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Native American

Music was Fundamental to the Culture of Indigenous Music of North America

Genre Spotlight...."Native American"

Eastern Woodlands Indian Tribes.... Miami, Lenape, Iroquois, Massachusett, Powhatan, Abenaki, Shawnee and Pequot, Fox, Sauk, Wampanoag, Delaware, Huron (Wyandot), Mohawk, Menominee, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Chippewa (or Ojibwa), Delaware, Mohegans (or Mohicans), Cherokee, Choctaw, Natchez, Seminole.

Stylistic Origins.... Short Iterative Phrases, reverting relationships, shouts before, during, and after singing, anhemitonic pentatonic scales, simple rhythms and meter, antiphonal or responsorial techniques including "rudimentary imitative polyphony"

Types of Music..... Chicken Scratch, Ghost Dance , Hip hop, Opera, Peyote song, Pow Wow, Throat Singing

Hall of Fame & Awards.... Native American Music Awards & Association (NAMA), New York NY

Indigenous music of North America, which includes American Indian music or Native American music, is the music that is used, created or performed by Indigenous peoples of North America, including Native Americans in the United States and Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Indigenous peoples of Mexico, and other North American countries—especially traditional tribal music. In addition to the traditional music of the Native American groups, there now exist pan-tribal and intertribal genres as well as distinct Native American sub-genres of popular music including: rock, blues, hip hop, classical, film music, and reggae, as well as unique popular styles like waila ("chicken scratch").

The study of the music of the indigenous peoples of North America has been a topic of research since the late nineteenth century. These studies have mainly focused on the American Indians that lived west of the Mississippi. The Native American groups that lived on the eastern border and southern areas of North America, known as the Eastern Woodland American Indians, have received much less attention than these other groups.

Colonial Period

At the time of the first European settlements in North America, Algonquian tribes occupied New Brunswick, and much of Canada east of the Rocky Mountains; what is now New England, New Jersey, southeastern New York, Delaware and down the Atlantic Coast through the Upper South; and around the Great Lakes in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. They were most concentrated in the New England region. The homeland of the Algonquian peoples is not known. At the time of the European arrival, the hegemonic Iroquois federation, based in present-day New York and Pennsylvania, was regularly at war with Algonquian neighbors. It forced other tribes out of Iroquois-occupied territories.

For about two centuries, the spread of Euro-American settlers was impeded by Algonquian peoples, who concluded hundreds of peace treaties with them. Metacomet, Powhatan, Cornstalk, Tecumseh and Pontiac were leaders of Algonquian-speaking nations.

New England Area

Colonists in the Massachusetts Bay area first encountered the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac. The Mohegan, Pequot, Pocumtuc, Tunxis, and Narragansett were based in southern New England. The Abenaki tribe was located in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and eastern Quebec. Mohican tribe was located in western New England and in the upper Hudson River Valley (around Albany, New York). These tribes practiced agriculture, hunting and fishing.

Mid & South - Atlantic Areas

The Lenape, also called Delaware, were (Munsee) and Unami speakers that were in what is now known as the eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, lower Hudson Valley and western Long Island areas in New York. They encountered the European explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in what is now New York Harbor in 1524. Branches of the Pequot occupied eastern Long Island.

Further south were the traditional homes of the Powhatan, a loose group of tribes numbering into the tens of thousands, who were among the first to encounter English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay. Historic tribes also included the Nanticoke, Wicocomico, Secotan, Chowanoke, Weapemeoc, and Chickahominy peoples.


Eastern & Southern Woodland Culture

The Eastern Woodland Culture consisted of Indian tribes inhabiting the eastern United States and Canada. The Eastern Woodlands were moderate-climate regions roughly from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and included the Great Lakes. This huge area boasted ample rainfall, numerous lakes and rivers, and great forests. The rich earth and forests from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico comprised the southeastern part of the Eastern Woodlands. This culture region abuts the Plains Culture to the west and the Subarctic Culture to the north. Indian spearing fish. Eastern Woodlands Indians used music during traditional ceremonies. Some songs also tell different tribes’ stories and family histories.

