When a friend first dropped me off at the new Minnesota Children’s Museum last summer, I thought, “What a cool building!” In the heart of downtown Saint Paul, the Museum stands PURPLE! As I soon learned, each level of the Museum encouraged children to explore their own ideas about creating, culture and cooperation. I set foot on the top floor to discover something exciting -- the beginnings of an important collaboration to bring a Native American perspective into the Museum’s “Earth World” gallery. The trees were there! Next to a giant ant hill rested a pond underneath a sky with movable clouds. I could not think of a better place to do Native American instruments outside a tribal community. That’s precisely why I submitted a proposal for, and eventually received, a McKnight Visiting Composer residency with the American Composer Forum.
By trying some Native American SONG ideas, museum visitors might begin to experience a perceptual shift away from seeing the world simply as an environment under the dominion of human stewardship to a more Native American reality. To many tribes, trees are “people” and ants are “relatives,” not merely interesting species to be saved, as some exotic breed of dolphin. The SONG instruments themselves are ways Native Americans touch other dimensions of life and communicate with various “others.” After all, the concepts of Western “Music” and Native American “Song” are not the same animal.
Western MUSIC behaves as a process leading to an end product. Native American SONG behaves as a process of communicating and sharing; end products are nothing but leftovers. Western MUSIC is based on principles of science and overtones. Whereas, Native American SONG is only alive through reciprocity, not sound nor harmony. When studying Western MUSIC theory we learn principles of harmony most of the time. To learn Native American SONG, we learn relationships. In Native American life there is no such thing as “music for music’s sake.” To separate “SONG” into it’s own conceptual category of “MUSIC” is as nonsensical to a traditional Native American as asking for love and receiving a numeral equation. In most Native American languages there is no word for MUSIC. Probably the closest approximation is something we might call “SONG,” which still does not emphasize the relational importance of SONG very well.
Of course, this raises the question of my profession as a MUSIC composer and my place in my tribal community. Although I respect the traditions of many tribal groups, I am very much an experimenter at heart -- walking in Non-Native American society as a “composer” of MUSIC yet carrying the heart of indigenous SONG as I go. After all, tribal life runs on a cause-and-effect system of reciprocity. How we live depends directly on our experiences of sharing. We barter and exchange, talk and listen, bewitch and heal, give and receive. When composers know that SONG and tribal life are reciprocal, we are able to perform our MUSIC responsibly. As Native Americans we are responsible not only for ourselves but for our communities as well. As a Mohican, the MUSIC I compose must bear up under the weight of tribal scrutiny. Creating MUSIC that empowers the tribe -- to the betterment of our many nations -- obligates us as indigenous composers! For example, the resolute commitment to tribal communities may not come from Non-Native composers for whom tribal approval is not a concern. As a Mohican “composer” I know that American Indian SONG is a gift and Indian MUSIC is a responsibility.
Historically, the children of Carlisle school knew and felt this difference too. Carlisle Indian School was the first Native American boarding school in the United States. Snatched from newly created reservations, children were shipped off to the Pennsylvania school, and directed by administrator Colonel Pratt to shuck there Indian “regalia” for civilized shoes, military clothes and short haircuts. Forced into rooms were no two children spoke the same language, these young hostages were more or less brainwashed into becoming like their non-Indian “guardians.” Schools such as Carlisle pooped-up [not a typo] all over the US, and sadly a few still operate today.
Imagine what it must have been like for these Indian children -- raised with traditional Indian SONG -- to be catapulted into an environment that propagated this thing called MUSIC similar to SONG but based on completely foreign procedures. It must have seemed strange for the students to be confronted with the idea that SONG was for “listening pleasure” only and not the ceremonial purposes which they knew helped determine tribal life and create the whole world. I mean, imagine if things were reversed?! Imagine if it were you or me today, only knowing Western-European melodies and chords, thrust head-first into a world of only Native American SONG! Imagine too -- in this radically unfamiliar world -- that no Western-European languages were allowed, and you were forced to speak and sing only Dine’ ... or O’odham ... or Maheekaneeok!
The Carlisle experience touches at the heart of who Native Americans are now as a people and how we all got here. For Non-Native Americans, it reminds us that we have made mistakes and that what may appear to be judicious for some of us, might be contemptible for others -- so we must remind ourselves -- that if we feel we are “right,” it does not logically follow that others are “wrong.” For Native Americans, it’s a story of our survival in the face of a nationwide blueprint for assimilation. We must know our past to understand where we are going seven generations from now ... and we can hear this history lesson in Native American SONG.
As part of my McKnight/American Composer Forum residency, the children of the Minnesota Children’s Museum were treated to a very different segment of Native American SONG history! The Minnesota Children’s Museum is a 16-million dollar construction that is designed to be a completely interactive space for creative learning. The Museum contains several interactive galleries including “Work World,” “One World” and “Earth World.” Work World is for learning about construction, building and power. One World is for learning about cultures, to celebrate and experience the similarities and differences among people. Earth World is for learning about our earth including four specialized areas where children can become beavers, ants, forest animals, birds, clouds, and sunlight as they play in the pond, the giant ant hill, the forest and the sky.
Through the use of specially designed instruments, Museum youngsters got to imagine how Native Americans connect with the forest, relate to the ants, sing with the fish and whistle with the birds. Using traditional and newly-developed instruments, I composed the program “Earth Music,” that gave children a chance to perform using several acoustic and environmental musical instruments created especially for use in the Museum’s “Earth World” gallery. Instruments include Native American style flutes made of durable PVC pipe (used for plumbing), PVC spinning bird calls, water flutes made with PVC and funnels, and various percussion instruments. A four-foot Mohican dance drum was recently finished.
Using their own impulses and imaginations, children listened to stories about the instruments and how they were used to connect to the “other” earth people, namely the birds, animals, fish, trees, ants and of all other earth people. Tooting the flutes and pounding the drum, children came closer to a Native American realization of a shared relationship with the earth, all within the Earth World gallery. To sing, pound and play is the traditional Native American way of “getting connected” to others. Most traditional indigenous lifeways on the continent are based on the connectedness of everything. Traditional Native Americans treat the earth and all others as relatives, and in turn the earth and those others treat Native Americans the same way. This is what is meant by the “hoop,” or the “circle,” that all life is reciprocal, including the life of Native American SONG. The learning of SONG, telling of SONG, history and culture of SONG, oral tradition of SONG, and especially the relational importance of SONG all work to maintain the relationship of the entire world.
What did I get out of my residency at the Minnesota Children’s Museum? On memorable Sunday afternoons in Saint Paul, there were groups of children that pounded a drum, laughed and sang, blew singing tubes, and found themselves connected with the process of doing those things. Hearing “wow, that’s so cool!” or “how does that do that?” delighted me to no end! I am confident that someday somewhere someone will perhaps remember that a funnel with a pipe on it sang when dipped into water, or that a bird chirped wildly when a tube was whisked around in the air on a string, or that a heartbeat could be felt by pounding on a drum. I am confident my residency at the Museum has deepened my own sense of a shared Native American reality as well. When we collaborate and experiment in SONG, we are discovering life benefits, not simply MUSICal ones. Our interactions as composers, performers, audiences, students and teachers constitute important relational skills. If we can excite creativity and cooperation in each other, we have accomplished a magnificent thing.