitude. Having been learned largely from visions for the use of one person, music was more closely associated with the individual and private rituals, and therefore the control of the community over musical performance was less highly developed. Evidently, a man who learned a song in a vision would use his walk or ride back to camp as an opportunity to rehearse or work it out. No doubt, actual composition took place along this walk [cf. Unpacking “improvisation”—including a wonderful passage on the creative processes of Mozart, Blackfoot singer Theodore Last Star, and Brahms!]; the inspiration from the white heat of the vision would be rationally worked out. Practising in effect took place at this point, and the song would be readied for presentation to the other members of the tribe. But since music was primarily a personal and individualistic activity and experience, practising was not done systematically to any large extent, and not much heed was paid to the accuracy of performance. Just as composing and learning are related concepts, composing and practising overlap. How things have changed!

 Nettl’s consultant told him (p.293):

“Oh yes. Every year about a hundred new songs come to the reservation.” Did they sound different from the old songs? “No, they are new songs and we add them, and that way we get more and more songs.” The Blackfoot regard change as basically a good thing.

Pondering the life of the “typical musician”, Nettl comments on the changing life of an individual Blackfoot (p.195):

He moved through a series of age-grade societies whose activities included ceremonies and music. As an individual grew older, he or she was successively initiated into new societies, learning their songs and dances. Again, the oldest men would know the largest amount of music, learned gradually, more or less at four-year intervals. The vision quest of the Plains Indians and of tribes surrounding the Plains exhibited a similarly gradual learning of songs. A so-called medicine man or woman would have a succession of visions of his or her guardian spirit, each time learning more in the way of dealing with the supernatural, which included songs.

This is the traditional picture. For recent times, the tendency to gradual learning of new material is a pattern both supported and altered in the career of one Blackfoot singer with whom I worked. Born about 1915, this man was first exposed to Western music through his reservation school, learning French horn, but he also—sometimes secretly—learned a few traditional songs. As a young adult, he took up the modern intertribal repertory of the powwow culture, which consisted largely of social dance songs without words. In later life, he gradually became interested as well in the ancient traditional Blackfoot music, learning it from older persons who knew but rarely performed the songs. This sequence had idiosyncratic causes: the third stage coincided with the death of the singer’s stepfather, an esteemed tribal leader. But the pattern may also be typical, at least insofar as the most sacred music has long been the province of tribal elders. In this respect, my consultant, although he was exposed to musics not known in earlier times, such as the so-called intertribal songs and powwows and the music of the whites, seems to have followed a traditional pattern. But in the sense that he withdrew from interest in one musical repertory as he learned a new one, he probably did not reflect the gradual and cumulative learning of a cohesive musical system. In any event, the concept of typical pattern in musical life can be found among the ordinary singers of a small tribe as well as the master composers of Western music.

In a passage on “genius”, he finds technical virtuosity of little significance among the Blackfoot (p.59):

Outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

Related are Nettl’s comments in a section on locating informants, consultants, and teachers in various cultures (pp.152–3)—reminding me of our search for ritual specialists in China:

In working with Blackfoot people, I was introduced to a man who was described as a singer. I did not ask further; he had been so designated in contrast to dozens of others who were not. I didn’t care whether he was the best or the worst, as I was grateful for anyone’s help, and I assumed that he would be somehow representative of that part of the population who were titled “singers”. I had it in mind to study the musical culture as it existed, was interested in the mainstream of musical experience, not in what was exceptionally good, or, for that matter, bad. I valued most the contact with someone who would speak articulately and give me a lot of information. I hoped he would in some way be typical, and I thought I would later be able to put my hope to the test. I believed, rightly or not, that among the sixty or seventy “singers” whom the community turned out to have, perhaps a half dozen would be considered outstanding, another few barely adequate, and the majority simply good, in a sort of bell-shaped curve. This majority group interested me the most. The members of the society seemd to find my approach compatible, didn’t feel that I should be concentrating only on the best.

More on “polymusicality” (p.314):

Most of the world’s societies find themselves in the 20th century participating in two or more musics that can be rather easily distinguished, and the idea that each music functions as a symbol of particular aspects of a culture is a convenient approach to the study of one aspect of musical symbolism. In the culture of the Blackfoot during the 1960s, three kinds of music were distinguished by insiders and outsiders: older, traditional, tribal music; modernised intertribal or “pan-Indian” music; and Western music. The three had different symbolic values, the first as a symbol of the tribal past, to be remembered but placed in a kind of museum context; the second, of the need of Indian cultures to combine in order to ensure people’s cultural survival as Indians; and the third, of the modern facts of Indian life. Integrations as a tribe, as an Indian people, and into the mainstream American environment are symbolised. The relationships seem obvious to an outsider, but they are also articulated by the culture’s own interpretation of itself.