The Adena and Hopewell were the earliest historic Eastern Woodland inhabitants. Between 800 B.C. and A.D. 800, they lived in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. Both societies are noted for their prominent burial mounds, frequently graced with sophisticated grave goods. Like earlier archaic groups, the Adena were hunters and gatherers who erected seasonal camps. The Hopewell also were hunters and gatherers, but like later Woodland tribes, they lived in villages and supplemented their diet with cultivated plants.

Later peoples of the Eastern Woodlands included the Illinois, Iroquois, Shawnee and a number of Algonquian speaking peoples such as the Narragansett and Pequot. Southeastern peoples included the Cherokee, Chocktaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Natchez and Seminole.

Eastern Woodland tribes lived in similar ways. Their complex societies were typically divided into classes, including a chief, his children, the nobility and commoners. Overall there were some variations in climate and harvestable flora and fauna. It followed that the tribes varied somewhat in diet and housing, apparel and transportation.

Since warfare was harsh and frequent, villages were often fortified by fencing reinforced with dirt. Causes of conflict between tribes varied, but typically involved territorial rights, male coming-of-age rituals, or retaliation.

In general, the natives were deer-hunters and farmers. The men made bows and arrows, stone knives and war clubs. The women tended garden plots where beans, corn, pumpkin, squash and tobacco were cultivated. Women also harvested these crops and prepared the food. Black pottery or wood and bark vessels were used for cooking. They dried berries, corn, fish, meat and squash for the winter. The diet of deer meat was also supplemented by other game and shellfish.

The tribes lived near water for transportation purposes. In general, the northern tribes fashioned birchbark canoes while southeastern tribes dug out canoes from tree trunks. On land, the natives traveled on foot and bore their cargo on their backs, having no pack animals. Dogs were their sole domesticated animals.

The interconnectedness of the tribes would manifest itself in the music expression of each tribe. In the same way, the religious beliefs of these Native Americans were displayed in ceremonies where music and dance were very important.

Music & Musical Instruments

Woodland Indian music has been an integral part of the daily lives of Woodland Indians. Songs accompanied ceremonies for the dead, preparations for war, nearly all the games, and were essential in treating the sick. For the observance of the Midewiwin rites, the songs were as important as the spiritual leaders themselves because there could be no rituals without the appropriate songs. Many songs were inspired by dreams either during an individual's vision quest or later in his life. Songs could be learned from the dreamer or, in some cases, bought from the owner. Songs were often passed from tribe to tribe, and men returning from journeys were asked what new songs they had learned.

The instruments included drums, rattles, and the courting flutes. Whistles were also made from reed, split alder, or bone, but they were not used as musical instruments. Instead, they were used as war signals and were part of war bundles and war bundle ceremonies.

While it is understood that drums were essential to the music of the tribes of the North & Southeast, it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely understand the characteristics of the drums or how they were created. This is because the early writings of encounters with these tribesmen by explorers usually did not make particular note of the drums used by the Tribes. However, Captain John Smith did make reference to the instruments used among the tribes near Jamestown. These peoples were included in the collection of Northeastern Algonquins; however, they were on the southern boundaries. He states: "They cover the mouth (of a “deepe platter of wood”) thereof with a skin, at each corner they tie a walnut, which meeting on the backside neere the bottom, with a small rope they twitch them together till it be so taught and stiffe that they may beat upon it as upon a drumme.” Although Smith’s remark does not give much detail and only references one tribe of Native Americans associated with the Algonquins, it provides at least some information about the type of drum that was used among the peoples. There is also speculation that these tribes used water drums, which are known to have been used throughout the eastern portion of the United States. These types of drums were also popular among Midwestern and plains tribes, in particular the Navajo.

Membranophones & Idiophones

Membranophones and idiophones were the main instruments of Native Americans. Membranophones are percussion instruments by which the sound is produced using a vibrating membrane. These membranes can be made out of animal skins, as they were traditionally, or of synthetic materials as is more common in contemporary times. A familiar example of this type of instrument in the western musical culture would be the snare drum. Idiophones are percussion instruments that produce sound by their own vibration. Examples of these include claves, cymbals, rattles, and bells.


There were three kinds of drums: the Large Drum for the Dream Dance, the Water Drum for the Midewiwin rites, and the Tambourine Drum (also called a chief's drum) used in the War Dance, moccasin game, and by Native doctors.

