Wednesday, March 31, 2010

HUM 221: "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz" - what does it sound like? Carlos Nakai (2 of 2)

Second of two posts on Carlos Nakai, the cedar flute and new directions in which he is taking the tradition. Be ready to blog your response to the music. Ask yourself these variations of the "three questions" we've been asking all semester, and take notes as we watch:
  • What stands out in your mind as you listen to the music? Which styles interest you? Which styles don't?
  • What in your cultural background, musical taste, etc., makes you react that way?
  • What, specifically, in the different styles of music do you react to? Do any differences in your reaction reflect cultural matters or your taste in the style of music, e.g. classical, jazz, rock? Post your response as comments to this blogpost.

R. Carlos Nakai, performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. As you can guess from his name for it, his music blends traditions from Navajo and jazz to synthesizers, punk rock and New Age.

"I build on the tradition of my culture," Nakai once told Paul de Barros in the Seattle Times [quoted on the eNotes website], "but not 'This is what happened to these people way back when.' This is what's happening to us today."

Nakai performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. Last year he explained what the traditions of the Navajo (Dine) people mean to him, and how seeks to convey them to a wider audience, as he accepted an award at the Heard Museum of Native American art in Phoenix:

We'll listen as he makes music in a jazz "conversation" - or improvisation - with William Eaton (guitar) and Will Clipman (percussion) last year in a Canyon recording studio. As you listen, please read the excerpt below from a CENGAGE learning module on Nakai's music.

CENGAGE says "Nakai's sound is difficult to describe without reducing it to the pigeonhole category of 'New Age' music" and adds:
In discussing Nakai's music, ethnomusicologist David McAllister points out that references to Nakai's Native American heritage are found throughout his repertoire.

He draws inspiration from mountains, valleys, canyons, wind, rains, sunsets, the scent of juniper, form wildlife, and from the earth itself. His music describes the Southwest particularly and has a vivid sense of his ancestors moving through this landscape. Anasazi ruins, immigration routes, and intertribal cultural references all have an important place in the liner notes of his recordings.

When the 'authenticity' of his work is questioned, Nakai is quick to point out that Native American cultures have been adapting and blending with other cultures since the dawn of time. He cites as an example the adaptation of the horse into Plains Indian cultures after its introduction by Europeans into North America. According to Nakai, Native American music—like most music around the world—is always in a state development and change:

Many of the traditional ceremonial chants that you hear today are very much unlike the chants based on the wax recordings and wire recordings that emanated out of the Smithsonian over time and are performed in a very different manner today. One reason is because of the influence of cultural change and the influence of different philosophies and ways of looking at how we are today.
We'll listen to Nakai at last year's Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, improvising with Keith Secola (of the band Wild Band of Indians) on guitar and Aaron Grigsby on drums.

We'll listen to some more of Nakai's music ... keep the three questions in mind and take notes on your answers, since you'll be writing about them.

Here he plays Reflection 2 from the CD "Reflections" by Mark Holland & Cory Edwards. Also: Mark Holland - Native American Flutes; Cory Edwards - Piano; Ranya Iqbal - Cello; and Jim Feist - Tabla (an East Indian hand drum).

Carlos Nakai plays for the First Nations Composer Initiative (FNCI) in Minneapolis. Below, he improvises in a more avant garde classical style with a cello player:

And here he performs a more traditional piece influenced by Wichita traditions:

Some added notes and links:
A video of Navajo ladies making fry bread outdoors at the community field day in Na'neelzhiin (Torreon), N.M. The fry bread, according to YouTube, was later served for lunch with mutton stew.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

HUM 221: "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz," Carlos Nakai, the Lakota (or Winnebago) courting flute, New Age and Native American traditions

Part 1 of a two-part series on the Native American flute. The second part will be posted during the Easter weekend. Ask yourselves: To what extent is this music rooted in traditional culture? To what extent has it transcended the boundaries of its cultural origins?

Until 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 we have another stereotype. 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. In today's marketplace, New Age music has influenced the way the Native American cedar flute is played and marketed. (If you want a refresher on New Age philosophy/spirituality in general, Wikipedia has an overview.) You'll recognize the sound of the flute when you hear it.

You'll probably even recognize the "SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz" sound of R. Carlos Nakai, who is among the best known Native American flute players. He has released more than 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. As you can guess from his name for it, his music blends traditions from Navajo and jazz to synthesizers, punk rock and New Age.

"I build on the tradition of my culture," Nakai once told Paul de Barros in the Seattle Times [quoted on the eNotes website for teachers and students, "but not 'This is what happened to these people way back when.' This is what's happening to us today."

Another singer-songwriter and cedar flute player, less well known than Nakai, is Randy Granger from southwestern New Mexico. Of mixed Mexican and Indian (Mestizo) ancestery, he's a working musician. Granger says he "often busks [plays for tips] at grower's markets when at home or on the road to keep his chops up and learn what songs are working and not," and he's performed with Opera Southwest, La Zarzuela de Albuquerque and alt rock bands "[s]logging it out in bars, clubs, weddings, funerals, on military bases, festivals, every ubiquitous type of gig musicians endure complete with drunk soundmen, psycho club owners, shifty bouncers, fights with other bands and the ever present Coffee Barrista's frothing milk." His CDs get heavy airplay on New Age stations but also have been nominated for the prestigious Native American Music Awards. Here Granger is performing at a Native American festival at at the Casa Grande national park in southern Arizona, where Hohokam Indians had an important village before the Spanish came in the 1500s. Its ruins are still visible today - you can see them in the background as Granger plays.

As far as we know, the cedar flute originated not in Arizona but among the Winnebago or Lakota Indians of the northern Great Plains. And flutes, panpipes and other wind instruments of various kinds were common to most indigenous peoples. Robert Gatliff, webmaster of the website and "the guy paying the rent for this site," has descriptions by European explorers and settlers going back to the Spanish in 1528. But the instruments first came to the attention of white Americans during the 1820s and 1830s in what are now the Dakotas and adjacent states. The Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison gave one romantic legend belonging to the Plains Indians in its notes on a Native American flute exhibit in 2008:
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.
Like other Native American arts, the old traditions of flute playing were nearly lost during the 20th century but revived as a "pan-Indian" art form, partly due to the interest of non-Indian educators. A video available from the Oregon Flute Store explains:

From those beginnings, other Native American musicians got interested in the cedar flute. One was R. Carlos Nakai of Flagstaff, Ariz. Of Navajo (Dine) and Ute heritage, Nakai is considered one of the "the world's foremost Native American flute performers" and "one of the first to meld his ancestral sounds with contemporary music and electronic instrumentation."

Nakai has worked tirelessly to promote the instrument and the ongoing Native American cultural renaissance in general. In this clip Charles Littleleaf, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, tells how he helped Littleleaf reconnected with the music of his own Native American heritage. More on Littleleaf is available on his website ...

Nakai performs with jazz bands, symphony orchestras and a variety of Asian musicians. Here he makes music in a "conversation" with William Eaton (guitar) and Will Clipman (percussion) last year in a Canyon recording studio. As you listen, please read the excerpt below from a CENGAGE learning module on Nakai's music.

CENGAGE says "Nakai�s sound is difficult to describe without reducing it to the pigeonhole category of �New Age� music" and adds:
In discussing Nakai�s music, ethnomusicologist David McAllister points out that references to Nakai�s Native American heritage are found throughout his repertoire.

He draws inspiration from mountains, valleys, canyons, wind, rains, sunsets, the scent of juniper, form wildlife, and from the earth itself. His music describes the Southwest particularly and has a vivid sense of his ancestors moving through this landscape. Anasazi ruins, immigration routes, and intertribal cultural references all have an important place in the liner notes of his recordings.

When the �authenticity� of his work is questioned, Nakai is quick to point out that Native American cultures have been adapting and blending with other cultures since the dawn of time. He cites as an example the adaptation of the horse into Plains Indian cultures after its introduction by Europeans into North America. According to Nakai, Native American music—like most music around the world—is always in a state development and change:

Many of the traditional ceremonial chants that you hear today are very much unlike the chants based on the wax recordings and wire recordings that emanated out of the Smithsonian over time and are performed in a very different manner today. One reason is because of the influence of cultural change and the influence of different philosophies and ways of looking at how we are today.

