Native American events sponsored by the American Folklife Center have provided Indians and Native Alaskans opportunities to present performing arts and lectures at the Library of Congress to reach audiences with their cultural arts and inform people about their cultures, languages, and concerns such as preservation of their traditions. This blog will focus on the variety of recorded events now available on the Library of Congress website.
Lectures and forums have provided forms for Native Americans to discuss a variety of issues related to their history and culture. An example in the player below is “Civil Rights, Identity & Sovereignty: Native American Perspectives on History, Law & the Path Ahead” with Native American scholars, authors, and civil rights activists Walter Echo-Hawk, Malinda Maynor Lowery, LaDonna Harris, and Tim Tingle discussing the history of the Native American struggle for equality and current issues in the rights of Native people, presented in 2015.
Other important topics include the repatriation of Native American recordings, an effort that the American Folklife Center has been involved with since 1979, and related efforts to use the resources of archives to revitalize Native American culture and language. Ancestral Voices is a collaborative initiative to digitally restore, provide access to and curate the oldest field recordings in the Library of Congress collections, the 1890s wax cylinder recordings of the Passamaquoddy tribal nation of Maine. The collaboration involves the Passamaquoddy community, the American Folklife Center and university-based digital platforms — the Mukurtu content management system and Local Contexts, which develops Traditional Knowledge attribution labels for heritage materials based on indigenous cultural protocols. This project was discussed by archivists, anthropologists, and Passamaquoddy community members working on the project in the Ancestral Voices Roundtable in 2018. Tribal historian and project leader Donald Soctomah explains the project from the Passamaquoddy point of view, video examples of elders translating early recordings of Passamaquoddy language are presented, and Dwayne Tomah, pictured at the top of this blog, sings two moving examples of Passamaquoddy songs.
Related videos include the discussion of Native American archives and libraries in an interview with Lotsee Patterson in 2017, and Gabriela Peréz Báez discussing surmounting the challenges of linguistic and cultural revitalization in “Living Languages: Preservation & Reclamation of Indigenous Languages” in 2016.
An important opportunity to talk with Navajo Code Talkers led to two events presented by the Veterans History Project in 2004: WWII Reunion: Navajo Code Talkers Part 1 and Part 2. Keith Little, Sam Smith, and Sam Billison explain how the Navajo code arose and how they came to be among those who used their native language, which they had been forbidden to speak in government-run boarding schools, to help the United States win World War II. These remarkable gentlemen are no longer with us, so these videos of them talking about their part in history are especially precious as a way of honoring their service.
Several videos present Native American music and dance. Hoop dancing, as presented in the video of Dallas Chief Eagle of the Rosebud Sioux and Jasmine Pickner of the Crow Creek Sioux (2007) above, is perhaps the most well known of Indian dances. It is performed by people of many Indian cultures and presented publicly in settings such as powwows and competitions. Jasmine Pickner was among the first women to perform the hoop dance publicly, as it was considered a men’s dance. In the video the performers talk about women dancing the hoop dance and Dallas Chief Eagle’s decision to teach Jasmine to dance. Today it has become more common for women to dance and women’s competitions are held.
The origins of the hoop dance are not clear. Hoops seem to have been used in healing ceremonies among many Indian cultures for a very long time. The use of multiple hoops in display and competitive dance is much more recent. Scholars think that the modern dance arose among Pueblo Indians in the Southwest in the 1930s. There are various stories about the origins of the hoop dance. Two can be found in AFC videos. In the Legends and Legacies Concert: A Celebration of Public Folklore at time code 1:11:00, Tom Mauchahty-Ware with his son Thomas Ware, III and Chester Tieyah Jr. present several examples of Kiowa and Comanche music and dance including the Eagle Dance and other fancy dancing. Before the second dance, a hoop dance by Chester Tieyah Jr., Tom Mauchahty-Ware tells a story about a Kiowa boy creating the modern hoop dance. In the video Jones Benally Family Dancers: Navajo (Diné) Traditional Dance from Arizona, Clayson Benally explains that the modern hoop dance may have originated in Taos Pueblo and also talks about the use of hoops in healing ceremonies among the Navajo and the Navajo style of hoop dance (towards the end of the video at about 53:00). (An interview with the Benally family with folklorist John Fenn is also available at this link).
Hoop dancing continues to develop as competition and interaction among dancers from different cultural groups fosters creativity. The late champion hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance performed some of his innovative dances at the Library of Congress in 2016. Joining Nakotah and his father Steve LaRance were Steve’s granddaughter Shade Phea Young, who provides an example of the next generation of female hoop dancers, as well as Steve’s nephew Quotsvenma Denipah-Cook. (“Homegrown Plus: Nakotah LaRance, 1989-2020” by Stephen Winick in Folklife Today honors the memory of Nakota LaRance.)
Other important forms of music and dance include ceremonial dances. These are less often performed for public audiences as they occur in sacred contexts. But the Dineh Tah Navajo Dancers did just that in 2004. This student group adapted the traditional ceremonial dances by removing critical parts used only in ceremonies in order to better teach non-Indians about their traditions:
Traditional music varies from one culture to another and according to how it is used. Examples of songs from the Northeast can be heard in Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin: Traditional Passamaquoddy Music From Maine and also provides an example of teachers of Passamaquoddy language using a performance to teach about their culture, recorded in 2009. Before our concerts were recorded for digital broadcast on the internet, Chuna McIntyre and the Nunamta Yup’ik Eskimo Dancers presented a concert in 2003 that included one song that has been digitized and put online, a Yup’ik song about a vision of a sailing ship in 1777, a year before the first sailing ship approached the coast of Alaska. Another collection that you may want to look for if you have an opportunity to visit the Folklife Reading Room is Six Nations Longhouse Women Singers (Iroquois music, New York and Canada, 1994) that presents women’s songs, such as work songs and lullabies.
Native American flute music played on wooden flutes seems to have originated on the Great Plains. Clay flutes were known in the Southwest and in Mexico. But flute playing spread to many peoples over time. R. Carlos Nakai performs flute music on several of the flutes he has collected in the video above, recorded at the Library of Congress in 2010.
Like the dances, music continues to change and develop. Examples of concerts of new compositions and contemporary music include a performance by Sihasin, the duo of Jeneda and Clayson Benally of the Benally family in 2020. They perform their own compositions with guitar and drums that speak to issues such as the preservation of Navajo lands and passing on traditions to the next generation, with family members as guest performers. PIQSIQ, a duo of Canadian sisters Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay who come together to create Inuit style throat singing, also recorded in 2020.
Storytelling is a powerful way of entertaining and teaching at the same time, as this video of Mary Louise Defender Wilson who was born on the Standing Rock (Sioux) Indian Reservation of North Dakota and Mandan-Hidatsa storyteller and educator Keith Bear demonstrates. Notice that the flute is used intertwined with storytelling. This performing combination is one used by many Native storytellers. Tim Tingle and D.J. Battiest-Tomasi Chocktaw Flute Playing and Storytelling is an example of a team of a flute player and a storyteller working together. In these examples the storytellers use the power of stories to teach non-Indian audiences about Native Americans, their traditions, and the human values we all share in common.
So please enjoy exploring the videos of Native American and Native Alaskan lectures, music, dance, and storytelling to learn more about the many cultures indigenous to North America, and watch for future concerts.
American Folklife Center Event Videos, Library of Congress
Ancestral Voices Collection online collection, Library of Congress
Omaha Indian Music online collection, Library of Congress