Drums are highly influential in American Indian music. Different tribes have different traditions about their drums and how to play them. For larger dance or powwow type drums, the basic construction is very similar in most tribes: a wooden frame or a carved and hollowed-out log, with rawhide buckskin or elk skin stretched out across the opening by sinew thongs. Traditionally American Indian drums are large, two to three feet in diameter, and they are played communally by groups of singers who sit around them in a circle. For smaller single-sided hand drums, a thinner frame or shell is used, and a rawhide surface is strung onto only one side, with lacing across the other. Other types include two basic styles of water drums: the Iroquois type and the Yaqui type. The Iroquois water drum is a small cup-shaped wooden vessel, with water inside it, and a moistened tanned hide stretched across the top opening; the wetness and tightness of the tanned hide produce changes in pitch as the water drum is played over time. The Yaqui type of water drum is actually a half gourd, large in size, that floats in a tub of water like a bubble on the surface; the outer round surface of the gourd is struck with a drum stick, and the vibrations are amplified using the tub of water as a resonator.

Another type of drum called a foot drum have been found in several southwestern and central-Californian US Native American archaeological sites inhabited, or formally inhabited, by the Miwok, Maidu, Nahua, and Hopi Indian tribes. These drums were often semicircle cross-sectioned hollow logs laid over wood covered 'resonating' pits positioned according to custom in kivas or dance houses. The foot drums were played by stomping on top of the hollow log with the structure's poles used for steadying.

Water Drum

Water drums of the east were crafted from hollowed-out logs that would be plugged on one end. They could be made out of other materials, such as clay. However, this type of pottery water drum was used in other areas of North America, most notably among the Navajos of the Western United States. Then they would be filled partially with water and a skin would be placed on the top and tightened. The preferred skin used as the head of the drum could differ among communities depending on the size of the drum, the natural resources available, and the varying tonal preferences of the tribe. Some examples of common animals skins used were that of deer and woodchucks. The size of these drums varied. There were very large examples, especially among the Chippewa. These were a foot tall or larger and required a head that would stretch from eight to ten inches across. These would be played in a tilted position on the ground because of their size. These were larger than most of the drums used among the Algonquin tribes of the Northeast. Their neighbors to the south, the Cherokee, crafted much smaller drums that could be held while being played.

Another difference was the amount of water used in the drum. Accounts claim that the drums were filled halfway with water, although this amount of water is unlikely. Other accounts state that among some tribes that used this drum two mouthfuls of water would be placed in the cavity. In order to add to remove water, a small hole would be drilled in the drum.20 The timbre of the drum could be slightly adjusted by either adding or removing water. While changing the volume of air affected the sound or timbre of the drum, the water in the drum effected how wet the membrane was, which in turn also affected the timbre. This was important because water drums, like all the membranophones from the culture, were said to have their own “voices”. A singer was then able to make, use, and play a drum whose voice corresponded with his own voice.

Chief's, Hand or Tambourine Drum

The hand drum was a circular wooden frame about a foot and a half in diameter and two and a half inches wide. It was covered with thin rawhide on both sides and ordinarily would be painted, sometimes with the symbols of the owner's vision. Two parallel cords were strung inside and attached to these were short sticks which vibrated against the heads when the drum was struck. The drummer put one hand through a rawhide loop attached to the frame and resting the lower side of the drum on his knee, he struck the drum head with the wrapped end of a straight drumstick.

Large Drum

The largest and most dramatically decorated drum was that for the Drum Dance or Dream Dance. The bottom of a large wooden washtub was removed and both top and bottom were covered with rawhide heads. The top head was painted symbolically, one half blue, the other red. Through the center ran a yellow stripe representing the path of the sun. The drum hung suspended from four stakes set in the ground-the drum itself was never allowed to touch the ground-oriented so the painted sun path ran east and west, with the red half to the south. The stakes were heavily beaded, and the drum itself was ornamented with beaded belts, perforated silver coins, and bits of fur. A piece of silk, colored cotton cloth, or a blanket was spread beneath the drum. The male members of the drum arranged themselves around it and accompanied their songs with straight drumsticks wrapped at one end. The drum and the smoke from their pipes carried their invocations to the manido.

