Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cedar flute -- new age or traditional?

HUM 221 -- links for class Monday.

Times change. Until fairly recently, the popular stereotype of Native American music came from the old Western movies ... heavy on the drums, in 4/4 time accented BUM-bum-BUM-bum BUM-bum-BUM-bum on the first and third beat ... but now it's an instrument variously known as the cedar flute, the Lakota courting flute or simply the Native American flute. It's especially a staple of "New Age" radio programming, and it's become an iconic sign of Native culture, as we hear on the homepage of KINI-FM on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. Where else have you heard music like this?

Today we're not going to study New Age beliefs and culture, although New Age music has influenced the way the Native flute is played and marketed. It's easy enough to find on the Internet without my adding links. (If you want a refresher on New Age in general, Wikipedia has an overview, and we can rely on Wikipedia users to correct each other's weasel words and keep it honest.) Instead, we'll look at the origins of the instrument and listen to some of the music.

Robert Gatliff, a cedar flute afficionado, webmaster of the website and "the guy paying the rent for this site," has a collection of descriptions of flutes, pan pipes and other wind instruments going back to 1528. But the cedar flute as we know it goes back to the Plains Indians and their neighbors during the 1800s. Here's a good thumbnail description on the Wisconsin Historical Museum website:
The flute once played an integral role in love and courtship in Native American society. Traditionally, courtship was a public affair that involved a girl’s family and friends. Prior to marriage, families guarded their daughters against having free friendships with young men and an exaggerated shyness among adolescent girls was considered charming.

To attract a girl’s attention, a young man would arrive in the evening outside of her family’s home and play a beautiful love song on his courting flute. The pleasing tones of the instrument, rising and falling in slow sliding cadences, served to entice her into falling in love with him. Specific traditions varied between different villages and tribes. One tradition held that although a young man would play his courting flute, the girl was not allowed to respond to this advance alone. The potential mate first needed to offer the spoils of a hunting expedition to the girl’s parents before he could be considered an acceptable suitor.

The courting flute is no longer learned or played in its traditional context. In earlier days, flute players received no formal instruction, rather learning only by listening to others play, but today lessons are often offered in a classroom setting. In addition, while it was once played only by men with no other instrumental or voice accompaniment, the flute is also currently played by many women, often as part of contemporary Western musical compositions. Even though it has greatly evolved, the beauty of the Native American flute and its haunting music have endured in the modern age.
It accompanies a 1929 photo of a Chippewa (Ojibwe) flute and a striking flute handcrafted in 1994 by flute carved by Louis Webster, of Menominee, Stockbridge, Potawatomi and Oneida descent. There in a nutshell you can see how traditional artists preserve their heritage but also change it and adapt it to new ways over the years.

Another brief article tells of a cedar flute demonstration at SCI. I wrote it for Illinois Times.

Something to look for in all the articles. Many of the artists have Native heritage -- often it is mixed heritage, i.e. more than one tribe or nation and often white ethnic heritage as well. But the music sells like hotcakes to white audiences (remember when we discussed "expropriation" earlier?), and the people who have flocked to learn the Native flute in recent years tend to be white.

To see how the instruments have evolved, compare the 1929 instrument on the Wisconsin museum site and the instruments from the 1820s and 1830s pictured on Gatliff's website to the Amon Olorin Flutes made by Ken Light, who is not of Native blood but has absorbed the culture and its music. He makes flutes for Carlos Nakai (see below), one of the leading Native flute artists. Spend a few minutes with the Amon Olorin catalog and click on the pictures of the flutes to hear the sound of each. It will not only give a sense of the tone of the different instruments, but you will also hear some of the characteristic swoops, flourishes and trills of an accomplished player.

In class we will listen to a radio sound portrait of R. Carlos Nakai. Of Navajo (Dine) and Ute heritage, Nakai is perhaps the most well know artist on the Native flute today. He has famously described his style as "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz," and he has released 35 albums on the Canyon label, which specializes in Native American music. He performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. You can visit his website at
to learn more.