Improvisation is a natural component of most Native American music, and Nakai�s work is no exception. He seeks musicians as collaborators who can improvise and listen carefully to produce a performance that is a musical conversation. Almost all of Nakai�s recordings include improvisation.
First of two posts on Carlos Nakai and the cedar flute. The second will discuss Nakai's attitude toward his Dine (Navajo) heritage, Native American tradition and possibilities for fusion between Native and other art forms. How does his art reflect his heritage? How does it transcend it?

Monday, March 29, 2010

HUM 221: (un)quiz

What people lived on the Oraibi plateau (mesa)?

What is piki? How does one prepare it?

When did horses originate in the Old West (Great Plains)?

How good is your average buffalo’s eyesight? Why did this fact matter to the peoples of the Great Plains?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

HUM 221: 'Playing Indian' ... what do the Boston Tea Party, hippies, Dead heads, Campfire Girls and Boy Scouts have in common?

For Friday, March 26, be ready to express yourself in writing on what Mary B. Davis, writing in Library Journal, says, "Americans need Indians in order to define themselves as Americans," and "American views of Indians tell us much more about Americans than they do about Indians." What does this mean for American Indians? What does it mean for us in American popular culture defined more broadly?

Philip Deloria, a Native American studies professor at the University of Michigan, claims in a 1999 book titled "Playing Indian" (Yale University Press) that white Americans throughout history have appropriated symbols and customs from American Indians in working out their own identity in a new nation settled by European colonists. It raises complicated, troubling issues. On the one hand, these appropriations are an time-honored part of what sets us apart from Europeans. On the other, they can be humiliating or infuriating to the people whose cultural symbols we appropriate.

"Whether the focus is on the Boston colonists whooping it up, or on new age, counterculture types setting up tepees in back-to-nature settings," says reviewer Dianne Zuckerman in the Denver Post, "Deloria makes a convincing case for ways in which Americans have used Indian symbols and items for their own purposes and identities."

We won't have time to read the book, but today we will look at several reviews. (I recommend the book, by the way, if you're looking for something to read over the summer.) It is thought-provoking.

The publisher's blurb, quoted in the Barnes & Noble summary of the book, says:
The Boston Tea Party, the Order of Red Men, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Grateful Dead concerts are just a few examples of the American tendency to appropriate Indian dress and act out Indian roles. This provocative book explores how white Americans have used their ideas about Indians to shape national identity in different eras - and how Indian people have reacted to these imitations of their native dress, language, and ritual. Deloria points out that throughout American history the creative uses of Indianness have been interwoven with conquest and dispossession of the Indians. Indian play has thus been fraught with ambivalence - for white Americans who idealized and villainized the Indian, and for Indians who were both humiliated and empowered by these cultural exercises
A review in Library Journal by Mary B. Davis, Huntington Free Library in the Bronx, New York City, (as quoted on the Barnes & Noble and websites:
Americans need Indians in order to define themselves as Americans, asserts Deloria (history, Univ. of Colorado). Beginning before the Boston Tea Party, and continuing into the present, Americans have adopted Indian attire, images, and traditions for both political and individual needs. These acts separated us from our European forebears while creating a unique American identity with which we are only partially comfortable, declares the author. As the country evolves, the ways in which Americans identify with Indians also change. ... [Deloria] demonstrates how "Indian play" has always taken on new shape and focus to engage the most pressing issues of a particular historical moment, and he notes that American views of Indians tell us much more about Americans than they do about Indians.
From Kirkus Review, also quoted on the Barnes & Noble and pages, an unsigned reviewer says:
A provocative study of the role of American Indians in forming the character of the US. Following D.H. Lawrences observation that the American character is essentially paradoxical (wanting to savor both civilized order and savage freedom), Deloria (History/Univ. of Colorado) traces the tendency, apparent since the arrival of the first colonists, of Anglo-Americans to appropriate Native American dress, customs, and habits. It was no accident, Deloria writes, that the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party donned Indian headdresses before sending British cargo into the drink; they at once wanted to disguise themselves and proclaim a kind of solidarity with the continents first inhabitants. It allowed the restrained New Englanders to enjoy freedoms, and even a certain licentiousness, that wouldn't have been possible in plain clothes. Indian societies were deconstructed and imagined in American literature, in secret societies like the Tammany and Cayuga Wolf all-white tribes, and in more open organizations like the Boy Scouts, whose American founder, Ernest Thompson Seton, suspected real Indians of harboring unpatriotic sentiments. Deloria turns up fascinating oddments, including the story of one Colorado Boy Scout troop that went native to the point that the national organization tried to reeducate them, but the scouts managed to reconstruct the secret Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians so convincingly that Zuni elders built a special kiva for the masks the young men had made. Deloria notes that although the Boy Scouts of La Junta were not Indians, they were also more than simple, straightforward white boys. He is less admiring of the hippies, Deadheads, and modern New Agers who continue to appropriate elements of Native American religion and culture today. But in the end, he concludes, Indianness was the bedrock for creative American identities, but it was also one of the foundations . . . for imagining and performing domination and power in America.
All of this stuff can be very tricky and deeply controversial, as University of Illinois sports fans discovered several years ago when "Chief Illiniwek" was found to be a "hostile and abusive" stereotype that stereotyped and misappropriated Sioux (Lakota) Indian traditions. As we discuss these issues of cultural appropriation in class, we won't settle them. I doubt any of us will change anybody else's mind. But what we can do is to gain a better understanding of how people on all sides of the issue(s) feel about the issues and why they feel that way.

Monday, March 22, 2010

HUM 221: Wannabes, 'plastic shamans' and Native spirituality

HUM 221: We'll discuss this in class Monday, and you'll want to follow up by reading the linked documents.

We will touch on a deeply controversial topic, the extent to which Native American spiritual practices have been revived in recent decades and the extent to which they have been "commodified" or commercialized by outsiders.

Among the outsiders are "plastic shamans" and "wannabes." Both terms need some definition. A shaman, in Siberia where the term originated, is a traditional healer who mediates between the spirit world and the world of daily life. A traditional spirit healer made of plastic is just a contradiction in terms, right? Hence the joke behind the name. A "wannabe" is just somebody who wants to be something he is not. The "American Idol" show is full of wannabe musicians, for example, and karaoke clubs make their money off of wannabe singers. So white people who "wannabe" like Native Americans can go to a "plastic shaman" and try to buy the kind of spiritual "wisdom" that traditional people would fast and pray for years to attain. At least so goes the stereotype.

And there are plenty of websites all over the Internet to confirm the stereotype, although a lot of the New Age practitioners on the sites I've looked at do appear to be sincere in wanting to help people. Who am I to judge?

An explanation of why the pipe ceremony is the "basis of Lakota spirituality" by Ben Black Bear Jr. See also the explanation of Prayer with the Sacred Pipe and the comments on the pipe ceremony by Nicholas Flying By. Our descriptions of the pipe ceremony come largely from a Lakota elder named Nicholas Black Elk who described the old ways to a white writer during the 1930s. An account of Black Elk's conversion to Christianity and his activities as a Jesuit catechist (a sort of lay minister) is available on oLive Leaf, a Canadian website that also has a comparison between burning incense and sweetgrass.

The sun dance is a revival of an ancient Native American religious ceremony, once outlawed but legalized during the 1970s. Sun dances are held every year on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. (You'll notice, by the way, I'm not linking to any clips on YouTube. Most Native religious dances are not to be photographed.) The tribal government has some "Dos and Don'ts regarding the behavior and attitudes of all people who are uniformed about one of our customs."

Has the revival of Native American religions spread too far? Some believe that's the case, as whites have expressed an interest in the Native world view and incorporated some of its features into "New Age" philosophies -- and New Age marketing ventures that take some of the trappings of Native spirituality but trivialize its spirit. Rather than feeling honored by this, many Native people feel ripped off. Sharing their unease with New Age hype, according to Wikipedia, are "adherents of traditional disciplines from cultures such as India, China, and elsewhere; a number of orthodox schools of Yoga, Tantra, Qigong, Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and martial arts (the traditional Taijiquan families, for example), groups with histories reaching back many centuries in some cases."

In 1993, a Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality was adopted at the Lakota Summit, an international gathering of U.S. and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations. It says, "for too long we have suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian "wannabes," hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled "New Age shamans" and their followers."

Friday, March 19, 2010

HUM 221: Notes from class discussion

Please keep these in mind as you read the section(s) on spirituality in "Native North America" over the weekend.

