Awhile back I was given the gift of a book called Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes by Carl Waldman. It was one I had seen on a visit to the Museum Of The American Indian in downtown Manhattan some time ago. Ever since I received the book I have spent time thumbing through it, sorting out the history and the hierarchy of the many North American Indian tribes. Though not a scholarly work, the book does a good job covering a lot of basic ground. I had long been intrigued by the connections between tribes. Whether joined by language structure, cultural similarities or geographical area, many tribes do have these sorts of connections in some way. I encountered this in a small way while travelling with my family across the U.S. one summer years ago. In South Dakota we primarily came across the Sioux (or as they are more properly known, the Lakota). While in Arizona and New Mexico we saw some of the beautiful art and culture of the Southwest tribes such as the Pueblo, Navajo, and the Hopi.
It was probably my first real exposure to Native Americans that I can recall. Sure we learned one ‘interpretation’ of Native American history in school though it was usually skewed towards people like Sitting Bull and Geronimo that they felt obliged to teach us. Sure I also lived in a part of New Jersey where Native American town and place names were common-Mahwah, Ramapo, Ho-Hokus. But that was essentially just a legacy. I’m sure if I had looked there were deeper signs of the culture around, but until I was out in the American West and saw real Native culture, that I really began to understand that there was so much than what felt was force-fed to us in school. I turned 11 on that trip, so I was too young to truly appreciate the culture, history, language and traditions fully. One thing I do remember clearly however was the rich variety of art, imbued with rich colors and patterns.
Years later I discovered some of the traditions of Native American music. Just like with the variety of tribes and cultures, the music is also diverse. From the Great Plains, to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. From the Deep South to New England and the cold northern tundra, the music of Native Americans reflects this diversity. Pow-Wows, chanting, flutes, drums are the typical sounds, but just like with the variations between tribal customs and culture, I have learned that there is great nuance to the music as well. Added to that, just like other traditional music from around the world, Native American music is likely to be heard in different contexts now, combined with styles such as rock or even hip hop while still maintaining connections to the ancient. Early on as I began listening to Native American music (and there is a lot of it!) I really came to appreciate the voice and music of Joanne Shenandoah, an Oneida Indian.
The Oneida, along with the Onondaga, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Seneca tribes comprise the Iroquois Six Nations, the origins of which go back to the 1500’s. Collectively they are also known as the Haudenosaunee (People Of The Longhouse). Though each Nation has its own unique customs and identities, singers like Joanne Shenandoah see the inherent unity between them. The liner notes to her songs freely mingle between each. Though Joanne herself is Oneida, she sings the stories of the Haudenosaunee-not just Oneida,Seneca or Onondaga, but for all its people.
Such is the case with the song I have chosen here-an absolutely stunning traditional Mohawk Friendship song called I Am Your Friend. Within a few seconds of listening, the simple chant becomes more insistent, more mesmeric. I find myself lost within its charms, transported away from whatever distractions in my life at that moment by the beauty of Joanne Shenandoah’s voice. Awhile back I wrote a post about the simple charms and restorative nature trees provide me. There is something inherent not only in Joanne Shenandoah’s music, but Native American music in general that is similar. We all know of the great respect and honor all Native Americans have shown for the land, and the spiritual healing related to it. As I have read more from Carl Waldman’s book, I am also learning about the great respect most tribes had initially to outsiders as well. History tells us of course that outsiders seeking land and fortune did not always treat their hosts with the same respect. It also tells us that many tribes had deep resentment and conflict with one another for long periods of time.
But hearing a beautiful song like ‘I Am Your Friend’ reminds me that at the heart of Haudenosaunee culture, even the heart of Native American culture are some simple truths that we need reminding of, especially in the tumultuous world we are in today. First, we really do need to honor and respect the land we live on. The photo I chose for this edition reminded me of this- plants and trees thriving in a natural environment. Yet more than ever before we are abusing our land in ways that will eventually ruin it. Denial or pushing it aside gets us nowhere. Native Americans understood centuries ago when to plant crops, or when to hunt. They knew because they observed. They learned, and their thinking evolved as a result. The scientists observing our planet today who issue the warning signs of dangers to come often hit a brick wall from people who quite frankly don’t learn, evolve or think much. Rather than argue we need to trust the observers of our planet. Second, we need to really understand what simple words such as ‘I Am Your Friend’ truly mean. Does it mean a social media connection, or does it mean someone who truly understands the word ‘friend’ with honor and respect. In this increasingly angry world we live in the choice is ours.
Postscript- In the last year Joanne Shenandoah has had a number of health issues and is currently waiting for a liver transplant. Like many independent musicians not signed to a major label, medical costs can be staggering. She and her family have a GoFundMe site where you can make a donation to help with these costs. Every little bit helps-https://www.gofundme.com/joanneshenandoah
I Am Your Friend-Traditional Mohawk, Arranged By Joanne Shenandoah
Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes-Written By Carl Waldman, Third Edition Published In 2006 By Checkmark Books
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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