NATIVE AMERICANS Art and Culture
How are Indignous perspectives of Native American arts and powwows different from the observations of outsiders?
How can these misunderstandings be avoided?
Preserving Tradition for the Future
Research compiled by: Mariano M., Jenna R., and Shylene C.
This is an image of Turner Park at the 31st - 33rd blocks of Dodge in downtown Omaha. In the 1800s, Turner Park was in the area where the Omaha tribe lived. Today, it is used for concerts and a green space. The park is in the shape of the camps that the Omaha stayed in when they lived there. Recently the Omaha tribe had a powwow in Turner Park in order to remember a place that was theirs long ago. People walk and drive by this location thinking that it is only a park, but it is not. It is a place that’s important to the Omaha tribe’s culture.
Non-Natives’ understandings of Native American music have greatly changed over the years. Euro-Americans’ attempts to compose music that described the culture of Native Americans usually ignored traditional references such as the heart-beat drum rhythm found in traditional songs and dances. Despite non-Native composers’ attempts to introduce other cultural music to mainstream society, the music has misrepresented the original Native American arts.
Euro-Americans began imitating Native American music around the era of Native American Removal and Pacification. An article (pictured above) from February 1895 reports on Milwaukee musician John Comfort Fillmore, who composed a series of Omaha tribal songs. Fillmore attended a traditional powwow, listening to the music, and later transcribed what he heard onto sheet music, claiming it to be “entirely uninfluenced by contact with civilization.” The article continues, describing Native Americans as “wild and savage in nature.” Fillmore explains that Native American music and singing include melodies in major keys and are built on five tone scales similar to those used by the ancient Chinese, Hindu, Scotch, Irish and other cultures. Fillmore also claims that Native Americans had no musical notation. While Fillmore correctly states that the Natives did not use harmonization as Western musicians did within their songs, his other observations show a lack of cultural understanding.
Fillmore is only one example of the many false representations of Native American music. However, Native American artists, particularly younger musicians, have pushed back against these types of misrepresentations. For example, the group A Tribe Called Red combines traditional Native American music with elements of electronica and hip-hop. (View a YouTube video of the group’s song “Electric Pow Wow Drum” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4j4Ms8gMl0 ) This shows Native American agency in bringing tribal music into the modern context of Western society, demonstrating cultural pride and revitalization, as well as the ongoing theme of inter-cultural exchange. Unlike the Fillmore example, where a non-Native forced Omaha music into Western forms, this trio chooses for themselves the terms of that cultural exchange.
Present-day singing and dancing in a traditional Native American powwow are based on the tribal circle framework. The singers and dancers do not refer to themselves as “artists” and/or “performers,” as Euro-American artists would. Rather, their participation is part of their identity as a tribe, family, or clan. Songs and dances are passed down from each generation, sometimes skipping generations. Emotion is emphasized in drum group singing by maintaining drumbeats and by the type of song.
Powwows revolve around the drum. It is considered to be living and breathing with a spirit. It has its own ceremonies with blessings and namings and symbolizes a heartbeat and life-giving thunder. Women are not allowed to drum. The traditional drum is made out of deer, elk or horsehide material. Contemporary bass drums may be purchased, renovated, or blessed. The heartbeat starts out slowly then accelerates as singers go further into song. The drum sticks connect singers to the power of drums as they sing. The host drum (pictured above) is an invited drum group and is called upon for special songs for families and honoring important people.
Some songs used in powwows are the Flag Song, the Honor Song, and the Trick Song. The Flag Song honors the flag of the United States. The Honor Song is requested to honor someone. The Trick Song is a contest between the dancers and singers, with drummers trying to fool the dancers.
Attending a powwow is the best way to experience Native American music today. Misinterpretations like Fillmore’s (See above entry) can be avoided by careful observation and interviewing powwow participants, which in the end helps Native American cultural revitalization.
Native American arts and culture contains complicated symbolism. This symbolism is best seen and experienced at powwows. Regalia is the term used to describe clothing, accessories, shawls, blankets, and other items that are used in ceremonies and at powwows.
Different colors and symbols appear on Native American regalia, but each tribe has its own meaning for the symbols and colors. For example, the prayer fan belonging to Taylor Keen, a member of the Omaha tribe, (pictured here) has a rainbow design on the handle. Taylor explains that the colors represent fire or no more flooding. This was from when God had flooded the earth. The eagle feathers are used because, according to Omaha beliefs, the eagle is one of the most powerful animals. This fan is used at ceremonies to send prayers to God. The water bird and the thunderbird are also common strong spiritual symbols. Some regalia represents the mixing of two cultures: Euro-American and Native American. This can be seen by the crosses that represent Christianity on both the skirt and the fan. Christianity, which has become part of many Native Americans’ religious beliefs, is sometimes mixed with traditional tribal religion.
Many young people today like to use bright colors for their regalia. This skirt is like many other types of regalia: the colors are usually dark on light or light on dark. The skirt was made about ten years ago and still looks new. These skirts are only used at ceremonies. Octa Keen, Taylor’s mother, said that some people say that she should sew skirts like this by hand and not with a machine, but she thinks if the older Native women could have used the machine they would have. Octa also uses old photographs of tribal members dressed in regalia that she has found on the internet to help her make regalia that is based on older patterns and styles. This is important because it shows how much the culture has adapted to changes in technology.
Above Photo: " Indian Dancer, Macy, Nebraska" 1922 (Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society).
Above Photo: Taylor Keen and Mariano M. July 14, 2014. Notice the similarity between the prayer fan in this photo and the 1922 photo above.