McFee, looking at modern Blackfoot society, followed a similar line of thought, dividing the Blackfoot population and its values into white- and Indian-oriented groups. For Indian culture, he lists individualism, bravery, skill, wisdom, and generosity; for white orientation, self-dependence, acquisition, and work. The two groups overlap, but one can find some of the Indian-oriented values in traditional music and musical behaviour. Individualism is evident in the need for people, ideally, to learn their own songs in visions and to develop personal repertories of songs, and perhaps also in the tendency for traditional music to be soloistic or, when performed by groups, to avoid a high degree of vocal blend [cf. Lomax].

Bravery can conceivably be related to the practice of singing before a group, sometimes with improvised texts, in a ceremony replicating courage in physical conflict. Generosity is exhibited in the system of giving songs, the willingness to borrow from and give to other tribes. The three “white” values given by McFee can be associated with “white” music and with the modern Indian music used by the Blackfoot. The use of notation and the ownership of complex instruments such as pianos and electric guitars can in various ways be associated with all three. Composition (in contrast to acquisition of songs through visions) is related to self-dependence. The importance of size of repertory in the modern genres and the idea of rapid learning with the use of tape recorders are relevant to the idea of acquisition. The practice of rehearsing and the development of complex performance styles in modern Indian music can be related to the idea of work.

Gender, scholarship, and recording
Nettl was always attuned to gender issues (for my brief reading list under flamenco, see here). Among the Blackfoot in the mid-20th century (p.394),

women probably sang little in public (my consultants regarded it as evidence of immodesty). I was told they had some songs of their own (some of these songs could be given to men), but often they “helped” the men, and they seemed to know—though usually not to sing—many of the men’s songs. But I was told (and read) that women were important as sponsors of music-bearing rituals [cf. China], and in the mythology they are instrumental in bringing songs into existence. Since 1980, however, women have become very active in the powwow repertory, participating as a minority in many of the Drums, and forming a few “women-only” Drums. Early recordings show women’s singing style to have been rather different to that of men. Thus, in the public dance repertory, the rhythmic pulsations that in men’s singing consisted of sudden, momentary increases in amplitude or dynamics were rendered by women as slight changes in pitch. When participating in Drums, in recordings made after around 1980, women’s singing style approximates that of men.

Besides women as performers, Nettl also observes (pp.400–401) that

the five most significant scholars of Native American music before 1950 were the following four women (plus George Herzog). The major accomplishments of this group constitute the classics of that period: Alice C. Fletcher (1904) published the first detailed description of a ceremony, with complete transcriptions. Frances Densmore’s oeuvre of publications still probably exceeds what has been published by anyone else, but her detailed musical and ethnographic collections of Chippewa and Teton Sioux musics (1910, 1918) are early exemplars of comprehensive accounts of musical culture. Natalie Curtis’s main work, The Indians’ book (1907), did much to bring Native American music and culture to the attention of the public. And Helen Roberts’s imaginative analytical work on Native Californian and Northwest Coast music and her study of geographical distribution (1936) of musical styles, providing the first continental synthesis, belong to the central literature of this area. After 1950, too, women scholars, including Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner, continued to provide leadership. To a somewhat lesser degree, the same could be said for other world areas and repertories.

(In China the preponderance of female music scholars and students had to wait until the 1990s.) He goes on:

It’s interesting to contemplate the cultural or personal roots of the special contributions of women scholars to Native American music studies. It may be suggested that women were motivated in this direction because their own unfavourable social position made them sensitive to oppressed peoples and also because they found themselves directed towards the margins—to marginal peoples, and to music, a marginal field in the Western academy, and in America marginal even among the arts. No doubt a few early figures, who had arrived by chance and through personal interest and determination, such as Densmore and Fletcher, became models for others. Franz Boas encouraged women to enter anthropology in its early American years. Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

On the “repatriation” of recordings and archives (pp.182–3; cf. similar projects for Australian Aborigines) Nettl refers to archives such as the Federal Cylinder Project, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center, mentioning works such as Victoria Levine, Writing American Indian music (2002) and Brian Wright-McLeod, The encyclopedia of native music: more than a century of recordings from wax cylinders to the internet (2005).