Spirituality -- spirit (not material) – feeling – experience – life and death – God, higher being – deepest values by which we live – soul – right and wrong – feelings, personal thoughts – more individual, your own code – human being – feelings – personal – beliefs – freedom of belief – individual faith – the way you go about it – how you feel – belief in something higher – about your soul – individual soul

Religion – personal belief – ritual – practice – set of beliefs – belief in a higher power, God – beliefs you’re brought up into – a code to live by – rules – group – what you grew up with, family background – practice – what your family does – how you show your beliefs – more distinct and defined -- belief in God – fundamental sets of beliefs and practices – devotions of faith – practicing your spirituality – belief in God

Compare and contrast. What’s the same? What’s different? - Too close to decipher a difference - spirituality more individual than religion - how you show your spiritual beliefs – religion more distinct and defined than spirituality -

Soul –
Mind, inner self,

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Our Lady of Sitka in Cross-Town Traffic

Reprinted from The Sleepy Weasel, campus magazine of Benedictine University at Springfield (formerly Springfield College in Illinois), Volume 12, May 2008 at

Early May in southcentral Alaska is like March back home in Illinois. The snow and ice have melted away, leaving little moraines of rock salt and gravel along sidewalks and intersections. The sun’s warm, and it doesn’t set till 10 o’clock at night, but it’s chilly in the shade. It’s spring, all right, but it’s still early ... just before the rates go up, the cruise ships start arriving and the tourist season begins. So when my wife was invited to speak at a conference in Anchorage a couple of years ago, I tagged along and we experienced Alaska in a way other tourists might not.

The big attractions weren’t open yet, but open-air vendors already grilled hot dogs and reindeer sausage at noon outside the Old City Hall on 4th Avenue. We found a couple of funky little chowder houses, most of Anchorage’s bookstores and a nice Indian restaurant on Northern Lights Boulevard. We rented a car and visited off-the-beaten-path attractions like the Iditarod dog racing headquarters and a Salvation Army store in the Mat-Su valley (when we stopped at the Sally to ask for directions and use the bathroom). We saw at least a few traces of Russian Alaska, too, because we went looking for them.

Old St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church in Native village of Eknutna

I’ve always been fascinated with Russia, ever since I saw the Hollywood version of War and Peace starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha and Mel Ferrar as Prince Andrei. Later I even read the book. I’ll admit I was scared off by Dostoevsky. Too gloomy, too many monks and inquisitors for my taste. But Tolstoy is one of the few authors I keep coming back to. Once I visited the former Soviet Union, too, gawking at art galleries, museums and onion-domed cathedrals on a one-week tour of Moscow and Leningrad.

So I wanted to learn what I could about Russia’s colony in Alaska during the 1700s and 1800s, even though my knowledge of it comes mostly from James Michener’s novel Alaska. Since I teach a course in Native American cultural studies, I also knew the Russian missionaries had a unique way of dealing with the Alaska Native peoples. Nancy Bonvillain, whose book Native Nations we used as a text the semester before my Alaska trip, explains:

The missionaries followed policies set forth by church officials in Russia, who instructed the priests to respect the customs and cultures of indigenous peoples, learning native languages and translating the bible and other religious texts. They also opened schools in some coastal communities and established a seminary in the town of Sitka to train Aleut and Inuit coverts to become members of the clergy so that they could expand missionary work among their own people. (559)

It seemed like it would be an instructive contrast to the way all too many Christian missionaries operated in the “Lower 48” states.

So over the weekend before the conference, we drove down to Kenai on Cook Inlet where 19th-century Russian fur traders established a fort named for St. Nicholas and a church dedicated to the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The next day we took the Glenn Highway up to a Russian Orthodox church in the Native village of Eklutna, where brightly painted “spirit houses” in the graveyard combine Dena’ina Athabascan and Orthodox spiritual traditions. On my last day in Alaska, while Debi was speaking, I visited a museum on A Street at 6th Avenue, across the street from the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. It was a low, narrow building, about the size of two doublewide trailers set end-to-end, painted a vivid green and topped by a little cupola with a golden onion dome on top.

It was called the Russian Orthodox Museum and Cupola Coffee Gift Shop, and it wasn’t quite like anything I’d ever seen before. [1] Next to the A Street door was the gift shop, where you could buy a cup of espresso, a glass of Russian tea or an assortment of lacquered Russian souvenirs. A couple of small tables, like those in an old-fashioned ice cream shop, stood next to the espresso stand, and framed watercolors covered the available wall space.

To the left of the coffee shop was the museum display, with glass cases housing old books and manuscripts in Russian calligraphy, jewelry, icons and other artifacts including a striking priest’s vestment decorated with buttons in the Tlingit Indian style. Above the museum hung the wooden frame of a baidarka, or kayak, like those used by Russian missionaries who spread the word from Russian settlements at Sitka, Kodiak and Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. Behind it was a chapel, brightly lit and newly constructed with an iconostasis, a wooden screen on which icons, or religious paintings, were displayed. All the time I looked through the museum, there was music playing in the background.

The music was quiet and meditative, with the deep bass tones and complex harmonies I associate with the Russian choral tradition. I liked it immediately. I’m descended from two generations of church musicians in Norway, and I grew up listening to old-fashioned LPs of Bach cantatas and Lutheran chorales sung by the St. Olaf College Choir. I’m a member of my church choir (a bass, no less). I’ll drive hundreds of miles on two-lane blacktop roads to sing shape-note spirituals from the Sacred Harp or Christian Harmony. And I’ve written academic articles on the American folk hymns and camp meeting spirituals of the 19th century. In all, I have a strong interest in sacred music.

So I bought two CDs, an Akathist Service to Our Lady of Sitka and a collection of Russian Orthodox liturgical music dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska, an 18th- and early 19th-century Russian missionary on Kodiak Island. I usually do this on trips: I buy as many local books and CDs as I can cram into my airplane luggage, and when I get home I read and listen to whatever I bought. If nothing else, it’s a way of extending the vacation. So when I got home I was as happy as a pig in mud, reading up on Alaska, searching the Internet and ordering material on interlibrary loan.

* * *

Background. Russia’s colony in Alaska only lasted a little more than a hundred years, from 1741 to 1867, and there were never more than a few hundred ethnic Russians there, many of them Siberian fur traders. But Russian Orthodox missionaries left an enduring legacy, and the churches they planted in Alaska are considered the birthplace of the Orthodox Church in America. [2] Missionaries protected the Native peoples from harsh colonial exploitation, learned their languages and worked tirelessly to create synthesize Native and Russian spiritual traditions into something that honored both perspectives and brought them into harmony.

As the Russians intermarried with Unangan and Sugpiaq Aleuts, Yup’ik Eskimos and Tlingit and Dena’ina Athabascan Indians, their descendants – whom the Russians called Creoles – created what we would now call a multicultural society. [3] In fact, says historian Andrei Znamenski, the Russians and indigenous people from Kodiak, the Aleutian Islands and Siberia moved around and intermarried so much that “in speaking about Russian-native relations … we should use the definition of ‘Russian’ with large reservations” (6). Especially after Russia sold Alaska in 1867 and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 cut off funding for Russian missionaries, the Orthodox church was kept alive by Alaska Natives. And now, as a BBC News reporter noted in 2004, pilgrims from Russia travel to Alaska (Dixon). The Russian Orthodox church is the largest denomination in Alaska.

Father Michael Oleksa, who has taught at the Orthodox seminary in Kodiak and served parishes in western Alaska, Juneau and Anchorage, says Alaska Natives are ravaged by the effects of alcoholism, unemployment and poverty, like Native Americans in the Lower 48, and more basically by a secular society that erodes tradition and devalues their “essentially cosmic” spiritual beliefs. But he also says they have taught much to the Orthodox Church in America, and they have much to teach the world, for that matter, about how “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament His handiwork” (“Cosmic Christianity”). All in all, the story of the Russian Orthodox in Alaska has an epic sweep all its own. I think it is one of the great stories of American history.

