It was my pleasure to attend a banquet honoring my primary composition professor, Chinary Ung, on the occasion of his Grawemeyer award. Full disclosure: I was a graduate student working toward two masters degrees, one in music theory and composition (college of fine arts) and another in the anthropological study of Native American ritual and performance (college of liberal arts). Chinary’s award-winning work, Inner Voices, showcased his Cambodian heritage in an exquisite composition. At the event, the Dean of Fine Arts, Seymour Rosen, who had come to Arizona State University from his directorship at Carnegie Hall, leaned in to me and commented, “Hearing Chinary’s work is the first time I’ve ever heard culture in music.” With my best banquet decorum, I found a conciliatory smile. Inside, my jaw dropped. I had never in my entire life considered music without culture before; culture was a musical fact like gravity. I wondered, was every work ever performed at Carnegie Hall without culture? How could the whole of Western music not have culture when I was certain the music of most every other heritage on earth likely did? Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?
The discord of the incongruity stuck with me months later. The longer I thought about it on a wider scope, the more I realized, the broader issue was two-fold. First, non-Western traditions are more often than not considered unimportant and rendered invisible in Western music until, for example, a non-Western composer wins a prestigious award. One outcome of genocidal imperialism is that erasing people also erases their music, so the resultant naiveté about Native Americans may sit somewhere along the ignorance-is-bliss scale as a byproduct of ethnic cleansing. Second, there is an air of cultural neutrality in Western classical art music, where music is considered an expression of sound alone, devoid of ancestral roots or indigenous cosmology—a Western birthright that functions as the default mainstay foundation for equitable, objective, unbiased sonority. It’s an aesthetic legacy where the existential postulate, the basic idea of how life operates, denotes Western art music as culturally impartial. Though it seems ironic, acultural neutrality is a narrative the West has culturally taught itself. This perception has been reinforced by important advocates who have spun acultural threads into neutral garments worn uncritically by many conductors, performers, and ensembles. If you’ve ever taken a theory class in music school, you were most likely enrolled in “Music Theory 101,” for example, or “Pedagogy of Music Theory,” when more correctly, those courses should be identified as Western music theory. Similarly, the monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions. Such illustrations are numerous and systemic.
From a traditional Native American viewpoint, our music is not invisible and not acultural. It takes Native Americans to create our music, though those outside the cultures may not easily recognize the indigenous characteristics. The attempted erasure of indigenous people has been thorough and relentless. Still, at recent count, there are 573 federally recognized tribal nations—treatied nations—not counting the hundreds of cultures in the Alaska Native villages. We are still here.
So who is Native American? It all comes down to American Indian sovereignty. The United States treatied with American Indians on a nation-to-nation level, recognizing the inherent and legal right for Natives to determine our own lives. The treaties are contracts in exchange for massive amounts of land and resources and are considered the “supreme law of the land,” on the same level as the US Constitution. So, contrary to various claims of family folklore, high cheekbones, or DNA tests, to be considered a Native American, one must be enrolled as a citizen of a specific, federally-recognized tribal nation. Because of sovereignty, in other words, only Native Americans themselves can determine our own citizens.
Nothing about traditional indigenous life is acultural. Traditional Native people know themselves to be related to the earth and to the other inhabitants of the planet, whether those others be human or non-human. Native cosmologies are not hierarchical but reciprocal and operate with existential postulates of barter-and-exchange with the environment or others, not dominion over it. Through a life-and-death process of reciprocity, extended kinship with the earth and others, and the giving and receiving of gifts, Native people strive not for ‘dominion over’ but for balance with the world.
Another aspect of traditional American Indian life is the generative nature of language rather than its being representative of something. For the West, language is a means of representing something real, and words themselves stand for something by denoting it; language personifies what is thought to be ‘really real’ in Western thought. In this way, words are seen as tiny canoes that carry meaning inside them while being sent along a transmission conduit. But for Native languages, words create reality; they spawn it, and are considered generative. Indigenous languages are known to give rise to what is really real. For Native people, life moves along however life is spoken, whether enacted through speech, ceremonially performed, or reciprocated with extended kinship relations. This generative way of perceiving the world is something shared by many indigenous peoples; while these world views are not exactly the same, they bear family resemblances to each other. My primary religious studies professor, Ken Morrison, took stock of the generative nature of Native cosmologies from several indigenous perspectives:
In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for, or as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being… (Morrison 2000)
A generative process is how indigenous music works as well, though most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.” The closest comparison might be ‘song,’ but that still neglects the generative process at work. Songs are not fixed nouns for indigenous life, so more insight might come from a process of song-ing or music-ing. A traditional Native American view of song-ing would not conceptually match what is understood as “music” in a Western sense.
