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Features | Fall 2015

Seeking Out the Real Roots

Just about everyone knows how this song goes: “One little, two little, three little….” And, of course, they can fill in the word I left out: “Indians.” But what does this children’s song have to do with Columbus? Everything. It is a song which goes to the root of the misunderstandings which were brought to this “new world,” which had ancient civilizations and sophisticated cultures for thousands of years before the first official arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean islands at the end of the fifteenth century. (Europeans, by the way, did not discover us. We weren’t lost. Imagine someone from another country coming to your door and telling you—in language you don’t know—that they now own your house because they just found it!) Yet that song refers to the Native people of the Americas as “Indians,” people whose continent is Asia. And it refers to them as “little Indians,” a reference which may seem innocent, but is in fact demeaning and depersonalizing. Even the beat it is sung to is, at best, a ridiculous parody of Native music, a music which has been so misunderstood that most people, when asked about “American Indian music,” think of the stereotyped tom-tom drum beat heard in a John Wayne Western whenever the danger of Indian attack is imminent. The so-called “Indian chant” you can still hear sung in 1992 on television as baseball and football fans cheer on the “Braves” or the “Redskins” as they swing their arms in a “tomahawk chop” is another example. You know what I mean. You can hear it in your mind even as you read these words.

What is needed, I believe, is to start again, seek out the real roots. People need less to know about Columbus and his deeds than to know that before he and other Europeans came, there were people here, people and cultures as deserving of respect as any in the world. Americans need to know that, and also to know that, though centuries have passed, Native people and Native cultures still remain. Moreover, those people and their cultures have been a tremendous positive influence on Europeans. Here are two examples:

1. The food plants developed by Native agronomists, such as corn and the potato, now feed the world.

2. Ideas of true democracy and the equality of women, which originated with such Native people as the Iroquois, directly influenced the framers of the Constitution and the founders of the modern Women’s Movement.

To understand something of what was here before Columbus, and is still here in the surviving Native peoples of the Americas and in their cultures, we need to look to the roots. Music is a good place to begin. We need to look at real Native American music or, I should say, musics. More than 400 different languages were spoken in North America in 1492 and each language carried its own musical tradition, nothing at all like the boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom boom monotony of a Hollywood Western’s Indians. Yet that is what most people think of when they think of “Indian music,” despite the incredible inaccuracy of those movies. (In one of the “classics,” She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—which seems to be aired on TNT an average of once a week—we are treated to the sight of a line of female white actors depicting Indian women playing that familiar one-two-three-four on what John Wayne calls a “medicine drum.” They are banging sticks on a long wooden log rather like a New Guinea slit drum. A far remove, indeed, from the truly sacred elk-skin drums actually played by the people of the plains. The scene is the equivalent of passing off as a Catholic mass a scene in which someone robed like a Buddhist monk—played, perhaps, by an Andaman Islander—cuts off the head of a chicken.)

Music is not separated from everyday life among Native peoples. It was said among many of the original Native nations that every person has a song. Songs were used not only for entertainment, but to preserve knowledge and help in daily tasks and in ceremonies. Though some songs were meant just to be sung, many others were always a part of a whole complex of dances and ritual activities. Beginning to understand Native music means beginning to understand the holistic nature of Native life. The word is regarded as powerful, and so songs were seen as instruments to make things happen. Sing a Lakota buffalo song, and buffalo will appear. However, responsibility goes with power. That song would only be sung under the right conditions and when there was a need for the buffalo. Similarly, the rain dances and accompanying songs of the Pueblo peoples would only be done in their own lands and at the time of year when rain was needed and conditions were right. The dances would never be done for material gain, but for the good of the community. That is one reason why Pueblo people shake their heads when asked if they would come to some drought-stricken part of the country such as California, for money, to perform a rain dance. “They just don’t get it,” my old friend Swift Eagle once said.

I recommend, as a good introduction to authentic traditional North American Native music, the four-cassette teaching package American Indian Music for the Classroom by the Creek composer Dr. Louis Ballard. That set is available from Canyon Records, which also has a mail order list of more than 700 different tapes of traditional and contemporary Native music from many different tribal nations. Some of the contemporary singers, such as Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Lakota), A. Paul Ortega (Apache), and Joanne Shenandoah (Seneca), have tapes of contemporary music which are good to use in classrooms, and David Campbell, an Arawak songwriter living in Canada, has done several wonderful albums for children. A few scholars have begun to write of the important though generally unacknowledged influence which Native music has had on jazz, and on country and western music. That topic is too large and complex to do more than mention in a brief article like this.

Editor’s Note: Please see Barbara Rice’s article in this issue for further resources on Native American music.

What I would like to offer is one simple song. It is an example of the almost invisible but pervasive influence on this continent of Native culture and of how often we do not understand what that influence has been. It is a song which has been heard by almost every child and I am sure that child and the adults who sang it to him/her were probably puzzled by the lyrics, not knowing that the original of the song was from the Wampanoag and Abenaki people of what is now called New England. In the seventeenth century, an English man heard a Native mother singing this lullaby to her child. He inquired about its meaning and then did a rough translation into English, keeping the same tune. Here’s my own version of a part of that song in the Abenaki language:

Gawi dzidzis, dzidzis, gawi
Gawi dzidzis abazi
Gawi dzidzis oligawi
Gawi dzidzis olegwasi

Translated directly into English, it says:

Sleep thou baby, baby, sleep thou
Sleep thou baby within the tree
Sleep thou baby, have a good sleep
Sleep thou baby, have a good dream

The baby in this song is strapped inside its cradleboard and hung from the branch of a tree. As the wind blows, the cradleboard swings gently and the baby sleeps. And by now, of course, you have figured out that we are talking about “Rock-a-bye Baby.” You realize, probably for the first time, why that baby was in a treetop! It was because it was a Native child in its cradleboard. It is a lullaby about being cared for and at one with nature (and in the original, the baby does not fall; that’s a European addition). Not only do the wind and the tree combine to lull the child to sleep but the cradleboard itself stands for the natural world. The board the child rests on is the earth and the protective half-hoop of wood over the baby’s face (so that if the cradleboard should fall, the baby would be protected from injury) stands for the rainbow or the arc of the sky. Every other part of the cradleboard has its own symbolic meaning—which may vary from one Native nation to another—while the cradleboard affords physical warmth, security, and protection for the child.

“Gawi Dzidzis,” the original “Rock-a-bye Baby,” is a song which offers us an image of Native people caring for their children within a secure environment and in balance with the natural world from the very start of their lives. It may be one way to begin to give children of today a picture of who the Native peoples of this continent were and still are—in spite of Columbus.

Originally published in Issue #12, Fall 1992.