Music and arts were always an integral part of the story. As the Russians set up parish schools, often they taught “reading, writing, and arithmetic, Biblical history, penmanship, music, and, at times, as many as four languages simultaneously: Russian, Old Church Slavonic, English, and a Native language,” according to Russian-American linguist Vyacheslav Ivanov. [4] In fact, the curriculum was basically the same as in Russia, where children learned their catechism, Church Slavonic, Russian, choir, counting and Russian history (Semyonova 45). Even where the Russians didn't learn the local language, as among the Dena’ina Athabascan Indians along Cook Inlet, they relied on Native Alaskan songleaders, teachers and lay leaders to communicate with their parishioners. Znamenski, who translated the journals of several missionaries to says “the major promoters of Orthodoxy among the Dena’ina were mixed-bloods of Russian-Aleut, Russian-Sugpiaq and Russian-Dena’ina origin and Dena’ina lay leaders.” Sometimes putting “their own creative spin” on Orthodox theology, they translated, taught the rudiments of singing the Russian liturgy and sometimes taught the language as well (27-32). In short, Russian Alaska was was multicultural and multilingual.

The Primary Chronicle, which tells of the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 822, tells how he sent emissaries to study Islam and Christianity. In Constantinople, they reported:

… the Greeks led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
From the beginning, Russian churches “sought to re-create this experience of beauty,” says American scholar James H.Billington in The Icon and the Axe, and the conversion of Kiev brought with it “a fresh flowering of Byzantine art and letters on Russian soil” (6-7). But there was always a purpose to the beauty; in a way, it was to duplicate the experience of Prince Vladimir’s emissaries and bring worshipers closer to God.

Over time, the esthetic became part of Native Alaska. S.A Mousalimas, an expert on shamanism in Siberia and Alaska, finds a sense of the presence of God in all of creation in Russian folklore and the common “ancestral Arctic cultures(s)” alike. He quotes Father Zossima, a character in Dovstovesky’s Brothers Karamazov, “the Word is for all: all creation, all creatures, every leaf, are striving towards the Lord, glorify the Lord, weep to Christ, and unknown to them, accomplish this” (119-21, 221). When reporter Tom Kizzia of The Anchorage Daily News attended a Christmas service in a Yup’ik village church a thousand years later, he was struck with a sense of continuity from “[f]rom Constantinople across Russia to Lower Kalskag, where in its own way, the beauty of St. Seraphim Church overwhelmed” (180-83). When kayaker Gail Ferris visited Kodiak in 1996 to study the antique baidarkas in a museum there, she visited Sunday services and bought a tape recording of Russian Orthodox singing. “I had never heard church music sung from the heart as this music is,” she said. “I played the music over and over again giving me great inspiration and peace of mind.” When she returned to her home in Connecticut, she joined an Orthodox church choir.

In Orthodox Alaska, Oleksa tells of Subdeacon Matthew Berezkin, an Aleut from Unalaska whose work transcended the hardships of what must have been a difficult life in a succession of Native villages in the bush of western Alaska:
Early in the [20th] century he was assigned to Kolmakovskii, on the Kuskokwim, but his Unangan wife deserted him after the death of their infant daughter near Chuathbaluk. Reduced to lay status, Berezkin remarried at Napaskiak and labored for nearly forty years, translating scriptural and liturgical texts and training readers and singers in English, Yup’ik and Slavonic years after his eyesight failed. These translations became part of Orthodox vespers, most of matins, and the fixed sections of the eucharistic liturgy. Choirs memorized the words and sang entire services by heart in their own language. (188)
Visual arts also flourished. In Sitka, where the Russians had their colonial headquarters, an icon was donated to the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in 1850 by workers of the Russian American Company, most of whom were Creoles of mixed Native and Russian ancestry. It was “written” or painted by imperial court artist Vladimir Borovikovsky in the style of Our Lady of Kazan, an icon that had inspired Russian armies to victory over Polish invaders in 1612 and over Napoleon in 1812. When it survived a fire that destroyed the old cathedral in 1966, it was considered a miracle. It is this icon that is celebrated in the CD of Alaskan hymns that I brought home from Anchorage.
* * *

Analysis. When I got back to Illinois, listening to my new CDs of Russian Orthodox music from Alaska turned out to be quite a different experience from what I’d expected. For one thing, I was almost totally unfamiliar with Orthodox chant.

I’d heard it exactly once before, and then only for a couple of minutes, when I toured Russia in 1981 with a bunch of college students under the watchful eye of a Soviet tourist guide. When we stopped at what was then known as the Lenin Hills overlooking the city of Moscow, the view was breathtaking, but some of us were more interested in a little church, white with green trim, set back from the overlook. We noticed people going in the church, so we slipped away from our Intourist guide and followed them inside.

It was like stepping into another world. Gold-framed icons covered the walls, incense drifted through the air, and two bearded priests in ornate vestments chanted over the clink of the incense pots. Everyone stood, the priests facing a group of older women wearing drab wool coats and babushka scarves. We stood there spellbound for several minutes, until the Intourist guide swept in and herded us back to the tour bus, scolding us for wasting time on what was to her a relic of bourgeois decadence when we hadn’t even seen the Lenin Museum yet.

It was one of the high points of that trip, but it didn’t prepare me for listening to the CDs I brought home from Alaska.

First I put on the CD of hymns to Our Lady of Sitka.

“Bless, master,” a soloist intoned.

“Blessed is our God, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” chanted another soloist, in response.

“Amen,” responded the whole choir, singing in harmony.

The choir went on from there, chanting and responing in the same antiphonal pattern, which reminded me of the call-and-response in the old camp meeting songs. An akathist, I learned from the Orthodox Wiki website, is a hymn to the Mother of God that follows a structure dating back to the 6th century. The Sitka akathis lasts 45 minutes, and none of it is what I would consider easy-listening music. The first time I played it, the telephone rang. I left the CD on while I answered the phone, and I checked my email after I hung up. The CD was still playing in the background.

Something like this happens when I try to meditate, too. I get distracted and wham, bam, the meditation is over.

Zen masters have a word for that –- they call it “monkey mind.” It happens to everyone. So the next time I played the CD, I decided to put my monkey mind to work. I popped it into the changer in my car on my weekly trip out to Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, where I was playing Appalachian dulcimer in the historic village that summer. It’s a 25-minute drive to New Salem from my house in Springfield, so I figured I could let my inner monkey watch the road while I listened to the music.

So I began to notice the rich harmonies as one of the soloists intoned:
With compassionate forethought for your Alaskan people, you have sent forth from your icon in the Cathedral of Sitka a stream of wonders enlightening the minds and souls of those lying in ignorance of God. Granting a safe haven and good fishing to those on the seas you protect all on their paths, and for this, in love we cry to you.
And the choir responded:
Rejoice, illumination of all men with the shining rays of your wonders.
Rejoice sight of the blind.
Rejoice, glory of Alaska.
Rejoice, calm haven of those seeking salvation.
Rejoice, pure Theokotos [Mother of God].
Rejoice, shelter and defender of children.
Rejoice, queller of the ocean’s fierce waves.
Rejoice, joy of all the poor and the afflicted.
Rejoice zealous defender
Of the Orthodox faithful in America. (5)
The CD was recorded by a men’s choir during a diocesean retreat in the spring of 2005, and it was sung as the icon of Our Lady of Sitka was taken on a pilgrimage of the “Lower 48” in September and October of that year. At a seminary in upstate New York, a writer for the official website described the same service I was listening to:
As twilight fell over St Vladimir’s Seminary, His Grace Nikolai, Bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska, gave blessings to the members of the community as they entered Three Hierarchs Chapel. His Grace stood at the top of the steps ready to greet the wonderworking Sitka Icon of the Mother of God. There was silence in the packed chapel as the faithful waited. Soon the icon was in the center of the church, the deacon intoned “Bless, Master,” and an Akathist service to Our Lady of Sitka began.

He continued:
The icon has been described as “so delicately and artistically done that the more one looks at it the more difficult it is to tear one’s gaze away.” One little girl, the daughter of a St Vladimir’s seminarian, seemed drawn to the icon as she stood and offered silent prayers to the mother of us all. With her stuffed animal under her arm, she reverently kissed the icon and was anointed by His Grace Bishop Nikolai with oil from the lamp that hangs before the icon.
The rest of the CD consists of six Native Alaskan hymns from the Divine Liturgy, the Orthodox service corresponding to the Catholic Mass or Protestant Holy Communion. Sung by a mixed choir of men and women from St. Innocent’s Cathedral in Anchorage, they’re not in English but in several of Alaska’s Native languages.