Some of his thoughts on music and philosophy are discussed in a Q&A on Ken Light's website. Some of Nakai's questioners sound like New Agers, and his attitude seems welcoming of their search for spritual meaning. But notice how he says. "I do not encourage anyone outside of the indigenous cultures to visit or otherwise impose upon native communities and individuals because as indigenous folk we have our own responsibilities and work to engage ourselves in daily and don't need a lot of loose baggage to tow around."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A (somewhat virtual) trip on the pow wow trail

Apparently the DVD that I'd been relying on to introduce you to pow wows and pow wow dancing is fried. So we're going to skin the cat another way. (Sorry about that, Kitty.) We're going put together a pow wow on YouTube. But first, let's pause for this message. It's the Smithsonian Institution's promotional video for the 2007 National Powwow at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. It'll give a taste of what a pow wow looks like on professional quality video.

One of the best places to start, though, is Wikipedia. Its page on pow wows explains how they're organized and what to look for. What to listen for, too, since the drum and the master of ceremonies ("emcee") are so important. Another basic website, and a very good one, is Powwow Power ... especially its page on Powwow Etiquette. We'll visit it briefly.

But we'll spend most of the class Friday watching videos collected by YouTube subscriber Ahwahneechee, who describes himself as "a Paiute person whose ancestors came from several bands of Paiutes through out California and Nevada" and who has a fascinating set of videos on pow wow dancing and Native American history. There's other stuff on the net that's more technically proficient, like the Smithsonian promo shots above, but these clips were obviously put together by someone who knows and loves the art form.

We'll watch snippets of:
Bonus! A potato dance at the Welcome Back Pow Wow in 2005 at Southern Oregon University. What's a potato dance? Is it traditional? I doubt it, although one of the YouTube posters who commented on this video mentioned seeing the same dance done with oranges at another pow wow. But it looks like fun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

HUM 221: More on Whitecloud's Ojibwe/Anishinaabe (Chippewa) heritage, spirituality and dance

As you read "Blue Winds Dancing," you may want to check out this video called "Ojibway Heartbeat" to help you get in the mood. It combines pictures from a pow wow, a social dancing event, with nature shots of northern Minnesota or Wisconsin to a sound track of pow wow drumming.

Intermission: Learn how to say "hello" in Ojibwe in this language instruction video. The Ojibwe or Anishinaabe people are making great efforts to revive their language. Listen carefully at the beginning and you'll hear them called "Anishinaabe" in their native language. ("Ojibwe" is the name their neighbors gave them. It means "puckered," and its original meaning is obscure. "Anishinaabe" means the people.)

A powerful video called "Knowing the Ojibwe" combines footage from a pow wow on a Minnesota reservation with an interview with Richard Morrison, a pipe carrier or traditional spiritual leader. His religion was banned for a time during the 20th century, and parts of it are still not shared with outsiders. But Morrison explains some of the ethical principles behind it in terms that are common to many of us. Watch for what he says at the end of his interveiw about what each of us can do in our own communities. Something to think about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

HUM 221: Whitecloud's heritage -- some links

Tom Whitecloud, author of "Blue Winds Dancing" (1938), was a Chippewa Indian. Now the name is more often spelled Ojibwe or Ojibway, and many members of that nation prefer to call themselves Anishinaabe. Since you're writing a paper on the story, you'll want to know more about his cultural heritage.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has some excellent resources on the Ojibwe (when the @#$%! links are working) at its website on Wisconsin Indian tribes. Cross your fingers and try to visit the pages on culture and musical instruments. Note the relationship between dance, healing and spiritual life, if you can get to the webpages.

Also highly recommended: The six-part television series Waasa-Inaabidaa: "We Look in All Directions" at
When a teenager opened fire at the high school on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune profiled the Red Lake Ojibwe community. It is one of the best sources I found. Be sure to read down to the description of a dance and an elder who said, "The answer is in the drums. ... The answer is in the circle."

A very brief overview and links are available on the Native Languages of the Americas website.

