Pop Cultured: Roots in America: Indigenous music

Bill Miller performs center stage for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Music Masters Tribute to Johnny Cash (Photo courtesy of Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer)

America is known for its diversity, but it is important to remember its roots in Indigenous culture. For this week’s column, we explore various Indigenous cultures through their music.  

According to an article titled, “Native American Music,” by the Texas State Historical Association, music is an important part of Native American ceremonial life. Rhythm sticks, rattles made from gourds, whistles and flutes are crucial instruments. Singing is also an important part of Native American music. 

According to an Encyclopedia Britannica article on Native American music written by Victoria Lindsay Levine, who is a professor of music and co-author of a book on American Indian music, the genres of Native American music depend on the different communities in different regions. 

Levine said Native Americans usually borrowed songs from neighbors or sometimes shamans would get inspired by a dream to produce music for holidays and ceremonies. It was seen as a great achievement if a member of the tribe could sing and dance well. According to Levine, being able to do both meant the member of the tribe was mentally and physically strong.  

According to Levine, Native Americans don’t judge based on music quality but more on audience reaction. Native American music is not only about singing and dancing, but also the connectivity of spirituality and community. Powwows are a big event that originate from Native American culture where music, dance and other festivities come into play. 

“Native American music is not only about singing and dancing, but also the connectivity of spirituality and community.”

Despite language barriers, music can still unite people. One playlist on Spotify highlights instrumental songs performed by Native Americans and is heavily based on the flute, which can be a good way to relax. If you prefer songs with lyrics, Bill Miller is a popular Native American artist from the late 20th century. 

According to his website, Miller was born in Wisconsin and grew up on the reservation of Mohicans. His songs were inspired by his Native American heritage. Nowadays, Miller continuously indulges himself in the fine arts and Native American activism. He has won several awards for his music including Grammys, Lifetime Achievement awards and awards at the Native American Music Awards. The Native American Music Awards and Association was founded in 1998 to appreciate traditional and contemporary Native American music. 

“Native America is a culture and a people deeply stemmed and intertwined in music since the onset of their existence,” states the National Association of Native American Music webpage. “We have a song for every aspect of life; ceremonials, sports and dance to courting, birth and death. We have survived incredible oppression and challenges. Today, we celebrate our survival through music and dance. With the increasing popularity of today’s Native American music, the Native American Music Association is helping Native societies transform as our music provides a continuing capacity for community renewal and cultural enrichment.” 

Check out some Spotify playlists here: 

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