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Appreciating Native American Music

This blog celebrates Native American Heritage Month! First initiated as an annual “American Indian Day” in 1915, it went through several developments before President George H. W. Bush designated November as “National American Indian Heritage Month” in 1990. While the event has changed its name to “Native American Heritage Month,” the name shall include and respect all alternative designations some persons may prefer, including “American Indians” and “Indigenous people.”

 Photograph shows Frances Densmore recording Native American songs sung by Mountain Chief (Sioux). (Source: Minnesota Historical Society: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/05/15/mpr-documentaries-song-catcher-frances-densmore-of-red-wing-and-artist-charles-biederman and researcher A. Walker, 2021)

Photograph shows Frances Densmore recording Native American songs sung by Mountain Chief, (Sioux). 1915. //lccn.loc.gov/2016866642

Talking about Native American music can be daunting as it captures all aspects of life. Ideally, one will experience the music in its context, in time and space. One also might want to think of the term music as a wealth of musical traditions. Topics can include nature songs, healing songs, love songs, children’s songs, game songs, dance songs, and many more. Music has been passed on orally through generations, and music has functioned like a microcosm. Music and dances from different geographical regions and tribes will therefore sound and look different. 

Music serves as a medium of communication to celebrate, invoke, or accompany aspects from the cycle of life. In Native American culture the music is closely connected to and even intertwined with nature. It is an integral part of spiritual, social, moral, and cultural events. Its most traditional instruments are voices, drums, and flutes; and all created sound, melody, and song serve a specific purpose. While contemporary Native American music includes modern instruments and languages, they continue to draw on traditional contents.

Listen to a traditional Kiowa Round Dance song here:


Traditionally, music was brought to life through inspiration, participation, and imitation. “Songs come from creation itself,” and “songs come from the earth. We are merely vessels through which it can flow and come forth and give joy and give culture, and show us traditions,” explained Whirling Cloud Woman from the Ute peoples. [Transcript from DBM01189, 15:22]

In many songs, nature is presented with respect, honor and gratitude. Whirling Cloud Woman said about the bear dance: “To give thanks, everything works in a cycle or in a circle. It is what keeps and maintains the balance and the harmony of the universe, the cycle of life, and the Ute peoples. The Ute bear dance is religious in nature and acknowledges the rebirth of mother earth, she has slept for so long. It celebrates the reawakening of all creation, and the bear is symbolic of reawakening and rebirth. Once the bear awakens, it is telling everyone that the earth will awaken soon.” While religious songs and cannot be sung in public, some non-religious parts of these songs can be.

Dancers and Musicians at the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza Concert, 1985

Dancers and Musicians at the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza Concert. United States Washington D.C. Washington, 1985. The Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/omhbib000078/.

Music transcends time and space. Some Native American songs invite and will include the participation of ancestors: “Singing is a communication with the ancestors, and singing is also the sound that the wind produces when creating rustling sounds in the trees. When we sing, our ancestors sing, and the earth sings.”

The deep respect for the natural world continues to live on in Native American performing arts. I will close this blog by quoting the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who recited her poem “Remember” at the National Book Festival 2019:

“Remember the sky you were born under, know each of the star’s stories. Remember the moon, know who she is. Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the strongest point of time. Remember sundown and the giving away to night. Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath. You were evidence of her life, and her mother’s, and hers. Remember your father. He is your life, also. Remember the earth whose skin you are: red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth, brown earth, we are earth. Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Listen to them. Talk to them. They are alive poems. Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the origin of this universe. Remember that you are all people and all people are you. Remember that you are this universe and this universe is you. Remember language that comes from this. Remember the dance that language is, that life is.” [Transcript from the recording of Library of Congress National Book Festival from 2019,  Minute 20:14]

NLS materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow music related talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]

Selected Materials from NLS Music Collection:

Digital Talking Books

Music and the Land. The American Indian tradition. Examples include both traditional and contemporary songs. DBM01189

Music of the American Indians. Examples include songs of love, war, and daily life. DBM00396

History & Reconstruction of Native American Flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Collection by Barry D. Higgins (White Crow). Music and Performing Arts at the Library of Congress. DBM04286

Lakota John & Kin Conversation and Concert. Music and Performing Arts at the Library of Congress, recorded in 2019. DBM04287

Braille Scores from Composers Inspired by Native American Music:

Cadman, Charles Wakefield. O Moon Upon the Water. For voice and piano. BRM04122

Song of the Mountains. For voice and piano. BRM04144

Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. BRM04030

Death of Minnehaha. BRM03754

Copland, Aaron. Duo for Flute and Piano. BRM35395

MacDowell, Edward. Woodland Sketches. For piano in bar over bar format. BRM32185.

—Score in large print format. LPM00089

Sonata tragica in G minor, op. 45. For piano in bar over bar format. BRM32125

Dvorák, Antonín. Indian Lament. For violin and piano. BRM00832

Orem, Preston Ware. American Indian Rhapsody. For piano in bar over bar format. BRM13220

Selected Materials from the NLS General Collection:
Folkore and Stories from Native American Culture. (Website). Cartridges of titles from this minibibliography can be requested from your local cooperating library. The digital talking book titles can be downloaded from BARD.

Williams, Maria Shaa Tláa (Editor). The Alaska Native Reader. History, Culture, Politics. Cartridges can be requested from your local cooperating library. The digital talking book titles can be downloaded from BARD. DB 72101

Kennedy, Frances H. (Editor). American Indian Places. A Historical Guidebook. Cartridges can be requested from your local cooperating library. The digital talking book titles can be downloaded from BARD. DB 68073

Harjo, Joy. Joy Harjo. How We Became Human. New and Selected Poems. Cartridges can be requested from your local cooperating library. The digital talking book titles can be downloaded from BARD. DB 96674

Trafzer,Clifford E. (Editor). Earth Song, Sky Spirit. Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience. May be available only for download. DB 38244

Silverman, David J. This Land Is Their Land. The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. Cartridges can be requested from your local cooperating library. The digital talking book titles can be downloaded from BARD. DB 97804

For additional research, you may find the following resources helpful:

Selected Library of Congress Resources:

Brown, Nicholas A. Music and Native American Heritage Month. (Blog). The Library of Congress, 2013.

Dineh Tah Navajo Dancers. (Video). The Library of Congress, 2005.

Fishman, Karen. Native Gems: Highlights from the Native American Audio Project. (Blog). August 2019.

Indian Songs of Today (Audio). Archive of Folk Song, U. S., Library of Congress. Recording Laboratory & United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, S. (2015) Rhodes, W. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Music Division, Recording Laboratory AFS L36, 1954. Liner notes in PDF.

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate: A Resource Guide. (Libguide).

National Book Festival 2019, featuring Joy Harjo reading her poem “Remember.” (Video). The Library of Congress, 2019.

Native American History and Culture: Finding Pictures (Libguide).

Ray Young Bear reads and discusses Wichihaka. The One I Live With on August 26, 2020. (Video). The Library of Congress, 2020.

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