One is a bright, melodious setting of an ancient prayer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is sung to a Yup’ik traditional melody, according to the liner notes. It is followed by a Yup’ik version of the Cherubic Hymn, a part of the Eastern liturgy in which the faithful prepare to receive communion. It is stately and reverent, almost ethereal, a soprano descant soaring over the melody and grounded by a low, resonant bass that must be a full octave below the other voices. Another is a joyful version of the ancient text “Glory to God in the highest” is attributed to Bishop Alexi Ponteleif who established a bilingual school at Unalaska (Hudson). Another melody from the Pribilofs, with a text sung in Slavonic, sounds to me for all the world like a Christmas carol. I’ve been drawn to music like this all my life, especially the old American shape-note folk hymns ... simple, melodious, very singable pieces of music that were cherished and handed down by ordinary people far from the centers of power and artistic fashion.

When September came, and with it fall semester, class preps, faculty committee meetings, to-do lists and a daily cross-town commute, I found the music helped me focus on my way to and from classes. Even when traffic was backed up on North Grand and West Jefferson Avenue.

So I won’t claim popping a CD into the changer qualifies as spiritual practice, but it did give me a better perspective on life, even in heavy traffic.

When I came home from Alaska with my carry-on luggage full of books and CDs, I thought I was going to learn something about Alaska Natives. What I got instead was an enthusiasm for a kind of music I’d hardly known about before, and a new appreciation for the contributions made not only by Native peoples but also Eastern European immigrants to the diversity of American culture. In the fall I picked up another CD, with selections from settings of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky as well as Russian liturgical composers. I even bought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov over the summer, although I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. And currently I’m downloading material on Russian Orthodox hymnody from Novgorod State University’s website. I can’t say it’s making me an expert on Russia, or liturgy, but the music helps me forget my day-to-day crises and resentments when I listen to it, even in heavy traffic.

So if nothing else, I’ve added another selection to an nondescript playlist of sacred music that includes not only my Sacred Harp sprituals but also Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Marley (whom I consider essentially a Rastafarian gospel singer) and Willie Nelson singing “Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” As I listen to the Alaskan hymns I think of Subdeacon Berezkin translating liturgical hymns into Yup’ik in the bush of western Alaska until his eyesight failed, of the Creole workers who chipped in to buy the wonder-working icon of Sitka for their cathedral and of Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, for whom every creature, every leaf glorified the Lord.

Besides, anything that helps me resist the urge to honk and curse at other drivers in rush hour traffic on West Jefferson is all to the good.


[1] When I visited the museum, I didn’t take notes. So my recollection relies heavily on articles by Elizabeth Manning and Shiela Toomey in The Anchorage Daily News and a photo essay on the museum’s grand opening on the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska’s website.

[2] My broad interpretation of the history follows Lydia Black, Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867, and her paper “Fusion of Cultures and Meeting of the Frontiers: In Memory of Ordinary People.” I also am heavily indebted to Oleksa’s Orthodox Alaska; Sergei Kan, Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries, Andrei Znamenski’s introduction to Through Orthodox Eyes; and an article by Eric Powell, editor of Archaeology magazine, on excavations at Kodiak and Sitka. Of the online encyclopedias I consulted for various purposes, I found OrthodoxWiki the most useful and consulted it frequently.

[3] In referring to Alaska Natives, I follow the convention described by Tom Kizzia of The Anchorage Daily News as “using an uppercase N, a typographical clue used by newspapers in Alaska to distinguish indigenous people from the sons and daughters of pioneers” (7). The terminology for different Native peoples has changed over the years, and some of the changes have been controversial. The Russians, apparently, were no better at assigning names to the peoples they encountered than English- and French-speaking explorers. I simply follow the usage of my sources.

[4] Church Slavonic is an archaic form of Russian used in the Orthodox liturgy. My discussion of Russian Orthodox hymnody relies on Dimitri Conomos’ overview of Byzantine hymnody; Paul Barnes’ article “Music as Sacrament”; and the Novgorod State University website My Voice Shalt Thou Hear: Russian Orthodox Hymnody.

Works Cited

Akathist Service to Our Lady of Sitka. Anchorage: Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, 2005. 17 March 2008. PDF file available at

Akathist Service to Our Lady of Sitka, with other Alaskan Liturgical Hymns. CD. [Anchorage:] Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, 2005.

Barnes, Paul. “Music as Sacrament.” Orthodox Research Institute. 2001-2005. 17 March 2008.

Beautiful Beyond: Christian Songs in Native Languages. CD. Prod. Howard Bass. National Museum of the American Indian. Washington: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2004.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Black, Lydia T. “Fusion of Cultures and Meeting of the Frontiers: In Memory of Ordinary People.” Paper presented at Meeting of Frontiers Conference, Fairbanks, 17-19 May 2001. Library of Congress. 17 March 2008.

__________. Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004.

Bonvillan, Nancy. Native Nations: Cultures and Histories of Native North America. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2001.

Conomos, Dimitri. “Early Christian and Byzantine Music: History and Performance.” Library. May 2003. 17 March 2008.

Dixon, Martha. “Religious Legacy Lives on in Alaska.” BBC News. 12 Sept. 2004. 17 March 2008.

Ferris, Gail. “Kodiak Alaska to Paddle, Study the Aleut Baidarka and Adventures in Fine Driving: The Time I Rented a Ford Fiesta.” 1996. 17 March 2008.

Hudson, Ray. “Education at Unalaska.” Unalaska City School District Newsletter 1991. Rpt. Alaska Studies for Educators (ALST 300), Linda Green. University of Alaska Southeast. 17 March 2008.

Ivanov, Vyacheslav. Introduction. In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures. Exhibition, Library of Congress, Oct. 7, 1994 - March 4, 1995. 17 March 2008.

Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Kizzia, Tom. The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels Through Alaska’s Native Landscapes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Manning, Elizabeth. “New Museum Focuses on Orthodoxy in Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News 3 July 2005. 17 March 2008.

Metzger, Jim. “Alaskan Russian Orthodox Christmas: Starrring." Pulse of the Planet. National Science Foundation. 13 Jan. 2004. 17 March 2008.

Mousalimas, S.A. From Mask to Icon: Transformation in the Arctic. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004.

Novgorod State University. My Voice Shalt Thou Hear: Russian Orthodox Hymnody. 1998-2007. 17 March 2008.

Oleksa, Michael. “The Alaskan Orthodox Mission and Cosmic Christianity.” 1994. Jacob’s Well. 17 March 2008.

__________. Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.

Orthodox Church in America. Biographies of St. Innocent of Alaska; St. Herman of Alaska and St. Jacob, Enlightener of the Native Peoples of Alaska. 1996-2007. 17 March 2008.

__________. “The Divine Liturgy.” The Orthodox Faith: Worship. 1996-2007. 17 March 2008.§ion=The%20Divine%20Liturgy

Powell, Eric A. “Unearthing American’s Czarist Heritage.” Archaeology Sept. 2006: 59-64.

Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska. “Clergy Retreat, March 8-10, 2005.” 17 March 2008.

__________. “Grand Opening of the Russian Orthodox Diocese Museum and Cupola Coffee Shop On the Corner of A & 6th, Anchorage, Alaska, July 5, 2005.” 17 March 2008.

__________. “Pilgrimage of the Wonderworking Icon of the Mother of God of Sitka.” 2005. 17 March 2008.

__________. “History of the Wonder-Working Sitka Icon of the Mother of God.” 17 March 2008.

Toomey, Sheila. “Touch of Russia.” Anchorage Daily News 15 March 2006. 17 March 2008.

St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. “Wonderworking Icon Comes to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.” 17 Oct. 2005. 17 March 2008.

Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga. Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia. Ed. David L. Ransel. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.

Znamenski, Andrei A., trans. Through Orthodox Eyes: Russian Missionary Narratives of Travels to the Dena’ina and Ahtna, 1850s-1930s. Rasmuson Library Historical Translation Series 13. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Let Erin Remember the Days of Old" w/ notation in D! (but for bagpipe)

A song by Thomas Moore, the 19th-century Irish poet. It's one of a family of tunes including "The Red Fox" and, according to some authorities, the fiddle tune "Red Haired Boy." In O'Neill's collection of Irish fiddle tunes but known chiefly in America as a pipe tune. The embedded video shows the Newport AOH [Ancient Order of Hibernians] Pipe and Drum Band in the city council chambers, Newport, R.I., in February. They're playing "Let Erin Remember" as they march in.

Here they are again at Newport's Irish Waterfront Festival in 2009. And in a St. Patrick's parade in Pawtucket. And here's the Irish American East Side Pipes and Drums in New York City.