Rattles or Shakers

Rattles were also very important to the Algonquins of the Northeast and to Native Americans in general. John Smith commented on these as well: “But their chiefs instruments are rattles made of small gourds, or Pumpeons shels. Of these they have Base, Tenor, Countertenor, Meane, and Treble.” Eastern & Southern rattles were usually created using gourds because of their availability in the east. They could be filled with a variety of items to produce the actual rattle, including seeds and pebbles. Seeds were much more commonly used, because small rocks would create a harsher tone that was not as well liked. After it was introduced to the Native Americans, shot would also be used within the gourds.

Other materials could be used to create rattles, such as bark, or the horns of animals where available, and many parts of the turtle. The latter example was rather common throughout the northeast. After filling the turtle shell with a number of small items, the shell could be sealed and a handle applied. Then, these shells would be either painted a dark color or left as their natural color and adorned with brightly painted designs. Examples have also been discovered of rattles that have been crafted out of the feet of turtles.

Although much less common, aerophones, or wind instruments, were also believed to have been used in the music of the Native Americans in this area. These instruments could be made out of a variety of materials, such as the horns of animals, wood, and the bones of birds. They were used to call game and to scare away birds. It is also believed that flutes had a special place in the music of some religious ceremonies of the Native Americans.

Native American Flutes

The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of new age and world music recordings. Its music was used in courtship, healing, meditation, and spiritual rituals.

The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the flute, with a new wave of flautists and artisans like Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) and Carl Running Deer. Notable and award winning Native American flautists include: Mary Youngblood, Kevin Locke, Charles Littleleaf, Jay Red Eagle, Robert Tree Cody, Robert Mirabal, Joseph Firecrow, and Jeff Ball. Tommy Wildcat is a contemporary flutist, who makes traditional Cherokee river cane flutes. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai (Changes, 1983), who has achieved Gold record status and mainstream credibility for his mixture of the flute with other contemporary genres.

The Native American flute is the only flute in the world constructed with two air chambers - there is a wall inside the flute between the top (slow) air chamber and the bottom chamber which has the whistle and finger holes. The top chamber also serves as a secondary resonator, which gives the flute its distinctive sound. There is a hole at the bottom of the "slow" air chamber and a (generally) square hole at the top of the playing chamber. A block (or "bird") with a spacer is tied on top of the flute to form a thin, flat airstream for the whistle hole (or "window"). Some more modern flutes use an undercut either in the block or the flute to eliminate the need for a spacer.

The "traditional" Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body - the length of the flute would be the distance from armpit to wrist, the length of the top air chamber would be one fist-width, the distance from the whistle to the first hole also a fist-width, the distance between holes would be one thumb-width, and the distance from the last hole to the end would generally be one fist-width. Unlike Western music, traditional American Indian music had no standard pitch reference such as A440, so flutes were not standardized for pitch.

Historic Native American flutes are generally tuned to a variation of the minor pentatonic scale (such as you would get playing the black keys on a piano), which gives the instrument its distinctive plaintive sound. Recently some makers have begun experimenting with different scales, giving players new melodic options. Also, modern flutes are generally tuned in concert keys (such as A or D) so that they can be easily played with other instruments. The root keys of modern Native American flutes span a range of about three and a half octaves, from C2 to A5.

Native American flutes most commonly have either 5 or 6 holes, but instruments can have anything from no holes to seven (including a thumb hole). Various makers employ different scales and fingerings for their flutes.

Some modern Native American flutes are called "drone" flutes, and are two (or more) flutes built together. Generally, the drone chamber plays a fixed note which the other flute can play against in harmony.

Lover's Flute

The lover's flute or courting flute was primarily used for courting and for playing a song being used as a love charm. However, it was occasionally played to warn a village of an approaching war party. Some tribes insisted that youths play their flutes outside the bounds of the village because the courting flute's tones were thought to be too seductive for unmarried girls to resist.


The flute (more properly called a flageolet) was made of two sections of cedar joined to form a hollow cylinder about eighteen inches long and an inch and a quarter in diameter. When iron became available, the flute was then fashioned from a single piece of cedar that was hollowed out by burning it with a hot iron rod. A solid section was left near the top, and a rectangular opening was cut on either side. Over this was fitted a wooden pitch control, which was sometimes carved in the shape of a horse. The flute was end-blown and players produced the tones by fingering six holes spaced about an inch apart. The courting flute was strictly a solo instrument.

