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Features | Fall 2015

Resources for Teaching the Music of Native American Peoples

A teacher must understand how students differ in their approaches to learning and create instructional opportunities that are adapted to students with diverse backgrounds and exceptionalities. The teacher must…understand the cultural content, world view, and concepts that comprise Minnesota based American Indian tribal government, history, language, culture.

I work as a music teacher in Minnesota, both in a Minneapolis public school and as an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University in St. Paul. The quote above is from Minnesota’s State Standards for elementary education, which include the requirement that we teach the “contributions of Native Americans, particularly those who live in Minnesota” in all content areas. How do I, as a person who is neither of Native American descent nor related to a Native American person, teach the music of Native American peoples with integrity? This article aims to share what I’ve learned over the past decade, offering resources and my thoughts on teaching multicultural music.

How do we teach our children about music of other cultures? Many times we find a song from another culture, try to learn pronunciation of the language, and teach it to our students. We can even find Native musicians on YouTube to assist us with this process. Yet performance is not the only way to learn music of another culture. To perform music of another culture with integrity and respect, we need to listen carefully to the music and observe it with the objectivity of a scientist.

I have been fortunate to learn from representatives of the Ojibway and the Dakota, two distinct peoples in Minnesota. Many Native American cultural presenters believe the best way to begin to understand the music is to first listen, then we are encouraged to discuss what we hear. Every time Native music was shared with me in Minnesota, it began with listening. The first takeaway I had using this approach was that I was not taught a song, or product, I could go teach my students, and I began to think about why this is.

Music is a window into another culture. My Ojibway and Dakota guides explained that before replicating the sounds of a culture, an outsider should familiarize themselves with the sounds, learn how sounds are used and understood in the culture. What are the sounds? How are the sounds being used? Do we have questions? We can expect our students to laugh or giggle at first when exposed to the unfamiliar, but as educators our goal is to reduce the giggle response and replace it with curiosity and interest. We promote understanding of other cultures through acceptance of unfamiliar sounds as music.

Descriptive Review
Over time, I’ve learned that the Native peoples of Minnesota treasure a diversity of responses, and there are often many “right answers” to a prompt. The Descriptive Review protocol is a facilitator’s tool that allows many people’s voices to be heard. It uses diverse responses to build a more detailed and nuanced picture of the music being listened to. Discussion is key. Many times, after hearing music a second or third time, new aspects of the music are illuminated by other listeners sharing their perspective.

The Descriptive Review or Critical Response protocol was developed as part of tools for Artful Learning and grounded in child psychiatrist Dr. James Comer’s idea that “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Similar strategies are employed by visual artists in Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS. The descriptive review process allows listeners to build a relationship with music by focusing attention on description without judgment.

The first task of the listener is to describe the music in words that answer these questions:

  • What do you hear in the music?
  • What is going on in the music?
  • What do you notice about this music?

All of this is without judgment. Possible sentence starters are “I hear…(instruments, sounds),” “In the beginning (middle, end)…,” and “The music reminds me of….”

The purpose of this step is to focus the listener on the sounds and to set the listener up for success by removing judgmental statements such as “It’s boring” or “I like it” that allow the listener to dismiss the music from careful attention. Describing music verbally requires the listener to engage with the sounds. The listener strives to describe the music so a person who has not heard it can imagine the sounds of the music.

On repeated hearings, students can answer additional questions:

  • What does the music remind you of? This can trigger memories, experiences, stories, etc., and there are no wrong answers or associations.
  • What emotions do you feel when you hear this music? Again, no wrong answers.
  • What questions do you have about this music? “I wonder…” is a good starting point.
  • What do you think the purpose of the music is? OR
  • What meaning do you think might be in this music? This invites the listener to speculate.

I usually ask my students to write their thoughts as they listen in silence to the music. After we listen to a piece all the way through, I ask the first questions and list all the responses. We listen to the music again and focus on what the music reminds us of or makes us feel. I’ve found that because of the group sharing, the students often hear elements they did not hear the first time. This process builds a relationship with the music, supports developing a habit of careful listening, and actively develops vocabulary to label what one hears.