Perhaps the best version for learning the song is by Irish-American folk singer Tommy Makem in a medley with "The Minstrel Boy" ... from an old album. "Let Erin Remember" begins at 0:48. Also an evocative piano arrangement - perhaps the one you see in 19th- and early 20th-century sheet music - performed by "writerpaul," a YouTube member from Yorkshire. Lots of grace notes, counterpoint and passing tones that bring out things in the melody that would be well worth adapting for the dulcimer.

D-for-dulcimer alert!

The Pipes and Drums of the Jersey Shore Shillelaghs have printable standard notation in D (or E dorian)? The band is sponsored by the Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh of the Jersey Shore, Belmar N.J. Lyrics are widely available on line, including a version with
guitar chords in G ...

HUM 223: A Russian Orthodox priest talks about culture

In class today, I mentioned a Russian Orthodox priest in Alaska who has a very interesting take on culture. And I promised to put it up on the blog. Please read it for class Friday.

He's the Very Rev. Archpriest Michael J. Oleksa, He has worked for many years with Alaska Natives, first as a parish priest in what we would call Eskimo villages (more accurately Yup'ik and Alutiiq) and later at the Orthodox seminary on Kodiak Island and St. Innocent's Cathedral in Anchorage. His doctoral dissertation at the Orthodox Theological Faculty in PreŇ°ov, Slovakia, was on Native relations when Alaska was part of the Russian Empire, and he has written extensively on the Russian Orthodox church in Alaska. Father Oleksa's website has a nice common-sense definition of culture:
What's a culture? What's your culture? Do you have a culture?
Everyone does. The best definition of culture is "the way you see the world." But you can't SEE the way you see the world. Your own culture is always invisible to you. We can look at other people's cultures and not how they differ from our own, but we can't articulate our own very well.
There's more in a lecture called "Listen to the Other Guy's Story." It is taken from his keynote address to the Alaska 20/20 Conference: On the Future of Alaska in ____ sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum and the First Alaskans Foundation. An edited version appears on the LitSite Alaska website maintained by the University of Alaska Anchorage. Click on "History and Culture," and follow the link to "Cultural Heritage.")

Oleksa begins with a definition ... oh, I'll just let him speak for himself:
What’s your culture? It’s a hard thing to define, isn’t it? Look it up in the dictionary -- Webster is of absolutely no help. They’ll start with bacteria for one thing … But when we ask, “What is your culture?” how do you define that? How do you conceptualize it? Talking about your own culture is one of the most difficult things to do, because your culture is the air you breathe. It’s the aquarium into which you were born, and it’s very hard to imagine what life would have been like if you had been born in a lake or in the ocean. Your aquarium is your world. That’s one way of thinking of culture, but that’s limiting.

I’d like to think of culture as the way you understand the game of life. All games have certain rules and regulations that govern them, basic skills that have to be learned in order to win. If you were born into the culture that organizes conferences like this, you were born into a culture that takes time very seriously. It measures time. You have proverbs like “time is money,” and “don’t waste time.” You talk about time as if it were a quantity or a location. Time is something you can be on or ahead of or behind, and that’s why you have to kill a lot of time before it gets you.

If you were born in rural Alaska, however, you don’t necessarily have that sense of time at all. It’s a different ball game, and that’s the first point I want to make. If your culture is the game of life as you play it, because it’s the only aquarium you’ve ever been in, we often assume that our ball game is the only ball game there is -- that everyone plays life the same way, according to the same rules, with the same presuppositions and with the same goals. Then, when you go to another culture, you’re suddenly up against another ball game and you realize not everybody’s playing on the same field with the same equipment, using the same skills to score the same points.
See what's going on here? Alaska Natives, to generalize way too much, are not as bound by time constraints as most Americans. They're not as likely to keep watching the clock and split their time into five- and 10-minute segments as the rest of us are. That means they operate at a disadvantage when they get to a big city like Anchorage (250,000 population) where buses run on time, appointments are scheduled exactly and people live by the clock. It's like playing a different ball game.

But Oleksa also says cities like Anchorage have an advantage because they're culturally diverse. You get Eskimos, Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, recent immigrants from at least a dozen Asian nations, Russians, Europeans and Americans of all different ethnic backgrounds. (In fact, you hear people call Anchorage the "biggest Native village in Alaska" because so many live there.) He continues with his culture-as-ball-game metaphor, and then he says culture is also like a story. Let's follow him:
There are more than a hundred cultures in Anchorage. This means we have the opportunity here to learn a whole lot of other ball games. We can all be like Michael Jordan who is competent in his own culture, as he was in basketball, but who took the risk of going off to the White Sox to play baseball for a change. I’d like to interview him about that experience. He was very competent, one of the best ever in his own ball game, but he left it behind to attempt to learn somebody else’s game and did not succeed with nearly the same glory. I’d like to ask him how much more he appreciates baseball players and the game of baseball now that he tried and didn’t become a superstar.

You see, that’s the problem. With our own culture, we can be competent. We grew up with it. We absorbed its rules without even noticing. We understand time and space and nature our way, the way our friends and neighbors do, the way our own native culture did. But here in Alaska, we have the tremendous opportunity to discover new ways of seeing the world, of understanding reality, of comprehending what it means to be a human being -- and not just by learning one more game, but potentially dozens.

We may never be good at the other guy’s game. We should admit that. We’ll always be more competent, I think, at our own. But we can enjoy and delight in the fact that ours isn’t the only game in town. That’s one definition of culture – the game of life as you play it.

There’s another definition that someone pointed out to me a few years ago. It comes from a book, actually. Similar to my idea of culture as game, it’s culture as story. What’s your story? Not your own story, but the story that started in your culture before you were born. Who were your grandparents? How were they educated? Did they have any formal schooling? Where were they born? In what kind of a community? In what part of the world? And your parents -- how did they meet? Where did they come from? What were their collective expectations for you?

This is how culture is transformed into community. A community in the modern world is a collection of cultures harmoniously interconnecting and interrelating. We have to build community deliberately in the modern world. Community used to be there as a given -- your village community, the village of Koliganek that I just left, the village of Old Harbor where I first entered Alaska.

The village is pretty much a homogenous community, already intercultural, because the village has absorbed the newcomers of the last century or two, and indigenized them. It made them members of that community, part of that community’s history, part of its story, members of its church, parents to its children, Godparents to its other kids -- connected harmoniously.

This is harder to do when you have a city of a quarter million and over a hundred cultures. To build community will take commitment and effort. We have to be committed to it. We have to want it. We have to work toward it. ...
So culture and community are connected, and basically culture is the whole system of beliefs and attitudes and customs, art, music and everything else that surrounds us and makes us who we are. Like any other metaphors, Oleksa's are inexact. They don't fit precisely. But they're worth thinking about. How does culture shape us? How does it shape our art? How can our art help us transcend culture?

HUM 221: Native American spirituality

Cherokee beliefs are not out of line with those of the 500 other federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, bands and nations. Today we'll try to put them in context.

Perhaps the most reliable brief overview of spiritual and religious issues is in the the webpages on Native American Spirituality put up by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. According to OCRT's Wikipedia profile, it has more than 5,000 profiles of different religious groups and beliefs, and it tries to be neutral. Of Native belief systems, OCRT says:
Many followers of Native American spirituality, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a "religion" in the way in which many Christians do. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their very being.
Preliminary question: What's the difference between religion and spirituality? What's the definition of each? How are they similar? How are they different?

Go to the OCRT directory and link to the page on "Quotations; Introduction; & Origins of Native Americans and read the three quotes at top. Consider each: Is it religious? Is it spiritual? Is it both? Be ready to post your answers, and explain them in writing, if class discussion lags.

Read the rest of the page, especially paying attention to the connection between subsistence and spiritual beliefs.

Go back to the directory and link to the page headed "Development of Aboriginal culture. Absorption of Native beliefs & practices. Tribal recognition" and read it. Note what the Lakota tribe says about "non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled 'New Age shamans' and their followers." What are their reasons for this attitude?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Furthur in Orlando Feb. 6 and Grateful Dead's 'And We Bid You Goodnight'

Set list for Hard Rock Live concert in Orlando Feb. 6, 2010, on website.
Heard this morning on, Furthur singing "And We Bid You Goodnight" on their recent concert tour. Available on line an audio clip from their Feb. 6 concert in Orlando and a whole host of YouTube clips with fuzzy video and audio that isn't much better. Some tour coverage in Glide magazine. Turns out it's a cover of a old, funky spiritual from the Bahamas.