Blackfoot cover

He describes his own “longitudinal” work on the Blackfoot (p.186):

After doing some fieldwork and making some recordings, I had the opportunity to examine collections of Blackfoot songs made earlier. I was astonished to find that although, for some reason, no ethnomusicologist had published research on the subject, a huge amount had been recorded, beginning in 1897. By 1987 (when I finished with this project), I could identify some sixteen collections made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists—cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes. And I identified about forty commercial recordings, largely LPs (but there were five songs on a Victor record of 1914), and some prerecorded cassettes. Since then, a few dozen more cassettes and CDs have been produced, for Blackfoot listeners and for tourists, and for some singers in other tribes. Well, comparing those early recordings with the recent ones helps to show how very much things have changed in repertory, singing and drumming styles, form, intonation, and—I guess—aesthetics. If early ethnomusicology concentrated on how consistent an authentic culture had to be, using archives and the history of records helps us to see, at least for a period of about 120 years, some aspects of the way musical life has changed [for early Chinese recordings, see here and here].

So here’s Nettl’s An historical album of Blackfoot Indian music (1973/2004; click here for his fine liner notes), with 19 tracks recorded between 1897 and 1966 (the latter by Nettl himself), including Beaver Medicine and Sun Dance songs, war music, love songs, lullabies, gambling and social dance songs:

And for a taste of Blackfoot ceremony, here’s the 1956 documentary The Piegan Medicine Lodge, filmed in Heart Butte, Montana, on a ceremony commissioned as a vow to give thanks upon a grandchild’s recovery from polio (for background, click here):

Nettl’s perspectives, accessible even for those diffident about tackling “music”, are valuable for us in studying any culture—including WAM and China.


[1] The anthropology of Native American cultures is a vast field. An engaging recent survey of all kinds of Native American musicking is Chapter 2 of Jeff Todd Titon (ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (6th edition 2017, with CDs). See also e.g. Elaine Keillor, Timothy Archambault, and John M. H. Kelly (eds), Encyclopedia of Native American music of North America (2013).

Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma


Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.


In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aborigines in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here.


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.


Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo


Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.

Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan. [1] As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).

As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary

  • Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).

It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.

It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.

Here’s the film—not at all for the faint-hearted:

A restudy would be interesting.

This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:

The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.

As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.


Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note
Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013),
perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). Among several other articles, see e.g.
Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD).
For more, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10.

For self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).


Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders


Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.

Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
Begob! You had me there.

The woodchuck song (cf. More stammering songs) dates from 1902—here’s the popular version by Ragtime Roberts, recorded in 1904, just as Mahler was conducting the premiere of his 5th symphony:

I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:

To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).

* * *

The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to

How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?

In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

wangsDare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.

Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.

* * *

Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.

Via the splendid community website, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):

Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):

Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):

And some more choral songs:

So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.

Talking of Bhutanese films, this looks interesting.

Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:

Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):

The research for this project was
not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.


* For an operatic tongue-twister, click here; and for a Chinese tongue-twister of mine, here.

** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.

*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.



The first gulag


Prisoners of the Solovki camps. Source here.

With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness

—slogan at gate of Solovki prison camp.

Prompted by the troubled memory of abuses under Maoism in China, and the ongoing sensitivity of the topic (cf. my posts on the Nazi camps of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and following my reviews of Orlando Figes’s The whisperers and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (for a roundup, see here), I’m gradually, and belatedly, reading up on the Soviet gulag system. A suitable starting point is the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea, prototype for the whole gulag network.

Even during the early years of the camp, some quite frank descriptions of Solovki were published, such as S.A. Malsagov, An island hell (1926) and Raymond Duguet, Un bagne en Russie (1927).

But it was only much later that more thorough accounts would emerge. After the chapter devoted to Solovki in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal The gulag archipelago (1973), Anne Applebaum gives an incisive account of the camp’s history in chapter 2 of Gulag: a history (2003). [1]

The inhospitable Solovetsky islands had been home to a fortified monastery complex since the 15th century, and a remote place of exile under Tsarist rule. After the revolution, the prison camp was constructed from 1923, as the monastery property was confiscated and monks murdered or deported to other camps. The number of prisoners soon grew rapidly. Solovki was itself a network of camps, both on the main island and the yet more lawless outlying islands, becoming a major site for forced labourers constructing the Baltic–White sea canal, all under the brutal direction of the OGPU state security apparatus.