Singing & Songs

The Native Americans placed great emphasis on the personality of the singer. To them the idea, the melody, and the rhythm of the song were essential elements and were more important than the words. Because of their sacred character, Midewiwin songs were in a separate category. Because they were musical expressions of religious ideas, they depended more on melody and rhythm than on the words which could sometimes not be understood except by the initiates.

One characteristic of the singing of nearly all Woodland groups was a wavering vibrato wavering tone which was considered a sign of musical proficiency. A nasal quality was confined to love songs, but women accompanying the men's singing in the Drum Dance also produced a nasal, high-keyed humming by keeping their mouths closed and holding their noses partly shut. Rhythm was as much a part of the composition as the melody since the rhythm often expressed the idea because the words could often vary. Some of the supernatural power of the songs derived from the repetition of phrases and words. Different rhythms were appropriate to different kinds of songs, including those used for different dances and those which accompanied games.

The Drum Dance had songs which were the property of its members, and when a particular song was begun, the member who owned that song rose and began to dance. Other songs ensured were part of hunting charms and were sung only by certain men. Small drawings were used by the singers to remembered the idea of the song. There were also songs to assure good harvests of maple sugar and wild rice. Social songs include those heard today during Indian powwows and publicly performed dances.

Music & Curing

Songs were an integral part of curing the sick. Native doctors often sold a medicine after singing the particular song that assured its success, but the song itself was never bought or sold. Charms were also accompanied by certain songs, and charms and their songs could be purchased. For instance, love charms involved securing personal items such as bits of clothing or hair from the person who was the object of the charm. When worn by the one working the charm, these items and the proper song ensured success.

Cry Ceremony

When someone in a Woodland tribe died, the tribe would hold a cry ceremony. The chief sang and danced around the fire. This ceremony lasted for five days. The day before it started, five knots were tied in a piece of milkweed. Every day of the ceremony they untied a knot.

The Music

″Rhythms of the Universe"

There exist many similarities between the musical characteristics the Northeastern Algonquins and their Eastern Woodland neighbors. This is attributed to the interaction that these tribes had with each other. The musical scales used were often made up of four to six tones. These tones would have relatively the same interval separating them. A classically trained western musician might equate this scale to the modern whole-tone scale. These scales were used to construct melodies that rise and fall repeatedly. The rhythmic elements of the music of the Eastern Native Americans were a foundational component.27 The Native Americans considered the rhythms of drums, rattles, and overall music to be representative of the great forces that impacted life. These rhythms were believed to mimic the rhythms of the universe.28 Meter would frequently change within a song. Rhythms often included a heavy use of syncopation. These rhythms of the Eastern Woodland tribes are considered to be relatively simple. However, it was essential for the singers to perform the rhythms in the correct manner.

Form is another basic element of music that should be discussed. The songs from this area mainly took three forms. The first was strophic. In this form, each stanza of lyrics is sung to or over the same music.32 The second common type of form used was a sectional form. In these types of songs the musical phrases and concepts were broken into closed sections that would change during the songs. Finally, iterative forms were used by the Northeastern Native Americans. Songs that follow iterative forms are songs that consist of short sections of music that are repeated.

The use of the human voice was central to the music of these Native Americans. The voice could always be used; performers were not limited by needing to have an instrument in their possession. The vocal technique of the Eastern Woodland most often utilized the middle section of the vocal range, although there were exceptions. Other techniques were incorporated in order to alter the emotional impact of a song or to in some way change the expressiveness of the music. This was often done through a rapid vibrato or yodeling. The latter is a vocal technique in which a singer quickly changes the pitch from being high to very low, often covering a wide interval and utilizing falsetto and chest tones.34 Vocables, or audible sounds with no real lexical meaning in a language, were also used as a tool to add to the emotional expression of a song. Songs could be built upon vocables solely or they could be used intermittently in addition to the text with a comprehensible meaning.

There was a distinctive musical element practiced among the Eastern Woodland tribes that was not as widespread among other tribes through North America. This was an emphasis on call and response singing. This form of singing is often found in dance songs. As the dance would begin, the leader would sing an introduction of a melody with lyrics as a solo. This was often short in length. The introductory phrase could be rather long compared to the response. The dancers would then in turn sing the line in unison. As the song continued, so would this practice. This created an antiphonal texture, which was not seen often in the musical practices of other Native Americans.39 A song that has an antiphonal texture involves two parties; these can be solo singers, choirs, or a combination that alternate singing. Other examples of this could be found in many types of folk music and music of the Western musical tradition.