For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.
Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.
A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.
At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.
What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time, just as I am simultaneously an enrolled citizen of an indigenous nation and scholastically trained as a modern composer. To be clear, I was not coerced into Western composition but picked it as my chosen career path. That decision was a consequence of mutual culture sharing and a process of balanced acculturation, very different from what we call “forced culture change,” when cultures are forced to change their cosmologies according to the existential postulates of the domineering culture.
While I chose a path of Western music, there remains part of my history that was not grown of a balanced mutual exchange, as my use of English instead of Mohican, Munsee, or Lenape reveals. My ancestors experienced rampant extermination along with forced cultural change, massive theft of land and resources, coercion to learn English and adopt Western ways, all while facing abuse and death for being indigenous. Our population of 22,000 along the banks of the Mohheconnituck (Hudson River) was reduced to about 200 souls within two generations. Without exaggeration, we barely escaped total annihilation; an eradication capitalized on by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Forced Culture Change is basically genocide.
So yes, not all cultural exchanges are equivalent. Where adjacent cultures may mix on equal terms, there can be sharing and collaboration. But in many cases in North America where the indigenous people faced eradication and forced culture change, no such equal sharing or collaboration was possible—quite the opposite transpired. As Native Americans, we remember the major culture clashes when colonists with a hard-driving philosophy of “ownership” forced us to give up our lands, waters, resources, languages, cultures, and in many cases, our lives. We were prohibited from enacting our ceremonies under penalty of death. Native Americans today are cultural survivors of the American holocaust, the real world effects of which we still face.
One historical co-optation of Native American song-ing in Western music was the American Indianist era, where Native American songs were codified and assimilated into written compositions by non-indigenous composers. Non-Indians composed hordes of pseudo-Indian operas, lieder, piano pieces, and all manner of musical works. Further, the American Indianist appropriations were plagued by an error of reasoning—a kind of musical Darwinism. Rather than attempting to meet indigenous people on equal terms with genuine collaboration, the Indianist composers mistook their poaching of Indian life as the discovery of a ‘primitive’ precursor to their own ‘civilization.’ Spurred on by the written transcriptions of Alice Fletcher, Ruth Underhill, Frances Densmore, and others from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, Indianists were busy gathering Indian songs (as one might pick a bushel of apples), codifying what they thought was true Indian music, and grossly misunderstanding what Indians were really doing. Therefore, we should never consider, for example, Charles Wakefield Cadman’s famous work “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” (with an Omaha tune transcribed by Fletcher) as an indigenous song—it is not. “Sky Blue Waters” is a Cadman song.
Though American Indianists are of the past, the systemic erasure of indigenous life and music continues today. Minute cultural awarenesses break through sometimes, but often the positive changes we are desperate for are obstructed—innocently or intentionally—by the numerous gatekeepers of Western classical music. Those who share the gatekeeping power to allow-or-block indigenous participation are the consorting composers, conductors, ensembles, financial supporters, marketing executives, performers, producers, reviewers, soloists, theorists, venues, and anyone else swimming in that sizable pool. What’s more, also considering art forms adjacent to Western music, such as modern dance, ballet, theater, movies, and the like, that pool becomes an ocean. To verify the gatekeeping effect by orchestras, specifically, a quick look at the Orchestra Season Analysis published by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) each year reveals how orchestras fare especially low for diversity, participation by Native Americans being among the least of all. Yet a growing number of composers who are federally-recognized Native American citizens are listed in the ICD databases of catalogued works. There are scores of professional composers indigenous to the continent, not to mention the even greater demography of indigenous musicians. It’s woefully dreadful that so much contemporary erasure of indigenous culture is propagated from within the field of Western classical music. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.
Because the winning work was perhaps a mixture of many styles, including Inuit throat singing, it would be a difficult task to determine if any legal copyright infringement occurred without delving deeper into all the influences of the composition, and determining what percentage was culturally borrowed. Avoiding the individualistic legal copyright issue, and setting aside the “indigenous intellectual property” issue (an effort by the United Nations to protect the cultural knowledge and collective intellectual property of indigenous people), it does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. In his UCLA doctoral dissertation, Joshua H. Saulle identified Shaw’s partial use of “Inuit throat-singing” as one ingredient in a cultural and musical mix he characterized as “gumbo”:
Shaw’s Courante is dominated … by sounds derived from the practice of katajjak, or Inuit throat-singing. This practice is the basis for the rapid inhale-exhale gestures that form the surface texture of much of the movement, as well as the imitative hocket and gradually-unfolding, procedural structure. The third element in this musical/cultural gumbo is the 1855 hymn ‘Shining Shore’ by George F. Root, which is introduced in the movement’s second large section.