Over the sixteen years of the network’s sorry existence (1923–39), the harsh conditions and the brutal labour regime alone gave rise to endemic, often fatal, disease; but sadism, torture, and executions too were soon routine. As the system was refined, notably under the leadership of Naftaly Aranovich Frenkel—a former prisoner—Solovki became a model for the gruesome system of “corrective” slave labour for profit, such as we see even now in a sinister modern incarnation in Xinjiang. The notion of “re-educating” inmates to create model citizens was always a figleaf.

After a serious incident in 1923, the socialist politicals (who had at first been privileged) were downgraded in status, becoming lower in the hierarchy than common criminals. In its isolation Solovki was virtually impregnable, and only a tiny handful of prisoners somehow managed to escape in 1925, 1928, and 1934 (Gulag: a history, p.358).

Here’s a remarkable silent 79-minute propaganda documentary filmed in 1927–8 (also here; a 5-minute cut, with translated captions, is here):

Cultural life and religion
Like Nazi camps, Solovki had its own concert band, theatrical performances, a library, a printing press, and a Society for Local Lore. [2] But under Frenkel such cultural activities were curtailed.

Remarkably, even religious services were observed in the early years (cf. Famine: Ukraine and China). A former prisoner recalled the “grandiose” Easter of 1926:

Not long before the holiday, the new boss of the division demanded that all who wanted to go to church should present him with a declaration. Almost no one did so at first—people were afraid of the consequences. But just before Easter, a huge number made their declarations. … Along the road to Onufrievskaya church, the cemetery chapel, marched a great procession, people walked in several rows. Of course we didn’t all fit into the chapel. People stood outside, and those who came late couldn’t even hear the service.

Applebaum goes on:

Along with religious holidays, a small handful of the original monks also continued to survive, to the amazement of many prisoners, well into the latter half of the decade. […] The monks were joined, over the years, by dozens more Soviet priests and members of the Church hierarchy, both Orthodox and Catholic, who had opposed the confiscation of Church wealth, or who had violated the “decree on separation of Church and state”. The clergy, somewhat like the socialist politicals, were allowed to live separately, in one particular barrack of the kremlin, and were also allowed to hold services in the small chapel of the former cemetery right up until 1930–31—a luxury forbidden to other prisoners except on special occasions.

Meanwhile, catacomb services were held in secret (for more accounts of the Solovki martyrs, see e.g. here):

As Applebaum relates,

Solzhenitsyn tells the story, repeated in various forms by others, of a group of religious sectarians who were brought to Solovetsky in 1930. They rejected anything that came from the “Anti-Christ”, refusing to handle Soviet passports or money. As punishment, they were sent to a small island on the Solovetsky archipelago, where they were told that they would receive food only if they agreed to sign for it. They refused. Within two months they had all starved to death. The next boat to the island, remembered one eyewitness, “found only corpses which had been picked by the birds”.

Gorky’s visit, and the final days


Maxim Gorky (centre) visiting Solovki, 1929.

In June 1929, to counteract foreign criticism, Maxim Gorky, “the Bolsheviks’ much-lauded and much-celebrated prodigal son”, returned to the USSR for an elaboratedly-choreographed visit that included a three-day visit to Solovki (Gulag: a history, pp.59–62). Though he was not entirely credulous, seeing through part of the official smoke-screen, his report in published form for the international media inevitably put a benign spin on conditions at the camp. As Applebaum observes, “We do not know whether he wrote what he did out of naivety, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it”.

Elsewhere too, foreign visitors were easily misled, whether out of enthusiasm for the new social experiment or out of expediency during the struggle against Nazism—such as journalist Walter Duranty for the Ukraine famine, and USA Vice-President Henry Wallace on his 1944 visit to the Kolyma camp in Siberia (Gulag: a history, pp.398–401).

1929 marked “the great turning point”. As Stalin further consolidated his power, the regime becoming ever more draconian, with more systematic persecution of its perceived opponents.

Throughout the Solovki camp’s history countless prisoners were executed, culminating in the Great Terror of 1937–8. As war loomed—with the site lying too near to the border with Finland, and as its main industry of logging was depleted with the deforestation of the area—the camp was closed in 1939, amidst further executions. Meanwhile the gulag system persisted throughout other parts of the USSR right through into the late 1950s, even after the death of Stalin.

The legacy since perestroika
In the 1980s, as memoirs of the period began to be published more widely, intrepid researchers like Yuri Brodsky set about unearthing the dark secrets of Solovki. I’m keen to see Marina Goldovskaya’s 1988 documentary Solovki power (some footage here). But within Russia—even since the collapse of the Soviet Union—the history of the gulags has remained contested (see e.g. here).