Speaking of spirituality, something we all ought to read -- repeatedly -- is Orrin Lewis' essay "Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read This First!" on the Native Languages website. Lewis is a Cherokee, and he has written one of the best common-sense guides for spiritual seekers available on the Internet. He has good advice for those of us who are not Native Americans on how to avoid being misled by fakes and how to treat Native religions with the respect they deserve.

A website devoted to maintaining Anishinaabe language and traditions put up by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan has a wealth of information about the culture. The Little River Band's annual pow wow or dance, called Jiingtamok

Sunday, March 09, 2008

HUM 221: 'Blue Winds Dancing,' Reflective response essay due March 24

Posted below is an assignment sheet for the reflective essay you will write over spring break. The story is available on line at several locations, including this personal website maintained by somebody who doesn't appear to be an expert but just liked the story and wants to see it available on the Iinternet. Sometimes people just like the story and keep coming back to it.

Here are some links to help you write your papers.

There's a good, detailed biography of Whitecloud by Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Several shorter bios, too, including one in Wikipedia that informs us Whitecloud was "one of the Association of American Indian Physicians's foundering members." It's right about his role in the AIP, bit surely "foundering" is a typo!

[UPDATE: In class Monday, we fixed it. I had this post up on the screen, and a student suggested I edit it. Do what? Edit it. Right here? Right now? I'm an old print journalism guy. I learned newspapering on an old-fashioned black Underwood upright manual typewriter. I don't like technology. I don't trust computers. But I try to keep up to date. I believe in Wikipedia and the "wisdom of crowds," and I try to teach to use it wisely, not be scared away from it. So in a spirit of practice-what-you-preach, I clicked on the "edit this page" tab. I made the change: "... one of the Association of American Indian Physicians's foundering founding members." And we got, right there on the screen at the front of the classroom, an immediate demonstration of why Wikipedia works as well as it does.]

Not too much else out there about Whitecloud. WARNING: Stay very far away from the garbage offered by the term paper mills for aspiring plagiarists! You'll have to use your critical thinking skills to spot them, but any use of the term "essay," "essays," "paper" or "papers" in the website's name I interpret as presumptive evidence that they're in the plagiarism business. Some of the sites may be kosher, but the papers I've read -- and I've read enough of them by now to be able to recognize them immediately -- will not be helpful to you in this assignment.

I have written several tip sheets on how to write a reflective response for my classes, too. They are linked here and also to my faculty page on the Springfield-Benedictine website.

You'll find some good advice on my handout for Humanities 223 (roots music), headed "How to Write a Reflective Response on Music (or literature of any other work of art)." That title doesn't mention "Blue Winds Dancing," but it'll do. My three-part outline with Circumstances, Background and Analysis comes from there.

Linked to the reflective response handout is a "Sample Reflective Response Essay" I wrote on a Texas songwriter named Kinky Friedman. It shows you how to use the Circumstances-Background-Analysis format, too ... And it also tells you a little bit about a sadly neglected songwriter.

And linked to the Kinky Friedman sample is an old handout I wrote on literary reader response essays when I was teaching freshman English. It gives more of the theory of reflective response, which comes from an educator named Louise Rosenblatt. She once explained:
The special meaning, and more particularly, the submerged associations that these words and images [in a literary work] have for the individual reader will largely determne what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text.
It is that process of reacting to a text that gives each of us our own unique, individual interpretation. The process also frees us up to appreciate the work of an artist from another culture, because we are focusing on what speaks to us across cultural boundaries instead of pretending to be experts.

A word on plagiarism. My writing assignments are designed to be plagiarism-proof. If you follow the steps I list on the assignment sheet, they'll help you write a paper on which you exercise your independent judgment, come to your own conclusion and support it with evidence drawn from reading the story. If you don't follow the steps, I will stop reading your paper as soon as I realize you are giving me the same-old, same-old. In that event, I will return it to you with no grade and enter a zero (0) in my gradebook which will not be removed until you turn in a completed, original paper. But if I suspect plagiarism, I reserve the right to submit papers to SafeAssign for electronic analysis of their dependence on unqcknowledged sources.

