Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow: American Indian Music

Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow: American Indian Music

by Craig Harris


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Despite centuries of suppression and oppression, American Indian music survives today as a profound cultural force. Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow celebrates in depth the vibrant soundscape of Native North America, from the “heartbeat” of intertribal drums and “warble” of Native flutes to contemporary rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. Drawing on more than one hundred interviews with musicians, producers, ethnographers, and record-label owners, author and musician Craig Harris conjures an aural tapestry in which powwow drums and end-blown woodwinds resound alongside operatic and symphonic strains, jazz and reggae, country music, and blues.

Harris begins with an exploration of the powwow, from sacred ceremonies to intertribal gatherings. He examines the traditions of the Native American flute and its revival with artists such as two-time Grammy winners R. Carlos Nakai and Mary Youngblood. Singers and songwriters, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Keith Secola, and Joanne Shenandoah, provide insights into their music and their lives as American Indians. Harris also traces American Indian rock, reggae, punk, and pop over four decades, punctuating his survey with commentary from such artists as Tom Bee, founder of Native America’s first rock band, XIT. Grammy-winner Taj Mahal recalls influential guitarist Jesse Ed Davis; ex-bandmates reflect on Rock Hall of Fame inductee Redbone; Robbie Robertson, Pura Fe, and Rita Coolidge describe how their groundbreaking 1993 album, Music for the Native Americans, evolved; and DJs A Tribe Called Red discuss their melding of archival powwow recordings into fiery dance music.

The many voices and sounds that weave throughout Harris’s engaging, accessible account portray a sonic landscape that defies stereotyping and continues to expand. Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow is the story—told by those who live it—of resisting a half-millennium of cultural suppression to create new sounds while preserving old roots.

Listen in! Visit this book’s page on the oupress.com website for a link to the book’s Spotify playlist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806151687
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 1,227,543
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Percussionist, writer, and educator Craig Harris is author of The New Folk Music and The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music. He runs an award-winning music program, Drum Away the Blues, for children and adults and co-hosts a weekly music show for the Vision 7 Radio Network with the Gaea Star Band.

Read an Excerpt

Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow

American Indian Music

By Craig Harris


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5468-8



"Picture a huge, resonant drum, which is situated in the center of a large circle. Place around this drum ten to fifteen men, all with sticks to beat out the peculiar rhythms of the Indian music. These men, then, begin to chant their spiritual thoughts. Then, around the circle, the light, rhythmic treading of the feet of hundreds of dancers begins."

— British journalist Melba Blanton

Combining tribal dance, music, crafts, food, and regalia, powwows provide opportunities for American Indians to reconnect with family and friends and offer non-Natives a way to experience Indigenous culture. "[Powwows] allow people to see us and our culture rather than assume," said George Thomas (Pequot).

Powwows can include parades, rodeos, athletic competitions, gambling games, food courts, drum contests, and arts and crafts marketplaces. Some — including the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the world's largest powwow — include a stage spotlighting Native rock bands; folk, country, and pop singers; and reggae groups. Dancing in the main arbor (dance arena), however, remains at the gatherings' core. "We know who we're singing and drumming for — the dancers," said Wayne Silas, Jr. (Menominee/Oneida), round-dance singer and leader of the intertribal Drum, Tha Tribe. "If they're dancing their hearts out, we know we're doing our job."

Inspired by the opening processional in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, most powwows kick off with a Grand Entry, during which dancers, following two lead dancers (one male and one female), enter the arena according to regalia and style of dance. "It's pretty amazing," said Gathering of Nations publicist Sarah Hattman. "Dancers come into the arena, and they just keep coming and coming. It keeps growing until the floor is packed."

