Young Singers of Puget Sound

In the spring of 1995, at the end of the school year, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at an honoring dinner for the Lummi Tribal Education Project in Ferndale, WA. It is a community right outside the Lummi Reservation about 2 1/2 hours drive north of Seattle. It was a great event and I sang during the whole time using song to "talk" to the youth about their futures, memories, visions, and triumph over past and future adversity. I hope to be asked again for this type of work as I consider it some of my most important, that of using song to mark transitions and build hope and strength for the coming generations.

Shortly after arriving a young man, Tom Edwards, Jr., who was a student at Chemawa Indian School in the early eighties when I worked there came up to me and reintroduced himself. It was a nice reunion and we talked briefly of the travels we had together to the local pow-wows singing together. I asked if he had family graduating and he said some cousins, but he was really there to sing with his family. He pointed to his father, mother and other close relatives who were seated and eating dinner. He said they were frequently asked to sing his grandfather's song as a blessing for local events. I knew he was talking about the songs of his longhouse tradition that have a power all their own. I was to learn that when his grandfather was in the hospital during his last days, this song had come to him. He called his family and told them to take this song from him and to use it to bless the people. Later that evening the family was called upon and rendered the song after a prayer was offered by Tom for the students and families. It was truly powerful. Sung in the lower male vocal ranges, it reverbrated throughout that school cafeteria and filled the air. And as is rare among most of the Native Music of North America the woman sang in true HARMONY. Most of the time when women accompany the men they sing the same melody line one octave above the men. But this was in split octaves and very beautiful.

I talked some more with Tom and found out that they were to be releasing a family album of some of their favorite music, stick game songs. He told me how he had been catching songs for them and everybody really liked them. They would comment, "Where did that song come from?", and he would answer, "I don't know, I just HEARD it." I really like to hear these stories as it lets me know the singing traditions are alive and well for the next generations. Watch for their tape on my catalog as he is going to notify me ASAP when it is released. It will be a real collector's item as it will be also true harmony singing.

As I am currently aware, there are also songs sung in this kind of harmony among some of the Sioux Peyote Song Tradition, and also with some of the singing styles of the Alaskan Natives. It has been said that maybe some of the harmonics of the Alaskan Native singing may have it's origins with the Russian Orthodox influence when Russia 'claimed' this area as it's territory. If any Alaskan Natives know the nature of the roots of this style please contact me and I will include it here. I have also heard this kind of harmonics in the singing of the Puget Sound Shaker Religion Songs, these definitely come from a spiritual background that is a combination of Native and Christian roots. Before they sing these songs, which are native melodics and vocables, they cross their hearts in the fashion of the Catholic tradition. They are also very beautiful songs, rich, deep and full, men and women singing together.

I would like to comment on the types of songs like Tom's family sang for the blessing. These are the kind of sacred songs that are usually not recorded for public use or sale. They belong to the community or to certain singers who have been given the right to carry and sing these songs. It is similar to the Western idea of copyright, except the idea of ownership may or may not be the real issue. Rather, whether you or anyone else has been given the RIGHT to sing these songs. We as traditional singers have strict protocol when it comes to these songs! We are taught by the elders that we may not sing these songs outside of their appropiate context. To sing a song that belongs to a family, for instance, without their permission is a great dishonor and is considered trespassing. To sing a sacred song that is used to deal with spiritual entities and powers is downright dangerous both for a singer and his community. When these types of songs are sung the spirits to which they belong come in response to their song... If the person has not been trained how to respect that power it is potentially very harmful. As singers we do not and will not sing other sacred songs of other tribes unless we have secured the rights in the proper manner. Some songs are not even to be sung during certain times of the year, only for the proper season and ceremony.

Some examples of this type of sacred music are; the Sun Dance Songs, Healing Ceremonial Songs, the Animal Dance Songs and Katchina or Masked Dance Songs of the southwest Pueblo, Hopi, and northwest Coastal Cultures, the Spirit Calling Songs of the Sweatlodge, and many hundreds more throughout the North American Indigenous spiritual communities.

So it is there is a continuum of Music; from the sacred power songs to the songs of daily life and fun. An example of a fun song might be a 49'er that is sung to poke fun at love and heartbreak. Many of these songs have english lyrics as well. One of my songs in this genre goes like this;

I don't know why I did that...
I don't even know why I said that...
didn't even listen,
never learned my lesson,
One more night in the
dog-house..., ay-ya, hi, ay-ya, hi-oh...

