Native American/First Nations Music–Overview

Before we embark on our tidy tour of Native American/First Nations music, we should note that while much of the music we’ll meet this week is ancient–generations upon generations old–Native American/First Nations songs, like all music of all North Americans, are the songs of immigrants. In this case we’re talking about the great migration that happened thousands upon thousands of years ago during which humans somehow found our way from our origins (so say most archaeologists and anthropologists) in Africa to distant lands such as those which we currently call the United States and Canada.

So how did people arrive in North America in the first place? Did people first come to North America as migrants from Siberian Russia, moving southward in the years when Asia and Alaska were connected by a “land bridge” known as Beringia that is now submerged beneath the waterway known as the Bering Strait? (This is known as the Clovis Model, so named because of certain artifacts found in Clovis, New Mexico, that indicated people first arrived in North America about 13,500 years ago.) Or, according to a different theory known as the “Early Entry” model, based upon the discovery of older remnants of human civilization at archeological sites in places like Monte Verde, Chile, one that has shaken the notion that a single large north to south migration seeded all human settlement in North America, were people here well before the era of the bridge? If humans were present in the Americas thousands of years before there was a bridge, how did they
get here? By boat, perhaps, from Asian lands? Through some kind of earlier land migration? So far the evidence is unclear. Until we know more, let’s just say people first came to North America a long time ago. And chances are that when they came, they were singing.

The most prominent academic researcher in the field of Native American music is Bruno Nettl, a noted ethnomusicologist, teacher of ethnomusicology and pioneer of the field. By comparing and contrasting common melodic, rhythmic and instrumental elements within the musical styles of tribes throughout North America, Nettl suggest there were two geographic movements of musical information in the Americas–the expansion of music from north to south, with music found in what is now the easternmost parts of Siberian Russia among groups like the Chukchi, Yukaghir, Koryak, traveling across the Bering Strait southward and laying the foundation for the development of music among Inuit, Northwest Coast, Plains and Southwestern U.S. tribes, and the movement from south to north, with
settlers from Mesoamerica migrating up through Mexico to seed tribes in the Great Basin and the Eastern Woodlands. (We’ll learn more about these geographic and musical distinctions below.) Nettl suggests the Native American/First Nations tribes whose music is
most complex are those in which the southward and northward musical migrations met (tribes of the Northwest Coast, the Pueblo and the Navajo).

In class we’re going to listen to Chukchi “Nunlingran” by the “the State Chukchi-Eskimo group” Ergyron (which means “sunrise” in Chukchi). Watch Ergyron perform live in 2008. Note the lyrics, which are “vocables”–a term we’ll learn below, and something that is a feature of much Native American/First Nations music.

More information:

Want to learn about the life and career of Bruno Nettl? | Curious about Nettl’s theory of the origin of music? | What the heck is “ethnomusicology” anyway?


“Traditional” Native American/First Nations music (that which we’ll call “traditional,” meaning, in our context, music that originated, or is consistent with music that originated, long ago and has been passed down from generation to generation as a foundation of Native American culture), is dynamic and powerful, a living, breathing, still-evolving art form that connects Native Americans to each other, their communities, their shared culture and to the natural and spiritual world around them. Most traditional Native American/First Nations music features voices, percussion (drums and rattles) and the occasional flute, with very little other instrumentation. (There is such a thing as “the Apache fiddle,” which we’ll meet below.) The lyrics of many Native American/First Nations songs are a combination of words from original languages and VOCABLES, which are sounds that don’t correspond to actual words in any language. Vocables–like “ho” or “ya” or “hey-na”–aren’t just “nonsense syllables;” they intend to convey the given song’s emotion, and maybe even effective at doing so than wordy lyrics that could distract the listener from appreciating the true passion of the song. Many traditional Native American/First Nations songs begin slowly but increase in intensity and speed, with vocalists, percussionists and dancers (often all the same people) losing themselves more and more in the music at hand. Songs may be overtly spiritual in nature, used within tribes for the purposes of ritual, or meant to be shared in public performance. Public songs may celebrate the change in seasons or a successful harvest, express pride in the tribe, tell an important tale from the tribe’s history or just connect the performers and community with the natural world.

Despite these similarities there is also substantial diversity among the musics of Native American/First Nations people. Over the centuries each tribe developed its own style, starting with the basic common elements of Native American/First Nations music but adding their own melodic, rhythmic or even instrumental twists. We’ll learn about some of them in the following section.


More information about Native American music:

In addition to starting with Wikipedia’s entry on Native American music, Wiley’s “Native American Music” lesson plan (pdf) and Teachervision’s page of Native American music resources can provide a good initial overview.

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