Following a flag ceremony, the acknowledgment of armed forces veterans and special guests, and the recitation of a prayer, or invocation, a steady beat emits from a large buffalo-, deer-, or elk-skinned ceremonial drum. As eight to twelve singer-drummers answer the leader with punctuated cries and accented drumbeats (honor beats), the dancing begins. "You usually have men's traditional and the northern Plains style," said Black Swamp Intertribal Foundation director Jamie K. Oxendine (Lumber/Creek). "Sometimes you have men's straight, grass, and fancy dancing. You have women's traditional. Of course, there are the women's fancy and women's jingle dances. At some of the larger powwows, where there are hundreds of dancers, you are also going to see chicken dancers and Eastern Woodland dancers. I went to a powwow in North Carolina where they separated the men's dancing into men's northern fancy and men's southern fancy, with different speeds of music and different regalia. At some powwows, they may try to sneak in other dances like the snake dance. Tribes have been trying to push some of the older dances. We've been pushing Eastern Woodland dancing. In the upper Great Lakes, in Michigan and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, they've been trying to promote the old-time women's scrub dance."

"Northern traditional dancers often have lots of natural bird feathers in their outfits," said Patty Talahongva (Hopi), host of the radio talk show Native America Calling, "and [they] dance with quick steps, crouching low to the ground — resembling a prairie chicken's walk or a warrior in search of his enemy. Southern straight dancers have a regal air to them, standing upright, and dancing with short purposeful steps. At points in their song, they will bend over and dance in semicircles imitating how they surround their enemy. For ladies, there are the traditional buckskin or cloth dances, the jingle dress dance, and finally the ladies' fancy shawl dance, which is the equivalent to the men's fancy dance."

Powwow songs, sung in English or tribal languages, relay a variety of messages. "They tell people to have a good time," said Terry Paskemin (Cree), leader of the Saskatchewan-based Blackstone Singers, "to not be shy, to be happy, to not waste time sitting around, and to get up and dance. Some are comical. A lot of them tell the dancers to be respectful to themselves and to their regalia, to live every day the best that they can. Some are love songs. There are songs that I've made up about different animals."

More frequently heard are vocables, composed of nonliteral vocal sounds rather than actual words. "[Vocables] were used long before First Contact," explained Jamie Oxendine. "They've been used in music all over the world, Native or not. A very easy way to understand it is to think of the Christmas carol 'Deck the Halls.' The entire chorus — 'fa la, la, la, la' — is vocables."

"The story taught to me," said Wayne Silas, Jr., "was that [vocables] were more powerful than any other language because they're the way that we communicate to our Creator when we're infants, before we learn language."

Various drums play during a powwow. "The hand drum, or frame drum, is the dancing drum," said New Mexico–based drum maker Yolanda Martinez (Apache/Comanche/Hispanic) of Yolanda's Spirit Drums, "and the ceremonial powwow drum is the grandmother drum."

Martinez has been making drums since 1987. "I get the hides and soak them overnight," she explained. "Then, I cut them, burn the holes, and soak them again. I prepare the hoops and cut the cylinders. The hide is stretched and left to dry. Then, I do the final wrapping with leather. There is another process to make the beaters. You're looking at about a week for a drum."

Traditional symbols are incorporated into the designs that Martinez uses to decorate her drums. "The first symbol that I used was the spiral," she said. "It represents life. Energy moves in spirals, not in a straight line; the ancients knew this. Then, the symbol for Grandmother Spider came to me, the bringer of creativity, designing and creating her web. I also do a spirit cactus with an image of a person whose arms are stretching up, a starburst in the four directions, and a medicine wheel."

Many believe that a drum is endowed with special power. "A drum is more than a drum," said round-dance singer Jay Begaye (Diné). "It gives you a good feeling and it can bless you like a god. Before a powwow, every singer burns cedar for the drum. When a drum is happy, we can jam. If somebody feels sick, they can touch the drum and bless themselves."

"Not only does it set a rhythm and tone for the song," added Silas, Jr., "but [the drum] also carries our belief that, when we sing, we're singing for our people. Our songs are for healing and prayer lifting. The heartbeat of the drum lifts those prayers to the Creator and the spirits. You hear a drum beat and it does something to your heart, whether you are a dancer or not. It has a lot of power."

Powwows connect, according to most researchers, to a nineteenth-century ceremony of the Poncas' Hethuska (heh-THOO-shka) Society. Societies were responsible for organizing entertainment and providing outlets for celebrating honors and special distinctions, and could be religious, military, or social. Composed of warriors who had gained honor in battle, the Hethuska Society was governed by "a roster of officers, including a drum keeper, eight dance leaders, and two whip men who started each dance episode and who whipped reluctant dancers across the legs to make them get up and perform."