Post-listening discussion broadens all listeners’ experience of the music and brings out a diversity of responses. The beauty of the Descriptive Review is that the protocol can be applied to any and all music. As students become familiar with the process, their responses deepen. With practice, students typically use more musical vocabulary and become more robust and expressive writers. They articulate more specific comments about the music they are listening to. It’s almost like a musical journaling experience.

Native American Resources for Educators
Two noted Minnesota organizations have provided valuable resources for educators who want to include Native American music in their work: Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

Minnesota Public Radio has partnered with Lyz Jaakola, a member of the Ojibway people, to produce curriculum and videos with lots of valuable information. Take a look at Lyz’s school presentation and her interview. Both come with curriculum guides online. I have used these presentations with my university students, who have responded enthusiastically. In my elementary classrooms, I’ve used the written curriculum guide to develop lessons. It’s worth noting that Lyz Jaakola’s 2014 interview is part of MPR’s Class Notes series—general music videos that my students are fascinated with.

The Perpich Center for Arts Education library compiled a bibliography of resources in 2010 entitled Minnesota American Indian Music and Art Resources for Teachers. These materials may be checked out by Minnesota residents. For nonresidents, these curated resources may more quickly guide you toward a book or other resource that you can locate in your local library. The Perpich Center even has a presence on Pinterest, New Native American Titles, “the newest Native American fiction and nonfiction titles added to the Perpich library collection.”

For print resources, check out the work of Dr. Bryan Burton. Bryan has published several books that include lesson plans with detailed cultural information plus CDs—a must to hear the music. These books include contributions from many Native peoples from a variety of geographical regions of the United States. The titles are Moving Within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance, 2nd Edition, Voices of the Wind: Native American Flute Songs, and When the Earth Was Like New: Western Apache Songs and Stories with co-authors Ruth and Chesley Wilson.

Resources for songs in the Ojibway language can be found at ojibwe.net if you are so inclined. You can find traditional women’s and men’s songs, as well as popular and children’s songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” translated into Ojibway. Be sure to listen to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—which has a very different melody! Each of these types of material can have its place in classroom music.

Another company of interest is Canyon Records, the recording company for Native artists. Their catalog and a sampler CD are both available online, but you also have the option of requesting a print catalog—a rarity these days. They have been recording and distributing Native music since 1951, and you can hear a wide variety of Native approaches to music, from purely traditional to fusions with modern pop, rock, and more.

And in CMN we have Sue Straw, who has produced a wonderful CD of songs and stories adapted from legends of various Native American tribes, Native American Songs & Stories for Children, Volume One. These stories and songs are wonderful for young children because they are short—mostly two to three minutes long—and they are sung in English.

Another way to develop appreciation and understanding of Native music is to read widely about the culture. Two autobiographical books by a Native author I have found both helpful and enjoyable to read are Spirit Car and Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life by Diane Wilson.

There are many others! Another fascinating book for adults is Anton Treuer’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. Books for children on Lakota culture include Dance in a Buffalo Skull by Zitkala-Sa, Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa by Gina Capaldi, and Lakota Hoop Dancer by Jacqueline Left Hand Bull and Suzanne Haldane. Books and book suggestions can be found at Birchbark Books, the Minneapolis bookstore owned by famed Native author Louise Erdrich. One focus of the bookstore is to provide materials for educators.

For those who want to explore the contemporary Native American culture and art on a national level, Planting Truthful Seeds About Native Americans by Dr. Amanda Morris is an excellent place to start. The blog post links to diverse resources including films, current music, designers, journalism, and even stand-up comedy.

In conclusion, as we consider teaching music of multiple cultures, we should place ourselves in the role of guide rather than sage, and learn alongside our children. We should listen and use discussion as active and important ways to learn about a culture and its music. Performance is only one of many paths we can take. Listening is the first pathway to understanding.