Assignment sheet -- reflective response

Handed out in class Monday, March 10. -- pe

HUM 221: Native American Cultural Expression
Springfield College/Benedictine University
Spring Semester 2008

Reflective Response – ”Blue Winds Dancing”

Read the short story “Blue Winds Dancing” by Tom Whitecloud and write a 1,000- to 1,250-word paper in which you analyze your response to the story and the specific things about the story that made you respond to it as you did. You will need to look up some information about Whitecloud and his tribal heritage, i.e. the Ojibwe or Chippewa people, for background. But I want your paper to be the product of your own independent judgment. (Warning: Be careful to avoid using canned term papers or college essays about the story; there are literally dozens available on the plagiarism websites, and they are uniformly superficial and poorly written.) You may use either MLA or APA documentation. Due March 24, the Monday after spring break. A link to the story and more tips on writing a reflective response are available on our class blog at

Start by reading “Blue Winds Dancing.” As you do, ask yourself these three questions.

  • What about the story stands out in my mind?
  • What in my background, values and experience makes me react as I do? How does it compare to Whitecloud’s background and experience as a college student?
  • What specific things about the story trigger my reaction? Which specific passages speak to me?

Thinking about these questions will help you frame a thesis. For this paper, you have to narrow your topic. You might decide, for example, that Whitecloud describes the same feelings anyone has upon going off to college and returning home for a vacation. So you might say his story is universal, even though it is grounded in his memory of returning home for an Ojibwe dance. How do you feel about it? Another example: You might say when Whitecloud says the drum is the heartbeat of the universe, he is reflecting a common Native American belief about music, dance and drumming. How do you feel about it? There are literally hundreds of good directions you can take your paper. Whatever your thesis is, be sure to say how the story speaks to you. In writing your paper, follow this format:

  • Circumstances. Give a two- to four-paragraph introduction to your essay. Start by describing what's on your mind as you read the story, how you feel about it, what you had for dinner, what the weather's like, anything that sets the stage.
  • Background. Here's where you give the necessary information about the piece. You don’t have to dwell on this, but at least tell about Whitecloud’s background as an Obijwe who studied at Berkeley. The story is autobiographical, so this stuff matters.
  • Analysis. This is by far the longest part of the paper, and the most detailed. In many ways, it will read like other papers you’ve written in English and humanities classes. As always, argue a thesis. Support your thesis by quoting passages from the story and analyzing how they affect your response. Remember, in college-level writing, an unsupported thesis is sudden death!

Email me your paper at as a Microsoft Word attachment to the email message. If you do not follow the format stipulated above, or if I suspect plagiarism, your paper may be submitted to SafeAssign for screening. By turning in the paper for a grade in the course, you assent to such electronic monitoring.

Friday, March 07, 2008

HUM 221: 'Blue Winds Dancing'

If you want to read ahead over the weekend, here is a text of "Blue Winds Dancing" by Tom Whitecloud. We will write a reader response on it over spring break.


Did I say "we?"

I meant "you." You will write the paper over spring break. If you want to get started reading the story now, here's the link.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

HUM 221: Allotment, more on Oklahoma

Sometimes the people who tried the hardest to help Native American people did them the most harm. Many would say that is what happened when land held by the people in common were parceled out to individual Indians and the left-over or "surplus" land was sold to whites.

Ironically, allotment, as the process was called, was proposed by people who wanted to help the Indians by speeding their assimilation as American citizens (which most of them were not until 1924) rather than members of their own bands or nations. U.S. Sen. Henry Dawes, R-Mass., believed Indians should learn the cultural and economic values of whites, as he put it, to "wear civilized clothes ... cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property." He authored the Dawes Act of 1887, which mandated allotment of tribal lands formerly held in common by the tribe or Indian nation. The land was parceled out in individual farms, often to people who had no experience farming and no desire to farm, and the "surplus land" was sold to white settlers.