These antiphonal songs would vary in characteristics. For example, the responses of the second singer or group of singers could be monotonic, ditonal, or melodic in its nature. Monotonic phrases were most often utilized at beginning and ending phrases of longer songs. While early recorded examples and dictations of this phenomenon are limited, there are later transcribed examples that clearly confirm this musical practice.

Musical Culture

Music was fundamental to the culture of the Algonquins. The major events in a person’s life, annual celebrations, and religious practices all were associated with ceremonies and festivities. These ceremonies would involve music, in which drums and singing were often integrated. Dancing was also heavily linked to the musical culture of the Algonquins, for them music and dance were inseparable. There were a number of dances with music that were associated with different rituals and ceremonies. Each of these dances had different expressions, qualities, and meanings. As with many cultures, the Algonquins have rites of passage to symbolize the transitioning of a young child into adulthood. The dance that was a part of the ceremony celebrating this rite was the Vision Dance. This type of dance was a familiar dance that was especially important within three areas of the country, including the plains, the Northwest, and the East. The Delawares provide an example of a Northeastern Algonquin tribe that performed this dance.

Young boys, who had often not yet became teenagers, would have a vision revealed to them. This vision would be cherished by the boy for his entire life because he viewed it as sacred. In order to receive a vision, a boy whose voice was beginning to change would fast. The boys desired that during the fast they would receive the voice of a man and a vision from a guiding spirit. A Vision Dance and the songs associated with it were the means through which a person could express the vision he or she had received. Visions were rarely described using words, but rather dance and music.

Vision Dance

The Vision Dance among the Delaware tribes, as in many other tribes, was associated with a ceremony, called the Big House ceremony. Music and dance were intertwined with all of the aspects of this ritual. This ceremony and the rites associated with it would take twelve days to complete and was practiced once a year. Participants in this ceremony were persons who had received a vision in their early childhood or teenage years. Only those that were older than thirty-five were allowed to share in the ceremony because of beliefs on the age of spiritual maturity, until the last days of the celebration, in which younger members were able to share about the vision that they had received.

The Vision Dance was most prominent in the first two nights of the ceremony. It began with the leader repeating his vision. He would do this by talking. However, instead of his normal voice he would use a high-pitched version with little inflection. After stating a phrase, it would be repeated by another person in attendance, acting as his helper or follower. As his personal vision was spoken of, the leader would rapidly shake a rattle constructed out of the shell of a turtle.

A membranophone crafted out of four slats and deerskin that had been dried and prepared was also used. This was played by two members who also would be the singers. This drum would be rapidly beaten at the conclusion of the leader’s description of his vision. In addition, the singers would make the exclamation, “Ho-o-o!” multiple times. Songs played a very important role in this ceremony, with each person sharing their vision having their own unique song based on the vision. The leader at this point would sing a verse of his song as the singers played a beat on the deerskin drum. The leader would then proceed to dance around two large fires while the drummers and singers continued to play. The leader could, when needed, stop the drummers by whooping. He was then able to sing or state another verse, which the singers would repeat as the dance continued. This was repeated an estimated six or seven times, as each verse added to the story of his personal vision.

As the leader would dance, men would often stand up and join him creating a line. After the men had joined, the women were free to join the line as well. As the leader passed the singers, he would stop and greet them. The dancers following the leader would look towards the singers as they passed them. This was a symbol of respect. The leader would perform the last verse of the song to a post in the center of the room. This post had been carved with a face that represented the Great Spirit. The leader would then pass the rattle to the next man in line, in order for him to lead the singing of his vision while dancing. The man could pass the rattle on to the next visionary if he did not wish to dance. The person that received the rattle and chose to lead would then follow the same procedure as the original leader, with the singers learning the words. This process could continue all night until each person that had wished to share had an opportunity.

The Vision Dances were important in the lives of the Delawares and others who practiced this dance because it created a communication with the spirits that they worshiped. During this ceremony all participants were viewed as having a direct connection with the spirit world, instead of only the select few, such as priests or medicine men.

War & Grass Dance

Music and dancing played a large role in others areas of the Native American society. War was almost a continuous threat in the lives of the tribes. Fighting was common between the neighboring tribes and groups. Whether preparing for a coming battle or rejoicing over a victory, music and dancing were integrated with these events.