"The dance was received through a vision by a man named Crow-Feather," explained UCLA ethnomusicology professor and author Tara Browner. "While Crow-Feather was in a trance-like state, the spirits gifted him with a porcupine and deer-hair roach and a crow bustle or 'belt.' A roach is a crest of stiff porcupine guard hairs with a deer-hair center that male dancers wear on their heads; a bustle is the spray of feathers worn on their backs. Crow belts, a specific type of bustle made from the carcass of a crow, wings spread, are the precursors of the more formalized eagle-feather bustles used today."

"Shortly the singers about the drum struck up one of the songs belonging to the society," recalled Alice Fletcher, "a song suitable for dancing, and whoever was so moved rose, and, dropping his robe in his seat, stepped forth nude, except his embroidered breech-cloth, and decoration of grass or feathers. Bells were sometimes worn about the ankles, or bound below the knee, and added a castanet effect, marking the rhythm of the song and dance, and adding to the scene, so full of color, movement, and wild melody."

The songs, dances, and rituals of the Hethuska ceremony spread to other groups during the nineteenth century. "The Ioways and Otoes have their own Hethuska music," said Fletcher, "and [they] call the society by that name. The Yanktons, a branch of the Dakota group, were old friends of the Omahas; [they] adopted the Hethuska, but did not call it by that name; they give it the descriptive title of 'the Omaha Dance,' or 'the Grass Dance,' the latter name referring to the tuft of grass worn at the belt."

As it continued to evolve, the ceremony transformed into a secular celebration honoring elders and returning veterans, with speeches, gift giving, a feast, and social dancing replacing its original spirit-based rites.

By 1880, at least thirty tribes were organizing public-invited gatherings, increasingly referred to as "powwows" — a designation many attribute to the Narragansett Eastern Algonquins' "pau-wau," referring to a spiritual person or to a healing ceremony conducted by medicine men or spiritual leaders. "The words, 'pau wau,' translate literally into 'he, she, or they who dream,'" explained John Brown, director of historic preservation for the Narragansett tribe, in June 2011. "It referred to a title, not a place. The people who are called 'medicine men,' or 'medicine women,' today were the pau wau."

The Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Montana, was the site of a massive powwow in 1898. The Wisconsin Winnebagos (now known as Ho-Chunk Wazijacis) became the first to charge admission in 1909.

The proliferation of powwows defied non-Native attempts to suppress tribal ceremonies. Sometimes lasting more than a week, these ceremonies had ritualistically commemorated the important events of life — birth, reaching adulthood, marriage, and death. They appealed to the spirits for leniency during harvests, astronomical phenomena, and periods of sickness. During times of drought, special ceremonies pleaded for rain. "Raindrops would be drawn toward the big drum," said British journalist Melba Blanton, "as if aiming at a bull's-eye."

Ceremonial traditions differed from tribe to tribe. Among tribes of the Eastern Woodlands and the Southeast, including the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, the Green Corn, or harvest, Ceremony commemorated the ripening of corn (maize) in late summer and marked a time when all personal offenses (except rape and murder) were forgiven. The Muskogee Creeks called it "Posketv" (Bus-get-uh, or "Fasting to Fast"), and considered it the beginning of a new year.

A Stomp Dance on the third evening climaxed the four-day Green Corn Ceremony. During an interview conducted on November 26, 1937, by L. W. Wilson for the Writers Project Administration (WPA), Lucy Cherry (Choctaw) recalled a Green Corn stomp dance, probably in Maryland, in the late nineteenth century. "In a secluded spot sits an Indian beating out a thump, thump, on his tom-tom," remembered the mother of sixteen, "denoting that the hour of the dance is at hand. The participants of the dance are in readiness, with turtle shells filled with gravel or little flint rocks attached to the ankles of the women and above the knees of the men."

After the recitation of a prayer of gratitude in the Choctaw language, Cherry remembered, "The man with the tom-tom again strikes up and the dance starts — all singing and chanting as they strut, and stomp, making rhythm with the rattling of the shells, as they circle around and around the glowing embers in the center of the circle."