Hadn't heard the song before. Loved it. Googled it. Found out from the Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder it was "[s]ung a capella by the Grateful Dead to close many of their concerts in the late sixties and the beginning of the seventies - and then revived again in 1989-91." It's a funeral song. Complete lyrics and discography of earlier versions, including Martin Carthy and Aaron Neville (whose version is definitely worth a listen, too), tracing back to a Nonesuch vinyl LP including a field recording of Joseph Spence and the Pindar family of Andros, in the Bahamas. A full audio clip (2:48) available on the Nonesuch website. Here it is below, as the Grateful Dead performed it July 17, 1989, at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wis.

In the thread in Mudcat Cafe, someone worked out chords for the Martin Carthy-Watterson Family version like this:
[C] Sleep on beloved, [F] sleep and take thy [C] rest
Lay down thy head up-[G]on thy [C] Saviour's [G] breast
[F] We love thee well but [C] Jesus loves thee best
Good-[F]night, good-[G]night, good[C]night
Also in Mudcat Cafe, extended quotation from liner notes on the Real Bahamas album (Nonesuch, 1965) concerning a "distinctly Bahaman style of singing [that] developed simultaneously with the ... American Negro spiritual." As quoted by a participant in the thread, screen name Barbara, the notes add:
The "rhyming spiritual" is the distinctive Bahaman type of religious song. "Rhyming" simply means pronoucing rhymes against a melodic background of voices. The rhymer -- the lead singer -- sings a memorized or improvised rhythmic narrative part that continues to build in intensity while the other singers repeat a chorus behind him -- that is, they sing the song. Traditionally, the song contains some specific Biblical reference; the rhyming is an emotional musical exposition of the pertinent Bilbical story -- or it is in some manner related to the subject matter of the song. The rhyming style reached its greatest heights during the sponge fishing in the 1930s.

There is a West African tradition of singing sermons which has been carried on, and perhaps even improved upon, in the New World. All through the American South and in the Northern Negro ghettoes, church services are conducted by preachers who bring their congregations to the point of hysteria by the gradual transition during the sermon from speech to song -- song of trememdous intensity and power. Rhyming seems to be the combination of the traditions of singing sermons and African drum and bell rhythms. The basic rhythmic pattern in rhyming is one that is found often in contemporary West African intrumental music, carried by the drums or tongueless bell -- a rhythm that has been popularized in America and recently in England, as the "Bo Diddly Beat." While there is some drumming in the Bahamas (practiced most probably by the descendants of those Negroes who were brought directly to the Bahamas from Africa), it had been forbidden in the mainland colonies and had to go underground so that the Negroes who moved to the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands after the Civil War developed a song accompaniment of intricate handclapping to make up for for the lost drums and bells. In the Bahamas, where there is little hand-clapping, the singing sermon became the means for utilizing this and other rhythms. Other features of African music, such as the call-and-response vocal pattern, all found their way into Bahaman song.
The latter part of "And we bid you goodnight" is a rhyming spiritual.

HUM 221: Cherokee religion ... gospel sings and a 'harmony ethic'

We'll gloss over some of the surface points in class today, but you'll want to read the linked material. Be forewarned: Sometimes I've based the 50-point question on the final exam in HUM 221 on these readings, other times it's been one of the 25-point questions. (You do realize what I'm telling you, don't you?) We'll begin with their gospel singing tradition, and move on to the way their traditional religion and philosophy sought to create a balanced way of life. Warning: There's a lot of shlock written about Native American spirituality, but I have tried to sift through the material available on the World Wide Web and link you to legitimate sources below.

Gospel music

The Cherokee, both in Oklahoma and North Carolina, have a strong tradition closely allied with Southern gospel singing. In Ron Ruehl's 1998 documentary The Principal People: Eastern Cherokee History and Culture, the old hymn "Amazing Grace" is sung as background music to scenes of the Trail of Tears. That is historically accurate. It is one of several hymns associated with the forced removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma in 1838, and the song is considered an unofficial Cherokee anthem.

While Cherokee religious practices varied -- and still do -- a number of them had converted to Christianity by the time of removal. They were known as enthusiastic hymn singers, and one missionary who visited Georgia and Tennessee in 1837 said the Cherokee sang "with far more correctness, as regards time, enunciation and effect than what is found among white congregations" (Robinson 48). William G. McLoughlin, in a study of missionaries to the Cherokee before removal, cites a contemporary Baptist publication that counted more than 500 Baptists alone on the Trail of Tears and says "throughout the long trip they held regular services and sang their hymns in Cherokee to keep up their spirits" (326). One of those hymns, according to oral tradition, was "Amazing Grace."

One of the first books translated into Cherokee in Sequoyah's new alphabet, in fact, was a hymnal first published between 1828 and 1835 and still used today. Its version of "Amazing Grace" is a free translation, and it has been translated back into English like this:
God's son
paid for us,
then to heaven He went,
after paying for us.

But He said,
when He rose,
"I'll come again,"
He said when He spoke.

All the earth will end
when He comes.
All will see Him
All over the earth.

All the good people living
He will come after.
Heaven always,
in peace they will live. (Robinson 5-6)
For more information: The text of "Amazing Grace" is also available in English, Cherokee transliteration and Sequoyah's syllabary on a website put up by a group of people of Cherokee heritage from California. The late Will Wiley Rogers, who wrote a guest workshop on the hymn for the website for classical musicians, has more information and links. One of the links will take you to the official Cherokee Nation website, which has downloadable MP3 files of "Amazing Grace" and other gospel songs from a CD cut in commemoration of the Cherokee National Holiday in 2000. It's worth a listen. (Follow link to directory of downloads.) The best all-around source is Willena Robinson, Cherokee Hymns: History and Hymns (Tulsa: Cherokee Language and Literature, n.d.). McLoughlin's book is Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

'Harmony ethic'

  • In a 1998 article titled "Maintaining Balance: The Religious World of the Cherokees" she wrote for the Tar Heel Junior Historians program of the North Carolina State Museum, Karen Raley sums up 250-plus years of Cherokee history, religion and cultural adaptation.
  • Michael Garrett, a counselor and education professor at the University of Florida, has written several popular books on how readers can apply traditional Cherokee values to increasingly fragmented, busy 21st-century lives. He is excerpted on the Web.
You should read these authors for yourself, but I will summarize part of it here. I will also link to sources on a Cherokee "harmony ethic" that aims to maintain balance in relations between people.

"Like other native peoples," Raley says in her Junior Tar Heel Historian article, "the Cherokees did not try to rule over nature but instead tried to keep their proper place within it." The key to doing this was balance, which meant conserving the gifts of nature and doing right to others. "When Cherokees gathered medicinal plants in the forest," for example, "they harvested only every fourth one they found, leaving the other three to grow undisturbed for a future use." Raley adds:

All of these practices contributed to the balance of their world. The Cherokees believed that if the balance of nature was upset, everyone would have trouble. They feared a loss of balance could cause sickness, bad weather, failed crops, poor hunting, and many other problems. Humans were responsible for keeping the balance within themselves and between the animals, the plants, and other people.
To this end, their stories and legends were about harmony and balance. So was their traditional religion.:

Native American peoples did not use a word such as “religion,” but, as you have read, every part of their world had a sacred connection or religious meaning. Their ideas of religion were everything to them. They believed the world should have balance, harmony, cooperation, and respect within the community and between people and the rest of nature.

Cherokee myths and legends taught the lessons and practices necessary to maintain natural balance, harmony, and health. Cherokee songs, dances, stories, artwork, tools, and even buildings expressed the moral values of their culture. The Cherokee homeland and its mountains, caves, and rivers also carried symbolic meanings and purposes.
During the 1700s and 1800s, many Cherokees converted under a U.S. government “civilization” policy "intended to convert the natives to Christianity and to pacify them." But, Raley says, the old values of harmony and balance found their way into the Cherokee practice of Christianity:

In time, the New Testament of the Christian Bible was translated into Cherokee and written in the Cherokee syllabary. Scriptures, hymns, and services also began to be spoken in the Cherokee language. Still, communities blended older Cherokee values like respect and sharing into the practices of their new Christian churches. Some of the traditional Cherokee healers even became ministers or elders in Christian churches.