So sacred songs are not for public use and are not sung either outside of the community context, or by a person who does not have the right and the spiritual knowledge to use them properly and safely. To do so would be very disrespectful to the communities and powers to which they are associated. For this reason a vast majority of these songs are not recorded and will probably never be recorded. If you go to a Native ceremony, you MUST secure permission to do any type of audio or video recording. This may sound real basic but it happens all the time at many of our sacred events. Every year outside visitors to Native ceremonies are caught trying to smuggle audio and video recorders, cameras and even small drawing materials into these events. Maybe because it seems to Western Euro-American tradition that something done in a sacred manner is usually done indoors within great halls and lowlit chambers. So if it is outdoors it must be wide open to anyone. Our people do both, we have many indoor as well as outdoor ceremonials. Always ask permission, even if you see other people recording, they may have asked! Or they may be from that community. If not, don't be surprised to have your equipment immediately confiscated and/or your film or tape destroyed. And if you tried to smuggle it in, you will be promptly led off the people's land by their designated law or security personnel. I know this sounds crazy, but really, it happens all the time. I have actually seen pueblo Kachinas dancing in the plaza, go into the crowd and chase or whip a person who is trying to take a picture! Please be respectful of the people wishes. My best advice is don't even think about recording, consider it an event of your life, for in our way of thinking song is a living, spiritual entity to be respected and experienced, and singers are some of the members of our communities that receive great respect, especially those who have taken on the burden of carrying the Sacred Music.

As for Pow-Wow music that you see available here for purchase, it exists somewhere in the mid-range of this continuum. Most singers don't mind if you record this type of music, in fact we trade tapes to share it among ourselves. If you are non-native, please ask permission, that is only courteous. The majority of this music is available to anyone or any tribe to learn and sing, it is truly Intertribal music. Yet many of us still will not sing these songs without asking permission or "trading" songs with a particular group or composer. This is rooted in the traditions mentioned above and is our way of maintaining a high level of respect for the Music. There are yet within this genre songs that "belong" to certain individuals or families. These have been commissioned by a family member to be composed only for their use and this is strictly adhered to in the pow-wow world. If a group sings a family song or individual's song without the proper permission, they are usually chastised publicly for the act and a "fine" of monetary or symbolic value imposed. With this the respect and honor of the singing tradition is maintained even in this public and intertribal fashion.

Later that evening as I was getting ready to drive back to SeaTac airport, a young man came up to me and told me how much he liked my songs. He said he knew some songs, too and that he really liked to hear other singers and listen to other songs from other tribes. I asked his name and he said, "John Kurtz." He told me he was fourteen years old and that he had learned many of his songs from his grandparents. His mother came up then and joined in the conversation and told me that her son carried many, many, songs. He was kind enough to sing me a song and he chose to sing a Red Paint Clan Song of the longhouse that he had learned from his grandfather. I chose to use the colors Red and Black as the background of this page to honor these two important clans of the Puget Sound Longhouse Tradition, the Red and Black Paint Clans.

It was truly a wonderful moment there in the school parking lot in the fading light of evening to see and hear this young man. He prepared himself...closing his eyes...thoughtfully pulled the song from his memory and with all the dignity a 14 year old could muster, sang it just like the men singers would perform it. His concentration was acute and I could see he had the Music in him... His mother was beaming with pride standing beside him, I was filled with hope and a vision of the longhouse full of music for generations to come. He said that he had other songs too, like his Skunk Song, that "just came out" one time!! Aha, another songcatcher, where do they ever come from? I asked him what he thought was the best thing about singing, he responded quickly, "Singing!" I then asked what do you hope for yourself in the future as a singer, and he said, "to go in the longhouse and sing with the elders there..." I hope someday to get to have the chance to hear him in the longhouse lift up his community and bring those sacred masks back to life again and again... Your people need you nephew, we need your Songs, keep listening for us, many of us are too busy to hear them like you. Remember, the life and future of our communities flows on your breath and mind like your river by your longhouse. Your dreams are our dreams, and you take us to places so beautiful and sacred we can only get there with your songs... By this we live... K'eh whii t'ii...

Thank You Singers all over this Great Land, you have truly enriched my life and the lives of countless others with your commitment and Songs of life, vitality, memory, healing and vision. We are renewed and honored with your blessing of music. Music so ancient it takes us back to converse with the Old Ones, yet so fresh it lightens our loads today and makes the Path so clear. It is Living...this singing tradition, I saw it in these young men. I hear it all over this Continent. I hear it in the Wind, a child's laugh, an elder's story, a graduate's tear, a parents pride... As long as we keep singing and catching songs we and our traditions LIVE. Walk In Beauty... Sing in Beauty... K'eh whii t'ii...

Arlie Neskahi Copyright 1995 All Rights Reserved

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