Pacific Northwestern tribes, including the Haida, Salish, Tlingit, Tsimhian, and Kwakwaka'wakw (roughly, QUAWK-wawk-ee-wawk), marked life's momentous steps with a potlatch (Chinook for "gift"). Organized by a host family, potlatches provided opportunities for the tribe to gather for joyous celebrations and funerals. Potlatch host families were required to provide a great feast and present gifts — including blankets, carved decorations, and baskets — to everyone in attendance.

Accompanied by whistles, rattles, hand drums, and spontaneous, nonliteral vocal punctuation, potlatch songs were especially powerful during funerals. "The family has to go to the songwriter," said Rosanne Mancuso to Alaska's New Miner, "so the songwriter can help the family write a song for the person who died. The songwriter sings at potlatches and it's a way to bring [the deceased person's] spirit alive."

Among most tribes in the Great Plains and southwestern Canada, the Sun Dance (Wiwanke Wachipi or the Gazing-at-the-Sun Dance) represented an important step in one's vision quest. "It is sacred," said Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Frank Fools Crow (ca. 1890–1998), the intercessor for more than seventy-five Sun Dances, "and the highest way to honor [the Great Holy Mystery] Wakan Tanka."

"The rationale for the Sun Dances of the several tribes varied," explained anthropologist Fred William Voget (1913–1997) in Shoshoni-Crow Sun Dance. "It included the themes of seasonal renewal, growth, and replenishment, and the acquisition of mystical power."

Most researchers agree that the Sun Dance originated among the horse-riding, buffalo-hunting tribes of the Great Plains (Oglala Lakota, Arapaho, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne) and spread to the Kiowa, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Mandan, Pawnee, Plains Ojibwe, Ponca, Shosone, and Ute. In the autumn 1970 issue of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology's Expedition magazine, Jeffrey Zelitch explained that, according to Lakota tradition, a buffalo had transformed into a woman and presented the ceremony to a Lakota man to share with his people at a time of hunger. "[The Sun Dance] represents," explained Zelitch, "the fulfillment of the ritual cycle of the sacred pipe which was brought to the Lakota by the White Buffalo Woman."

Sun Dances incorporated spiritual purification through a steam bath, fasting, and the ritual cutting and placing of a sacred tree (sometimes topped with a buffalo head) in the center of a circular arbor, or medicine lodge. The top of the arbor was open, enabling participants to stare into the sun. "There were originally seven songs," explained Howard Bad Hand (Brulé Lakota), a Sun Dance singer and song maker, spiritual healer, and producer of the annual High Star-Sun Eagle International Sun Dance for Peace in Red Valley, Arizona. "After I started singing at Sun Dances, I found that the seven songs are not all the same. Our group is the Brulé and the tribe next door is the Oglala. We are all Lakota — we speak the same language — but, when I sang for the Oglala Sioux Nation Sun Dance, Max Blacksmith said, 'I'm going to teach you the seven original Oglala Sun Dance songs.' The seven that he taught were different from our seven. It was the same thing when I went to sing at a Sun Dance at the Cheyenne Butte reservation in the northern part of South Dakota. An old man there claimed to know the original seven Sun Dance songs. He taught them to me. They were different too. The message, the meaning, and sometimes, even the rhythm [were different]. The older forms had a peppy beat, almost staccato."

Some (but not all) tribes incorporated piercing into their Sun Dance. "Each one of the young men presented to a medicine man," recounted Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1899, "who took, between his thumb and forefinger, a fold of the loose skin of the breast — and then ran a very narrow-bladed, or sharp, knife through the skin. A stronger skewer of bone, about the size of a carpenter's pencil was inserted. This was tied to a long skin rope fastened, at its other extremity, to the top of the sun-pole in the center of the arena."

The Sun Dance is a "strictly religious rite," Alice Fletcher told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883, "entered voluntarily, and performed in fulfillment of vows made in sickness or trouble in order to secure health and prosperity. ... [It is the dancers'] recognition of supernatural powers and their dependence upon them."


Excerpted from Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow by Craig Harris. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Heartbeat,
2. The Warble,
3. Tribal Voices,
4. Rez Rockers, Guitar Heroes, and Rasta Men,
5. Divas, Hip-Hoppers, and Electronic Dance Masters,
6. Depicting and Defying Stereotypes,

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