Today, about ten thousand Cherokees live in North Carolina. Most of them are Christian, but traditional ideas can still be found in the use of traditional plants for healing, dances that reinforce the Cherokee identity, references to some of the old sacred Cherokee sites, and a festival that is held each year at Green Corn time.
Raley's article is written for high schoolers, but it is by far the best brief introduction available on the Web about Cherokee values, religion and spirituality.

An excerpt from Medicine of the Cherokee (1996) by Michael Garrett and his father J.T. Garrett appears on the website. It is accurate in its summary of the harmony ethic, even if it has some overtones of pop psychology. In it, they say people can change their lifestyle by adapting Cherokee ways:

There is something known as the "Harmony Ethic," based on the communal spirit of cooperation and sharing, which guides much of traditional Cherokee living. It is a way of life that gives purpose and direction to much of our interaction in this world. In Cherokee tradition, wellness of the mind, body, spirit, and natural environment is an expression of the proper balance of all things. If we disturb or disrupt the natural balance of ourselves or others, illness may be the result, manifesting in the mind, body, spirit, or natural environment. However, all aspects are affected by such disturbances of the delicate balance as we easily realize when we abuse ourselves or others.

The Harmony Ethic is a way of maintaining the natural harmony and balance that exists within us, and with the world around us. ...
The Garretts say it includes:

  • A nonaggressive and noncompetitive approach to life. ...
  • The use of intermediaries, or a neutral third person,
    as a way of minimizing face-to-face hostility and disharmony in interpersonal relations. ...
  • Reciprocity and the practice of generosity ... even when people cannot afford to be generous. ...
  • A belief in immanent justice ... [that] There is a natural order to things, and, sometimes, there are situations or experiences that are "out of our hands", so to speak. ...
Some other links, if you're really interested:

  • "Cherokee Values and World View," an unpublished but frequently cited paper by Native American anthropologist Robert K. Thomas, who in 1958 defined the harmony ethic like this: "The Cherokee tries to maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships with his fellow Cherokee by avoiding giving offense, on the negative side, and by giving of himself to his fellow Cherokee in regard to his time and his material goods, on the positive side."

  • An anonymous customer's review of Sharlotte Neely's Snowbird Cherokees: People of Persistence (1993), a book that's well worth reading itself: "The most useful thing about this book for someone who knows nothing else about the Cherokee is that it explains how the 'harmony ethic' is still a part of the way Cherokees live, and how it has subtly changed the Cherokee way of practicing Christianity, and how we deal with modern political and economic life. It shows that it is possible to be "traditional", in a sense, while being fully engaged with the modern world. It also shows that Indians are not the cardboard cutouts so often seen in the movies, or in 'New Age' explorations of native spirituality. ... If you read this, back it up with [John] Finger's broader histories of the Eastern band, [James] Mooney's classic exploration of Cherokee mythology, and, if you take them with a grain of salt, the Garretts' 'Cherokee medicine'" series. Then, take a trip to Graham County, preferably around Memorial Day weekend when you can be a part of Snowbird's annual 'Fading Voices' festival at Little Snowbird Church, stopping in Robbinsville [N.C.] to visit the Junaluska Burial Place. You'll be welcomed, but if you can't make it Snowbird, this book is the next best thing."

An excerpt from Michael Rutledge's Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness is available on line at Rutledge, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a law student at Arizona State University. He tells a legend to illustrate how the traditional "strict liability law for any killing" played out when a woman killed a rattlesnake and the snake's kismen demanded vengeance.

Do we have anything like a “harmony ethic” in American popular culture today? If so, what is it? How does it work? Post as comments to the top blog post.
For Wednesday, read the post, the linked documents and each other’s comments.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

'Corrine Corrina'

Big Joe Turner's 1956 R&B version on Atlantic records is the one I first heard, and still seems to me the "Corrine Corrina." All the rest, to me, are pale imitations. Even if they predate this one. As many do. Turner's lyrics are available on line, and you can even see the old 45rpm Atlantic label on the YouTube clip.

A very nice bluesy version at an easygoing tempo by TamboGnola Sconnection, a "band on the roots" of Pavia, in Italy - also a very nice live audio version on their MySpace page.

It's also a western swing standard. On YouTube:
Haggard's has been tabbed out for guitar (in D! yay!) beginning:
[D] I love Corrina; tell the world I do ... [D7]
I love Cor-[G] rina; tell the world I [D] do
Just a little more [A7] lovin'; Let your heart beat [D] true.

[D] Corrine, Corrina; Where've you been so long? ... [D7]
Corrine, Cor-[G] rina; Where've you been so [D] long?
Ain't had no [A7] lovin'; Since you've been [D] gone.

Bob Dylan's cover doesn't really follow either the tune or the lyrics (it sounds almost like "Girl from the North Country" to me), but it has a kind of nice walking rhythm that's worth studying a little. YouTube has an audio clip, and the lyrics are also available on line, including a verse that goes:
I got a bird that whistles
I got a bird that sings
I got a bird that whistles
I got a bird that sings
But I ain't a-got Corrina
Life don't mean a thing.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dutch magazine on music - plus a symposium paper and definitions of 'creolization'

Found while trying to track down a definition of *creolization, a term used in "Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music" by James P. Leary ... an article in, a magazine or "journal on media culture" with this story:

"Global sounds and local brews: Musical developments and music industry in Europe" by Paul Rutten, July 1999. The blurb:
In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe" and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This critical contribution, written by Paul Rutten himself, treats the subject of the local interpretations and uses of global trends in popular music.
Rutten cites Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1992) and says a "creole culture is a culture which developed out of an interaction process of two or more different cultures in such a way that the new culture better serves as meaning system to sustain communal life in the context in which it developed, then the cultures from which it has been constructed. Creolization points to the processes that underlie the development of a creole culture."

Other articles in Soundscapes that look interesting:
  • "The music matters: An analysis of early rock and roll" by Joe Burns. April 2003. Burns "analyzed a sample of 100 rock and roll songs, from the years 1955 through 1959, on chord progressions, time signatures, and melody lines.
  • "Marks of the Dorian family" by Ger Tillekens. Nov. 2002. Says Tillekens, "Popular music, as Peter van der Merwe (1989) argues in his book Origins of the popular style, first and for all is modal music."
  • "American popular song: Sharing the standards of the American sound" by Howard S. Becker. July 2002.
  • "One continent under a groove: Rethinking the politics of youth subcultural theory" by Ben Carrington and Brian Wilson. Nov. 2001. ... Ben Carrington and Brian Wilson here take us on a short trip from Chicago to Birmingham and beyond, trying to reformulate the problematic of the "local" and the "global".
  • "Words of love and isolation: Individualism and alienation in popular love songs, 1930-1999" by Thomas J. Scheff (october 2001). Since modern Western societies focus on individuals rather than relationships, we would expect individualist, rather than relational patterns in U.S. popular lyrics. Investigating this hypothesis Thomas Scheff counted romance words in all titles in the Top 40 for a seventy-year period, and analyzed the discourse of romantic lyrics for one sample year in each of seven decades.
And a lot more besides, from "Silent Night" to chord progressions in the Beatles ...

* Creolization may be of interest not only in understanding fiddle music of the upper Midwest but also the African-American spirituals. The Department of Sociology at Warwick University in the UK has a list of definitions including Hannerz' ... says the intro: "... Creolization recognizably emerges in certain historical settings - plantation economies, often populated by African slaves, European settlers, Asian indentured workers and indigenous peoples. But the power of the concept now has ramified and is used in many different and contemporary settings. Our second conceptual question is whether in changing the setting we lose the force of the original concept or, more positively, realize its immanent potential? At this moment, on this site, we do not want to close options, but open them. So we have provided a list of key quotations on the concept of creolization we have found helpful and insightful."

Raquel Romberg of Swarthmore College has an essay from a postcolonial theoretical perspective "Revisiting Creolization" on a bulletin board from a 2002 symposium at the University of Pennsylvania. Cites W.E.B. du Bois, among others.

Best definition I found so far wasn't in an academic publication but the Louisiana Voices Glossary put out by the Louisiana Division of the Arts of the state Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, which also warns - in the entry on "Creole," that the term is laden at least in Louisiana with racial baggage. The definition:
Creolization -- a complex process of cultural borrowing and lending in a region with many different cultural influences.
We don't usually think of it that way, but the definition applies as much to the upper Midwest as it does to Louisiana.