Author: Daniel, Bert

Native Americans

Many of you will get a day off tomorrow for the Columbus Day Holiday, but not me. September is the holiday month for me. Not only do I get Labor Day on the first Monday of the month like everybody else, I also get Native American Day on the fourth Friday. I work as a physician at a clinic in Mendocino County which is run by a consortium of California Native American tribes. Itís a great place to work and I like getting a holiday that most people donít get. Sure, we donít get Columbus Day (Native Americans arenít very fond of Columbus and who can blame them?), but at least we get our holiday earlier.
Iíve worked at the same tribal health clinic for seven years now, and before that I worked at another tribal health clinic in Point Arena. Over the years Iíve gotten to know a little bit about Native American life in modern times, and in a historical perspective. I canít claim Native American heritage myself, but lots of people I know can, and Iíll bet lots of people you know can too. Even though Iím an outsider in Indian Country, my patients for the most part, have warmed to me in a way that I would have never expected. Most days at the clinic are busy, and thereís little time for small talk.

But occasionally, topics come up that give me some insight about each of my patients as a person.

One topic that sometimes comes up is music. Many of my patients play acoustic instruments and they understand when I take a few days off togo to a music festival. I remember one elderly patient, whom I encouraged to get out her fiddle and start playing it again, as a way of stimulating her failing cognition. Native American culture is just like any other culture in its love of music, and Native Americans have had an impact on American music just as they have had an impact on all other aspects of American culture.

Ask yourself this question if most of your ancestors came from Europe. How are you different from your European cousins? Youíre more mobile for one thing. Start fresh in a brand new place. You have a can-do attitude. Anything is possible. Youíre more into meritocracy and less into aristocracy. Your system of government is different.

Then ask yourself this question. Why are we Americans so different from our European cousins? Part of the reason is the interaction European colonists had from the very beginning with Americaís original inhabitants. I think there are a lot of influences most of us just donít realize. For example, political thinking in the age of enlightenment was heavily influenced by European thinkers like John Locke. But the framers of our constitution were also aware of the Iroquois Confederacy, right on our own shores, which forged cooperation among Indian states in the northeast. Indian tribes also had traditions like assimilating members of other nations, and raising them as their own. Thatís just the kind of thing the United States of America has done so successfully for most of its history. Except for Native Americans, we are a nation of immigrants (technically, I guess anthropologists would tell us that Native Americans are immigrants as well. But their ancestors immigrated thousands of years earlier). And Europeans didnít simply arrive and displace the local tribes to replace them with their own culture (although they did quite a lot of that). They also absorbed some of the wisdom of the local inhabitants.

Music is one of those areas where I think Native Americans have had influences that are underappreciated. For an example of their influence on jazz and blues, see this interesting recent symposium: .

In the following discussion, I do not claim to be an expert on music or Native American Culture. I for example realize there is a big cultural difference between a person who is 1/16 Cherokee and grew up in New York City, and someone who is full blooded Sioux from the Rosebud reservation. But both of these people listen to music, and in some way their musical insight reflects some their own ethnic heritage.

American Indian influence in the traditional music that became Bluegrass, Old Time and Gospel music goes way back. Native Americans had their own musical traditions when Europeans arrived and some of those musical traditions were amalgamated into the new American culture. One of those musical traditions from Appalachia was falsetto singing by a male lead. Ever heard of that high lonesome sound? Some of that sound may have come out of Native American influences. (See )

In the 1920ís, Big Chief Henryís Indian String Band made a name for itself. The band was comprised of members of the Hall family, a Choctaw family from Oklahoma. Two years after the Carter family recorded its first album, Big Chief Henryís String Band made a series of recordings for RCA Victor. Since that time many Native American musicians have continued to produce distinctive versions of Old Time, Bluegrass and Gospel music. Today, another Choctaw, Glen Bonham, plays with a band called the Southern Tradition. You may remember Glen from his role as a Texas Ranger on the old Chuck Norris TV show. And if you were at Grass Valley a couple of years ago, you heard Goldwing Express, a family band based out of Branson, Missouri that is very proud of its Native American heritage.

Among Native American musicians, the fiddling tradition is especially strong. Chubby Wise, the prototype Bluegrass fiddler, was part Seminole. After leaving the Bluegrass Boys, he recorded an album with Banjoist Raymond Fairchild (part Cherokee) called Cherokee Tunes and Seminole Swing. Today there are many good native American fiddlers out there playing traditional music. Among them are Elliott Johnson from Arizona, Jimmie LaRocque (North Dakota), Bill Stevens (Alaska), Georgia Wettlin-Larsen (Wisconsin), and just across the border Cliff Maytwayashing (Manitoba).

Quite a few fiddle tunes have native American influenced titles: Cherokee Shuffle, Cherokee Lady, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chief Sitting Bull, Flying Indian, Indian ate a Woodchuck and Lost Indian are just a few that come to mind. West Virginia fiddler, Ed Haley, had his own version of Lost Indian (often called Ed Haleyís Lost Indian to distinguish it from the very different tune that most of us think of as Lost Indian). I was not very surprised to read recently in Geff Crawfordís excellent piece about Haley (OTR #24), that Ed Haleyís fiddle contest nemesis was a fiddler called Natchez the Indian!

Native Americans have had their impact on the banjo as well. Weíve already mentioned Raymond Fairchild. The distinctive three finger roll that defines the Bluegrass banjo style had its origin in the western Carolinas from the playing of Snuffy Jenkins, Don Reno and of course Earl Scruggs. Weíve all heard of those guys. But did you ever hear of Walker Calhoun? Walker developed his own three finger roll in the mountains of Western North Carolina at around the same time. A full blooded Cherokee, Walker Calhoun descended from Indians who hid successfully in the remotest regions of the Blue Ridge Mountains and thus avoided being rounded up for deportation to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears. Born in 1918, Walker started playing banjo at age 13. The first tune he learned to play was Cripple Creek. He was honored with a National Folk Heritage Award in 1992 and as far as I know is still alive.
If you happen to be into exotic banjo straps, thereís a fellow named Kenny Bohling, who lives down the street from Raymond Fairchild. Kenny markets handmade buffalo hide banjo straps from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Check out

Iím sure there are many other significant Native American connections to Bluegrass, Old Time and Gospel music that I was not able to unearth in my brief se
Posted:  10/11/2009

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