As early as 1967, while the Solovetsky monastery was still inactive, a museum had been opened there; by 1989 a new permanent exhibition became the first to commemorate the gulag system. In 1992 the monastery was re-established, and the inscription of the complex on the UNESCO World Heritage list thoroughly downplayed the dark history of the camp.

With official repression of memory continuing to grow in an unholy pact between church and state orthodoxy, by 2015 human rights activists were deploring the removal of all traces of the Solovki camp (see this NYT article from 2015). This article shows how pilgrims from Ukraine have also been obstructed from visiting in recent years.


[1] Both works feature in this New Yorker review. Online there are many sites about Solovki, such as herehere, and (an early exposé from 1953) here. For more work by Applebaum, see here, as well as her major study of the famine in Ukraine.

[2] Note the virtual exhibition Beauty in hell: culture in the Gulag (introduced here), with some fine photos—product of the research of Andrea Gullotta (e.g. here; see also this TLS article from 2018).

Uyghur drum-and-shawm

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

To follow my posts on shawms in south Asia and Lorestan, travelling northeast (if one could, via Afghanistan), one reaches Xinjiang, where shawm bands are also common.

The Uyghur tag in the sidebar includes my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour, and a post on mazar shrine festivals and the disappearance of the scholar Rahilä Dawut. Deplorably, since 2016 much of the rich culture of the Uyghurs seems to have become a historical subject.

The muqam suites are mainly sung and danced to the accompaniment of plucked and bowed strings, but they are also part of the repertoire of naghra-sunay bands with paired kettle-drums and shawm. As elsewhere, these bands perform mainly for life-cycle events (notably weddings), calendrical rituals, and shop openings. The CD

contains brief tracks (#1 and #12), as well as a lengthier excerpt from the Charigah muqam as played in Turpan (#8)—including a “limping” metre of 17 beats divided 7+6+6.

Incidentally, here’s an excerpt from Charigah muqam as performed in Khotan by Chistiyya Sufis (for more, see here):

Here’s a 2006 clip of a naghra-sunay group in Kashgar playing Shadiyana to accompany sama dance at the Heyitgah mosque (longer audio here):

For more, see the “Sounding Islam China” channel on YouTube.

As always, studying such music soon leads us to consider the wider ritual culture—not least the great pilgrimages to mazar Sufi shrine festivals, at which bakhshi ritual healers who attend the mazar also play naghra-sunay. Again, we are drawn to the fine work of the anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut—and her outrageous detention. 

ordam 2

It’s not just the religious life of Xinjiang that is being destroyed, it’s the whole culture. See also Uyghur culture in crisis.


Pizzica at the Proms


As the end of this year’s Proms approaches, I went along to the “late-night” gig of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS), hot on the heels of the Vienna Phil. Much as I love the Proms (and I recall some wonderful gagaku and raga in the Good Old Days), world music has never played much of a role there. This was another kind of Passion at the Proms.

Complementing Italy: folk musicking, this is the latest in a series of posts on taranta-inspired musicking in south Italy:

and while you’re about it, try

Based in Salento, the original CGS group dates back to 1975, led by Rina and Daniele Durante. The current leader is their son Mauro, on violin—which drew me back to the less polished fiddling on the extraordinary early footage of Ernesto De Martino.

Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music; but in the hall the volume seemed excessively loud and the sound rather fuzzy—it may work better on the radio broadcast (here, for the next month). With gutsy vocals, tamburello frame-drumming, organetto, wind playing, plucking, and dancing, the combo seemed more successful when they grouped more closely on the large stage.

Of course, it’s not just about sound. Pizzica—like Bach, The Rite of Spring, and Turangalîla, indeed—demands a physical reaction; with such pieces it’s hardly possible in concert, but in this case it’s an essential part of the experience. As large concert halls go, the Albert Hall makes a suitable venue; the prommers in the Arena, whether mobile or static, always enhance the occasion.

In LCD World Music fusion fashion (cf. my final rant here), guitarist Justin Adams and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko joined the band—though I’d still rather hear the latter playing his own music…

On this eclectic playlist, featuring scenic tracks from CGS in full MTV mode, as well as other groups, the intoxication of their live gigs features only rarely:

For the other CGS videos on that list, you may prefer the audio tracks over the glossy visuals. Elsewhere, here’s a 2013 gig in New York:

I’m really not being an old purist fogey here, but maybe what I want is the original line-up—though of course they were always seeking to be relevant to the changing times. Among several tracks on YouTube (search for “vecchio Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino”), try this: