4.1 The Fiddle and the Drum
Among the Iroquois in the 1600s,
the Jesuits had trouble trying to enforce a wholesale acceptance of
their religion 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
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.
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:
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
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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
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).
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.