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Native Gems: Highlights from the Native American Audio Project

This blog post was written by Sally Smith and Brianna Gist, 2019 Jr. Fellows in the Recorded Sound Section.

The Native American Audio Project began as a response to an “Ask-a-Librarian” question submitted by a patron inquiring about recordings of Native American music in the Recorded Sound Section of the Library. Although the American Folklife Center holds extensive collections of Native American ethnographic and field recordings, reference librarians in the Recorded Sound Section were unfamiliar with American Sound Chief, a commercial label of Native American music. The 2019 Junior Fellows project was designed to address this inquiry and identify other commercially produced Native artists and Native owned record labels. The project also included writing a research guide that would help patrons access these recordings.

Sally Smith and Brianna Gist, 2019 Jr. Fellows at Display Day.

Junior Fellows Brianna Gist, a junior at Georgetown University, and Sally Smith, a senior at the University of Georgia, used the Library’s online catalog and other resources to create the Native American Audio Project research guide to help reference staff direct patrons to relevant recordings. Many of these recordings came to the Library through the Copyright Office or individual donations. The guide provides background knowledge on the music traditions and cultures of Native American tribes. When considering the structure of the guide, Sally and Brianna wanted to emphasize how patrons interested in Native American cultures formulate their search questions, often coming to the Library with a specific tribe, region, or language in mind.

 

Sally Smith, Joy Harjo, and Brianna Gist.

A highlight of the project was meeting Joy Harjo, the next Poet Laureate for the Library, and discussing the project with her.

Consequently, the guide is structured according to tribal affiliation, geographic region, and genre. A section on major record labels also provides a historical timeline of the Native American recording industry. Below are some recordings that highlight the breadth and depth of the Library’s general collection and the continued importance of collecting these materials.

Time Flys Like an Arrow, Keith Secola, Akina Productions, 1990.

Keith Secola, who is Anishnaabe and Italian, has become a favorite among Native audiences and is known for blending together genres such as rock, blues, and traditional music to create a unique sound. While studying at the University of Minnesota, he developed a relationship to Native activist and musician Floyd Westerman who inspired his songwriting process. His song “Fry Bread,”  named after the popular reservation dish, analyzes the conflicted status of the dish.  “NDN Kars remains his most popular song and is considered a modern Native American anthem. Secola features a different version of the song on each of his albums. His major albums include Circle (1992) which is a compilation of his first three albums, Wild Band of Indians (1996), Fingermonkey (1999) and Life is Grand (2012).

The discovery of the Navajo Sundowners and Apache Spirit in the Library’s catalog best exemplifies the Library’s mission of preserving culturally important recordings. The Navajo Sundowners and Apache Spirit represent small “rez bands” that produce country music about life on and off the reservation. Many of their country covers become preferred tracks by Native listeners, even over the original recordings. A quick glance at the YouTube comment section for the Sundowners song “Corina, Corina,” reveals that many listeners hadn’t heard their songs in thirty-years or their cassette tapes of the song were now lost to time. Surprisingly, the Library has thirteen of their tapes made in 1973. The Library also holds three Apache Spirit albums including Keep Movin’ On and Five in One. Both Apache Spirit and the Navajo Sundowners continue to play and make music with an evolving and expanding line up.

Matriarch by Joanne Shenandoah, Silver Wave Records, 1996.

In addition to more contemporary music, traditional songs are still popular among Native American audiences. One such artist is Joanne “Tekali Wha Khwa” Shenandoah, a Grammy Award-winning acoustic guitarist and 14-time Native American Music Award-winning singer-songwriter and musician of Oneida heritage. Considered a “national and local vocal treasure” by Syracuse University, Shenandoah infuses songs from the Iroquois heritage and Algonquin language with other genres and contemporary themes to produce a unique style of music. She began singing at the age of five and worked as an architectural systems engineer and computer programmer before becoming a full-time musician. Her Grammy-nominated albums Bitter Tears-Sacred Ground (2009), Peacemaker’s Journey (2000), Eagle Cries (2001), and Covenant (2003) represent a few of her many albums and hundreds of songs. Shenandoah is an ardent humanitarian and peace advocate through the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, a non-profit organization.

Native American activism represents a source of inspiration many musicians. In particular, Blackfire is a punk rock band from Big Mountain, Arizona that produces music centered around environmental issues, historical events that impacted Native communities, and life on the reservation. The band is comprised of siblings Klee, Clayson, and Jeneda Benally. They began singing as the “Jones-Benally Family” at schools and powwows and find inspiration from their Diné heritage. After traveling and seeing artists like Taj Mahal, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Buddy Guy in their youth, they released their debut EP in 1994, produced by The Ramones. Blackfire became widely popular. They won “Group of the Year” at the 1994 NAMMYs for their first full-length album, One Nation Under (Canyon Records, 2001). After touring with Robert Plant of Led Zepplin, Tinariwen, and collaborating with R. Carlos Nakai on Triumph, they released [Silence] is a Weapon and received another NAMMY for “Best Recording.”  In 2012, Clayson and Jeneda Benally broke away to form Sihasin, a punk rock group named for the Diné word for “hope.” While Blackfire focuses more on historical injustices, Sihasin emphasizes solidarity and hope by incorporating more traditional instruments such as the powwow drum and the rattle into their music. Their album Never Surrender (Tacoho ­­­­­­­­­Records) was released in 2012, and they continue to tour and spread their message of positivity and strength.

Interested in finding out more about Native American recordings and record labels?  Access the Native American Audio Project research guide or contact the Recorded Sound Research Center for more information.