Heartbeat of the People

Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow by Tara Browner

by John Nettles

19 June 2002


We're Not Museum People!

The members of the First Nation listserv, an Internet discussion group dealing with current affairs primarily in the Northern Native American community, exemplify the idea of smiling through one’s rage. For all the issues constantly being batted around there—living conditions on reservations that parallel those in the Third World, the frustrating pursuit of land-lease monies owed to Indians for decades and sitting undisbursed in Treasury Department coffers, the grave-robbing exploits of university archaeologists, the ongoing Kafkaesque saga of Leonard Peltier—the members of First Nation manage to maintain their sense of humor, bantering with wit and aplomb that go a long way toward reminding us that there are a few oases of ideas to be found in the vast wasteland of spam, scams, and bad sex that cyberspace has become.

Still, even this esoteric preserve of Indian culture is afflicted by the continual intrusion of ignorant white people. These tend to fall into two categories, correspondents who want to pick a fight over whether or not Native Americans have real grievances, and worse, pie-eyed New Agers who wish to “learn the sacred way of harmony with the earth” or such similar crap, as if every Indian is a shaman just waiting like the Great Pumpkin for a wasichu with enough mushy sincerity to impart the medicine of a thousand years to. Needless to say, the shrift given these folks is short but damn funny.

cover art

Heartbeat of the People

Tara Browner

Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow

(University of Illinois Press)

Such intrusions, however, amply illustrate the heart of the continuing conflict between Native America and white culture, namely the problem of image. Despite our relative sophistication in other areas, for some reason we cannot seem to shake the popular images of the Indian derived from the movies, whether it be the bloodthirsty savage, the firewater-sloshing layabout, or in these post-Dances with Wolves days, the tragically doomed mystic warriors who could have taught us so much if we hadn’t wiped them out in the name of manifest destiny. Thus, although many of us flock to reservation casinos, pay through the nose for turquoise jewelry, or take great pains to let people know that we are one-sixteenth Cherokee or whatever, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that Indians are real people with bills to pay and children to feed, and that their respective cultures have a life beyond spectacle for the tourist trade. If we are ever to put the sins of our fathers to rest, it is high time we shelved liberal guilt and stopped regarding Native Americans as cigar-store Indians.

Tara Browner’s Heartbeat of the People, an examination of modern dance forms among the Lakota and Anishnaabeg peoples, is a good place to start. Of Choctaw blood and an ethnomusicologist at UCLA, Browner is uniquely qualified to provide this glimpse into the cultural environment of the pow-wow, once defined as a formal gathering to perform healing ceremonies and now denoting a celebration of music and dancing with competitions. Moreover, Browner is an active participant on the pow-wow circuit and her book, while often heavy with the jargon of her discipline, is nonetheless warmer than previous studies of Northern Indian musical traditions by detached observers.

The first part of the book is devoted to an overview of this prior scholarship, and it is clear that even those scholars who have undertaken close study of Native Americans in the past were muddled by a Eurocentric filter on their understanding. As Browner summarizes the work of her predecessors, she notes a recurring and faulty tendency to regard Indian music as somehow less than Western music by dint of its reliance on percussion and voice, the music of primitives—equating trappings with sophistication, the same sort of condescension that drove the campaign to Christianize Indians. Browner points out what should have been obvious all along, that Native music contains levels of complexity and precision that render more elaborate instrumentation superfluous, and that all Indian music does not in fact sound alike. She elaborates on this point with a detailed analysis of differences between what she calls the “Northern” music of the Great Plains tribes and the “Southern” music of the tribes of Oklahoma and parts adjacent, taking care to document leading theories on the migration of the various forms. She does the same with dance and costume styles, which are equally important both in terms of ritual and modern competition, painstakingly detailing similarities and differences between traditions. Admittedly this can get rather tedious for those of us who are neither ethnomusicologists nor anthropologists, but that is no fault of Browner’s, and those who undertake Native Studies with any degree of seriousness will benefit from her attention to detail.

The second half of the book deals with the culture of the modern pow-wow—again, this is limited to the Sacred Hoop tradition of the Lakota and the Sacred Fire tradition of the Anishnaabeg, and Browner acknowledges the enormous range of unexplored territory out there—through interviews with dancers and musicians on the circuit. It is here that Browner’s scholarship meets its practical application, as she speaks with performers about the rigid parameters of traditional music, dance, and costuming, and how successive generations attempt to walk the line between the demands of ritual and the need for individual expression. We see how new music is composed by various Drums—the pow-wow equivalent of rock bands—when very often the younger singers are otherwise ignorant of the language they’re singing in. We see how whole families travel hundreds of miles every summer to compete in various festivals throughout the heartland for relatively little monetary reward. And most importantly we see how the pow-wow functions to keep the ritual life of these Native Americans vigorous despite the immense pressures, both from within and without, to calcify. As one dancer, a Potawatomi (Anishnaabeg) woman active in Michigan, states when speaking of her particular dance garb,

A lot of our white hobbyist friends will say, “Well that’s not Potawatomi, Sydney!” And I’ll say, “But it’s a gift from my relatives. I’m going to honor that by wearing it. I don’t care if it isn’t Potawatomi.”
We know who the people are who enjoy pow-wows because they’re wearing things that we know were gifts. They’re not wearing things that are just made specifically for one tribe like in a museum, which is fine. We’re not museum people! We’re living, evolving, cultural people.

While Browner’s book is essentially a study in modern ethnomusicology, it is in the voices of her interview subjects that it really shines. The fact that her subjects are all old friends of hers—and she makes no bones about this—enhances the work rather than detracts from it in the name of academic objectivity, making it warm and textured and above all human, qualities that most scholarly works sorely lack. Heartbeat of the People is a slim work, to be sure, but it serves a vital purpose, reminding us that Native Americans are not the cardboard cutouts that the dominant culture would seemingly like them to be, neither “museum people” nor caricatures on the Late Late Show. With more work like Tara Browner’s, perhaps the rest of us can come to terms with Native America as it actually exists and give its people the honest shrift they deserve. Perhaps then there will be a bit less rage to smile through.

[Also highly recommended are Michael Apted’s documentary Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story and the books of Vine Deloria, Jr., especially Custer Died for Your Sins and God is Red.]

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