Brad Wells, RoT Founder and Artistic Director, answered Tagaq’s accusation with an anecdote published in Indy Week (Dan Ruccia, 2019) that inferred there is no distinction to be made between a mutually equitable exchange of culture versus America’s unrestrained use of forced cultural change against indigenous people, missing the genocidal backstory of Inuit life specifically, and Native American life generally:
I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There’s an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can’t stop them. They can enrich everybody.
From his assertion, it appears that Wells insisted all cultural exchange is of the mutually equitable variety that is “happening constantly.” Yet Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches. A quick look at the RoT website reveals the ensemble is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.” Respectfully, considering their mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the RoT approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.
Setting aside the RoT discussion, there are reverential ways to collaborate that are neither tokenistic nor exploitive. If non-indigenous composers want to intersect with indigenous life, why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists? Despite efforts to eradicate them, for example, the Inuit remain living cultural treasures with whom to develop cultural and professional relationships. And those relations can be personally, culturally, and musically amazing.
Once, I was invited to perform throat singing onstage with Lois Suluk in Albuquerque, but as a flutist. I sometimes perform extended flute techniques on my handmade quartz flutes, including whispering, singing and playing, and vocalizing with inhaled-exhaled breathing effects. So, in 2010, I had the privilege and honor to partner in a throat singing exchange with an Inuit singer at the El Rey Theater, and I have the picture to prove it! To this day, Lois remains my colleague and friend. As a Native American myself, and as a professional composer of some experience, I absolutely affirm that relationships with indigenous people are wholly necessary for doing indigenous music of any kind, where true American Indian voices are heard.
Indigenous and non-indigenous people, alike, might encourage each other in meaningful collaboration with living, changing, vibrant cultures in ways that remain dynamic. And conversely, misconstruing and twisting Native American music into something less than authentic is a blunder that can no longer be ignored. As further explanation, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked firsthand with two renowned ensembles, Chanticleer and Kronos Quartet, who both carried out processes of cultural exchange and commissioning that were artistically enriching and entirely respectful.
I’m grateful to composer Chen Yi, who first introduced me to Chanticleer. Chanticleer then invited me to teach them about indigenous singing styles, exploring those techniques on their own voices, and having in-depth discussions about Native American cultures, especially my own. I explained to Chanticleer much of what I’ve written above, about existential postulates, forced culture change, song-ing, and the life-and-death reciprocity of indigenous cosmologies. Afterward, and subsequently through the years, they have commissioned several works from me; Chanticleer felt it was especially important to contract with me as a Mohican-Lenape composer to create the indigenous-inspired works they would later perform. Chanticleer’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.
My Kronos story is very similar. David Harrington’s mother, Hazel, read a newspaper article that peripherally compared my music to her son’s ensemble. She clipped out the article and sent it to him. David visited me, and after several hours of talking over most of the explanations I’ve included above, he commissioned a new work from me that very afternoon. And over the years, I have composed three works for Kronos that intersect Native American aesthetics and Western music. Even more, I’m not the only indigenous collaborator with whom they’ve worked; Kronos has invited new commissions from celebrated Diné composer Raven Chacon and the distinguished Inuit throat singer herself, Tanya Tagaq. Kronos Quartet’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.
It is my firm belief that by championing a respectful cultural process as an artistic standard we not only achieve important cross-cultural understanding, but we form important intercultural relations with each other. With cultural respect comes a deeper historical context for approaching the quality of music. In order to approach composers and compositions, we must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality. We must admit that quality is measured with cultural understanding, not through detached vocal craft or objectified technique. Music may be well crafted, but what is the music saying? Where are the relationships in the process? What communities are involved? What lives beyond the Western musical hegemony? Can we jettison the impossible acultural neutrality narrative in Western classical music to discover a mutually enriching exchange of culture?
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Brent Michael Davids is a concert and film composer, co-director of the Lenape Center in Manhattan, and citizen of the Mohican Nation. As an American Indian music specialist, consultant, and educator, Davids co-founded the Native American Composer Apprentice Project. Davids serves on the Institute for Composer Diversity’s Executive Council. Master performer of indigenous instruments and styles. Designer of original musical instruments. Two music composition degrees. Trained at Sundance Institute. Apprenticed with film composer Stephen Warbeck.