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Article American Indian and Native Alaskan Song

Rufus White, Valentine Parker, Jr., Charlie Edwards, Albert Dick, Sr., and Clyde Hallowell
Rufus White, Valentine Parker, Jr., Charlie Edwards, Albert Dick, Sr., and Clyde Hallowell drum and sing for the "Fancy Dance" contest at the annual Omaha Powwow, August 12, 1983. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. AFC 1986/038: FCP/0-CF3-19. Select the link for a larger image.

This essay is from the introduction to songs and dances from Many Nations: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States, p. 266. See the full citation under Resources below.

American Indian language does not always include a generic word for "music" as European Americans usually think of the term (encompassing both vocal and instrumental expression). Instead, there are words for "song" for texted melodies. Even in cases where the only audible sound is instrumental, as in flute melodies, there is usually an underlying text of which the player is conscious. The texts, however, are frequently not works found in the singer's spoken language, but are instead vocables, that is "nonlexical" syllables, such as "hey" or "na," that are not randomly chosen but fall into patterns shaped by linguistic, song genre and musical considerations.

Studies of American Indian musical expression typically divide the area north of Mexico into "culture areas," such as Woodlands, Plains (Northern and Southern), Southwest, California, Great Basin, Plateau, Northwest, Subarctic, and Arctic. Each area has different musical characteristics and song genres not found elsewhere. The style that has come to typify pantribal "Indian" music, characterized by songs that start high (men in falsetto) and descend, by a tense vocal style, and by the use of a large drum around which a group of singers clusters, is Northern Plains in origin. Songs from other regions have different forms and melodic shapes, different characteristic rhythms, and use other kinds of drums or no drums at all. But the stereotypical Hollywood Indian "Boom boom boom boom" drum rhythm is rarely, if ever, heard.

Masked Yup'ik dancer
Yup'ik performer during the presentation by Chuna McIntyre and the Nunamata Yup'ik Eskimo Dancers at the Library of Congress. Photo by Jim Hardin, November 12, 2003. AFC 2003/049: p. 24. Select the link for a larger image.

Songs constitute property in many areas. Songs often originate in dreams and may be conveyed from person to person by formal rites of transfer. Song performances often include the telling of the songs origin.

Over the course of time, some song genres have declined as the occasions for their use have passed, while new ones have arisen and others have been adapted in response to changing contexts. The tradition of war dance songs, for example, once used to commemorate intertribal conflict, now honors the experiences of Indian members and veterans of the armed forces.


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  • American Indian and Native Alaskan Song


  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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