Magazine Issues

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Issue # 1

Issue # 1

Article Listing


Indians in Cyberspace
by Mike MacDonald

Who is
by Cheryl L'Hirondelle

First Nations in Cyberspace
by Mike Patterson

Image Credit: NASA JPL-Caltech E. Churchwell University of Wisconsin


First Nations in Cyberspace: Two Worlds and Tricksters - Where the Forest meets the Highway

by Mike Patterson

Return to Table of Contents

4.1 The Fiddle and the Drum

Among the Iroquois in the 1600s,[19] the Jesuits had trouble trying to enforce a wholesale acceptance of their religion[20] and music, because the Iroquois wanted to use the white religion on their own terms. "In the same way that the Jesuits initially responded to Huron customs from their own European cultural perspective, the Huron seem to have interpreted European (French) beliefs and practices according to their own concepts and signifying systems" (Grabell 1990: 96). So while the Jesuits viewed Native healing songs as satanic howling, the Wendat (and Iroquois) viewed Jesuit singing as a powerful intonation of a new type of spirit society. The Jesuits were often asked to pray at Native healing ceremonies, and Natives would use traditional invocations during Christian services (1990: 96-97).

A further example of cultural borrowing is the early Native adoption of the violin (or fiddle), an instrument which represents European musical culture, and was at the zenith of its popularity in the 1700s and 1800s. During the era of the fur trade in Canada, French and Scottish traders and settlers socialized at fiddle dances. Natives in contact with white settlements were drawn to the dances, and the fiddle.

The fiddle was portable and loud enough to stimulate gatherings. Rolling Stone magazine described the fiddle as "the electric guitar of the 19th century: loud, portable and flashy" (in Pinto 1994: 70). From the beginning, fiddle music and accompanying dances and gatherings interfered with traditional Native ways. Handsome Lake of the Iroquois forbade the use of the fiddle, and Ojibwe Midewiwin teachers around the Great Lakes found their lodge attendance dwindling as Saturday night fiddle dances took over.

Much as Native traditionalists (and the clergy) would protest, the fiddle gained popularity. Basil Johnston describes the early days of dances and fiddling on the reserve in his story "What is Sin ?" Priests and the police were working to eliminate drinking and dancing parties on the reserves, while "the dancers continued to meet secretly... the square dance loving Indians scheduled the Saturday night November dances in a remote part of the reserve, " and in order to distract authorities, "Kagige was for assaulting the priest and even raising a small party of men to howl outside his residence for several hours every night for several nights" (1978: 76-78).

The fiddle was the instrument most adopted by Natives during early colonization, and this resulted in some new hybrid music styles and in survivals of both Native and European styles and tunes. Musically, the fiddle allowed for a syncretism of European and Native musics, wherein both traditions are distinct within a new music. Anne Lederman works with Metis fiddlers, in Saulteaux communities in western Manitoba, composed largely of descendants of Ojibwe who migrated from Sault Ste. Marie in the late 1700s, in pursuit of the fur trade. Marriages or alliances "in the manner of the country" with French and Scottish traders created the Metis communities there today.[21]

It is in the musical traditions of the Saulteaux communities that we can perhaps most easily see the mixed legacy of the past 200 years... even though it is their mother tongue, no one seems to sing Ojibwa songs anymore. Fred Mckay, born in 1908, says he never heard any "powwow music" at Pine Creek in his lifetime, only violin. In spite of that, however, and even though the older style of fiddling is close to Québécois playing in many ways, the fiddle music of these communities bears the unmistakable stamp of traditional Native music...

This Native character is evident largely in the form of the tunes. The length of the phrases changes drastically from one line to the next: the overall structures have any number of these different-length phrases and are very asymmetric. Each player has his own versions of tunes and the players vary the tunes in certain ways from one time through the tune to the next. These renditions frequently vary in length as well as melody. This is playing in "the old-time way" (Lederman 1987: 9).

She goes on to point out that these characteristics are common to old Ojibwe songs. She speculates further that some of these musical characteristics, such as the unusual use of five-beats, may be due not only to musical tradition but also linguistic flow and structure (1987: 13).

Saulteaux fiddle music is imbued with a heritage from Scots fiddlers. The complicated foot tapping patterns, thought to have originated in the British Isles as a way for solo fiddlers to accompany themselves, are part of the style that traveled from Cape Breton and other Maritime areas to the Plains and beyond (Lederman 1991: 42; MacGillivray 1982: 6).

There is still a busy sociomusical syncretism in the North, where musicians with Native, Inuit, Irish, French, and Scottish influences are getting together in places such as Yellowknife and Whitehorse to create a lively country and bluegrass scene. Multi-cultural music festivals, such as Northern Lights, help bring threads of many traditions together in music.

Next: 4.2 Menace and Promise in the Media

Return to Table of Contents


[19] Most of the Jesuits' early work was done with the Wendat, also the Innu. The Wendat are related linguistically, culturally and familiarly to members of the Iroquois Confederacy, although they never joined. Their early contact and alliance with the French is thought to be one source of their later decimation through disease and warfare. Their worldview and traditions, and their experiences with the church, are linked to those of the Iroquois, so I examine these groups together here. For more on this relationship, see Sioui 1992: 39-60.

[20] There is no word for "religion" or "spirituality" among Anishnabek and Iroquois languages, as these elements are part of everything in everyday existence. The division of life into areas of "religion," "economy," "politics" and "culture" reflect the segmented thinking of Europeans. An "old Cree Indian from Northern Quebéc" once said to Wilf Peltier: "What is culture anyway ? We are a way of life" (Peltier na: 4).

[21] In most cases, these marriages were in "la facon du pays," partly because the clergy did not approve or were not available. See Sylvia Van Kirk's Many Tender Ties.

  Copyright © 2006 Urban Shaman Inc.
Home  |  SiteMap