Problem was, not everyone had the Indians' best interests at heart. A lot of people were more interested in acquiring land. In Oklahoma, allotment led to settlement of much of the western part of the state by whites claiming ownership of former tribal land. At the same time, in the early 1900s, the U.S. government shut down the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribal governments, among others. It was all part of an overall effort to get Native Americans to assimilate to white culture; in fact, money from the sale of land was appropriated to schools where Indian youngsters were taught English and various menial trades.

Allotment also led to what was known as the "Oklahoma land rush," which was actually several "rushes" in which settlers raced onto newly opened land to stake claims. You can get a primary (first-person or eyewitness) account of the Oklahoma land rush of 1893 captures the sense of excitement -- and greed? -- when the Indian lands were opened to white settlers. Here's a video that sketches in (with a very broad brush) some of the effects of allotment on the Native peoples living in Oklahoma. The footage of the land rush is from a later Hollywood movie, but it is fairly accurate historically and is an iconic picture of the era.

You knew you were going to get to write something sooner or later, didn't you? Let's return to the (prose) poem "Autobiography" by Joy Harjo. She is of Muscogee heritage, and she speaks of her people's history and ends with "the Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn, the spiraling dance." You were asked to respond to it several weeks ago. Now that you know more more of the poem's cultural and historical background, is your response any different? Ask yourself the same three questions: (1) What stands out? (2) What in your background makes you feel that way? (3) What, specifically, in Harjo's poem do you respond to?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

HUM 221: '5 Civilized Tribes' in Oklahoma

While most of us think of the Trail of Tears as a tragedy that befell the Cherokee Nation, they were only one of five tribes that were forced to move to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s and 1840s. The others were the Creeks (Muscogee), who lived in Georgia and Alabama; the Seminole, who lived in Florida; the Choctaw, who lived mostly in Mississippi; and the Chickasaw, who lived in northern Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. White Americans of the 19th century knew them, without conscious irony, as the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they had adopted European-American forms of agriculture, government, religion and culture. In the Indian Territory (as Oklahoma was known before statehood), they joined the Osage, the Kiowa and other tribes already living there.

In class today, we will focus on the smallest of the five tribes that settled Oklahoma in the 1830s, the Chicakasaw. Closely related to the Choctaw, they once lived along the Tennessee River and west to Memphis, and now live in southeastern Oklahoma.

Read first Wikipedia's overview of the Chickasaw people and the historical overview and the cultural resources page on the official website of the Chickasaw Nation. The "Legend of the Big White Dog and the Sacred Pole" tells how the people got to their traditional homeland, and is also an unforgettable example of how myth and oral history relate to each other. Click on "Customs" and read the pages of marriage, religion and especially social dance. Pay special attention to the "Stomp Dance." One of the traditional festivals of all the "Five Civilized Tribes" was the Green Corn Ceremony, held when sweet corn ripens and the new year (in the traditional way of thinking) begins when the new crop comes on. Read the Wikipedia entries on the Green Corn Ceremony and the Stomp Dance. While people of the "Five Tribes" largely embraced Christianity, some elements of the traditional religion are preserved in the Stomp Dance and dance is properly considered to have religious overtones -- something like an old-fashioned gospel singing in the majority culture, which was both a religious and social event.

We will watch three videos. One shows Gary White Deer, explaining his work with a revival of Chickasaw and Choctaw song and dance. Listen for what he says about a "community of spirit" in the music. A very old clip shows men taking part in ceremonial dancing and (I believe) "going to water," a purification ritual. More recent is a video of a stomp dance at a pow wow in Oklahoma. Notice how everyone, of all ages, joins in the dance.

You knew you were going to get to write something, didn't you? Let's return to the (prose) poem "Autobiography" by Joy Harjo. She is of Muscogee heritage, and she speaks of her people's history and ends with "the Muscogee season of forgiveness, time of new corn, the spiraling dance." You were asked to respond to it several weeks ago. Now that you know more more of the poem's cultural and historical background, is your response any different? Ask yourself the same three questions: (1) What stands out? (2) What in your background makes you feel that way? (3) What, specifically, in Harjo's poem do you respond to?