HOSTS- Jeremy Burns, Matthew Scott Phillips


TYPE- History




BUMPER MUSIC- "Song of Salutation"

(a Passamaquoddy tribe out of Maine, 1890)

"The Eagle Song" (a Hopi Tribe out of Arizona, 1906)

ANNOUNCER- Mike Cunliffe


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Today there are hundreds of Native American communities on the continents of North and South America. With each, their own cultures, cuisines, languages and rituals. But at the heart of all of these communities are dance and music. Let's learn about the sounds and origins of their music!

This episode will focus on North America  (Canada, The United States and Mexico).


-Our evolution process took place over 6 million years.


-2,000,000 years ago, we started walking upright.


-100,000,000 years ago, we created fire.


 -300,000 B.C.E. we started making tools and weapons.


-60,000-30,000 years ago is when we took interest in art. During this era is when we began to find evidence of artistic expression such as cave paintings and wind and percussion intruments.


-20,000-30,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers made their journey, from Eurasia via the Bering Land Bridge, to North America. Genetic evidence shows that these people traveled back and forth over this land bridge, between these two continents, until it went under water at the end of the most recent Ice Age (17,000 years ago).




-The colonization of North America began in 1492 in the United States, 1519 in Mexico and 1535 in Canada. By 1530, only a decade after Hernan Cortez set foot in Mexico, the indigenous people were already being taught European music.


-The Mayan culture adopted some instruments and genres from Spain that are no longer around in Spain but still live on within the Mayan tribes.


-The Spanish taught the Pueblo people of the Southwest United States the “matachines” dance and the accompanying violin and guitar. The Pueblo would later use these moves and similar ones in their own ceremonies.


-European influence aside, it should be noted that the oldest instrument found in North America was a turtle shell rattle that dates back to the Achaic Period (circa 8000-1000 BCE). This was in Tennessee and this predates any European colonization.


-Percussion (such as drums and rattles) and vocals  are the key elements of Native American music. The drums keep a steady rhythm for the singers and dancers.


-A steady and constant tempo usually accommodate most rituals and ceremonies.


-In some cases, a slow and steady beat will gradually build in tempo (and in embellishment such as tremolos).


-To the Native Americans, the drum beats compare to the human heart beat, which they compare to the heart beat of Mother Earth.


-The drums were typically single or double headed as well as kettle drums. In addition, there were also rattles and shakers made from various things.


-Many tribes would have a “drum keeper” for each drum. Usually the eldest son of a selected family, it was their honored position to maintain the drum and to ensure that it was played with the proper amount of respect.


-The songs are usually in their native language or are non-lexical (syllables with no direct translation).


-Each tribe has its own unique styles and genres of music. But common elements are often shared among neighboring tribes. And many of these elements we’re discussing are common among most North American tribes.


-The melodies are often pentatonic (5 note scales) or tritonic (3 note scales).


-The vocal timbres vary in coloration, from thin and nasal, to relaxed and deep. Falsetto is common among the male vocalists. Other techniques such as vibrato and other movements of the larynx, jaw, tongue and lips were used to create sounds that are atypical from regular singing or speech sounds. They often mimic other sounds in nature.


-Throat singing is often credited to the Inuit tribes of Alaska and Canada. But this technique is also used by ethnic groups from Russia, Mongolia, Japan, South Africa, China, Italy and India, among others. In Northern Alaska and Canada, this style of song began as an activity for the women of the tribe to entertain each other while their male counterparts were out hunting. Two women would face each other, using their throat, diaphragm and belly to create sounds and rhythms. They would try to match these sounds and rhythms until one of them goes silent or starts laughing.


-Other instruments used by the Native Americans were wind instruments (such as flutes and whistles and other breath based instruments) and stringed instruments (such as guitars, violins and musical bows).


-Most of the stringed instruments were introduced to these tribes via the colonization of other European cultures between 15-1700’s. The guitar, for example, had its origins in Spain in the 1400’s.


-It should be noted that the oldest instruments discovered have been flutes and whistles, in all parts of the globe. So it stands to reason that the European colonizations didn't introduce these instruments to the indigenous people.


-Many tribes believe that some of these songs were birthed at the time of creation by the Creator and other spirit beings. These works would be considered sacrosanct and that no new music should come from them or be added to them. In other cases, shamans or other tribe members might have a dream where a spirit brings to them a new song, dance or ritual. In any case, these communities all seem to agree that music comes from beyond the individual and from beyond the community.


-These songs and dances were used to promote healing, give thanks for a bountiful harvest or to prepare for battle.


-In many tribes, such as the Navajo tribe, ceremonial songs are privately done within the tribe or within the home.


-There are currently 245 indigenous languages in the United States. 65 have gone extinct and another 75 are nearing extinction. The Navajo speakers are the largest population at 170,000 speakers. Most of these native languages still survive because they have been passed on through their songs.


-Their history lives on in their music. Each tribe tells the stories of their ancestors through music. But there are also more secular topics such as love songs. In many cases they are sad songs of loss and departure.


-They also have “hiding game songs” for recreation, which were typically short in duration and limited on pitch variation.

-The “healing songs” were also of limited range but feature the repetition of low notes.


-The war songs had wider ranges, higher notes and greater diversity in note durations. A lot of these musical devices are uses in other cultures for similar purposes.


-Paul Revere and The Raiders popularized “Indian Reservation”. It was initially recorded and released by Marvin Karlton Rainwater in 1959. Rainwater claimed 1/4 blood Cherokee ancestry, though the song was actually written by John D. Loudermilk.


-In 1986 the band Europe released the song Cherokee on their Final Countdown album. This song recounts the exodus of the Cherokee people from the South East United States further west to reservations appointed to them by the white settlers who sieged their land.


-Robbie Robertson, guitarist and songwriter for The Band, was born of Mohawk decent, via his mother. He grew up on a Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, Canada. He addresses this ancestry on his 1998 release, “Contact from the Otherworld with Red Boy”. In 1994 he recorded with the Red Road Ensemble, a Native American group, for the television soundtrack of “Music for the Native Americans”


-Brothers, Pat and Lolly Vegas formed the band Red Bone in 1969 in California. At the height of their success, all members were of Mexican American and Native American heritage. In 1974 they sold over a million copies of the hit single “Come and Get Your Love”. Surviving the death of his brother, Lolly, in 2010, Pat still leads the band!


-In 1997, Sacred Spirit's "Yeha Noha" (Wishes of Happiness and Prosperity) was featured on the album Pure Moods. It is sung in the Navajo language with the original melody, though it is accompanied by modern music production.


Britannica.com- “Native American Music History” and “Native American Music”, by Victoria Lindsay Levine


Smithsonianmag.com-  “Ancient DNA Charts Native Americans Journeys to Asia Thousands of Years Ago”.


TachiniDrums.com- “Understanding the History Behind Native American Drums” by Tachini Drums


Library of Congress Blogs- “Appreciating Native American Music” by Juliette Appold