The War Dance was a dance that was prevalent throughout the Eastern Woodlands, which were the larger group in which the Algonquins were a part. The War Dance of the Algonquin past should not be mistaken for the War Dance that is practiced in Native American culture today, which is truly a version of the Grass Dance. The Grass Dance was a Western War Dance where the performer would wear weaved grass representing the warriors he had fought and killed. Other tribes that practiced the Grass Dance believed that it would provide the dancers the ability to heal burns.

Originally, when first encountered by early explorers and colonists, the War Dance struck fear into the hearts of those who saw it. It also was the most intriguing of all of the Native American dances to the foreigners. It symbolized preparation for war. There was a specific War Dance song that was performed during the dance. McKenney and Hall described the music as a continuous beating of a drum, that they judged as crude, with sticks. All the dancers would participate in the singing during the performance in their account. Additional accompaniment came in the form of rattles made of gourds and the shaking of bells and other items, such as tin, which were worn by the dancers. These writers claim that the songs are constructed of short and abrupt sentences, the subject of which could be hatred, revenge, or in celebration of a memory of a past victory. They described the songs as being without a melody. However, the bias of the writers towards the ‘savages’ they were witnessing should be noted with the remarks of their music.

Before the dance began, the Native Americans prepared the area by placing a post in the ground. This would become the center, around which the dance was to be performed. This post was sometimes painted various colors, which would be different depending on the tribe. In other accounts, the post was left bare.

The chief would usually start the dance, indicating that he was the one calling for the group to join and fight. He would go to the post and strike it with his weapon, usually either a war club or tomahawk. The other men in the area would encircle the one calling for the fight.57 Those who would drum would begin the War Dance song. In response, the chief would begin his dancing. One by one, other men would come forward. As a man came, he would talk of his war actions,58 or the war deeds that their ancestors had a part in, and strike the post. Then he would join the dancers. This was symbolic of him joining the war effort.60 After every warrior had a chance to tell of the deeds he had done, they would all dance together. This would be erratic, as the men practiced for the fighting they planned on having to use in the coming battle. This would involve yelling and screaming.

Figure 5 provides an example of a song that could have been performed along with the War Dance. This war song was sung for Curtis by Bedagi, also known as Big Thunder, in the early 1900s. Bedagi was a member of the Penobscot tribe, which was associated with the Algonquin family.

Penobscot War Song

The song is composed of this musical statement repeated twice. This demonstrates another important element of the music, often songs or musical phrases would be repeated multiple times until the end of the dance or ceremony. This was a major part of the war dance as multiple men would tell of their war deeds repeatedly. In order to compensate so that the rhythm of the song could be notated in this system, Curtis had to alternate between 2/4 and 3/4. This piece also provides an example of another popular musical element of Algonquin music: A higher tone would be sung and then passed to another tone by sliding of the voice.

After a victorious battle, they would celebrate with music. The dances practiced in this situation among the Algonquin family were Scalp or Victory Dances. While very similar, the former title seems to more often reference a dance performed by female dancers. This dance would eventually be practiced among many Native Americans throughout North America, with forms being showcased among the Crow, Blackfoot, Chippewa, Cheyenne, and the Lakota or Teton peoples, which were recorded by Lewis and Clark. However, it had its beginnings among the Algonquins.

The practice of scalping originated in the Northeast and was limited to a small number of tribes. It is believed that the originating group was the Mohicans. A collection of people broke from this tribe, migrated to what is now Connecticut, and settled. This group would eventually be called the Pequot tribe, which would be a major part of the Algonquin family in the northeast.

Samuel de Champlain made one of the earliest references to this type of dance on June 9th, 1615 when he was observing Native Americans on the coast of Maine. A large feast was being prepared in celebration of a great defeat of the Iroquois, in which hundreds of men were reported to have been killed. In attendance were Algonquins, Passamoquoddies, and Montagnais. The ceremony was taking place in a cabin. Within this cabin were large containers in which various kinds of meat were being boiled. In one location sat the Sagamore, a word that means great prince in early American literature. In front of this man were the wives and daughters that were in attendance and two wooden poles. On these poles were the heads of enemies that had been killed.

Calumet Ceremony

As there are times of war, there are also times of peace. These times of peace were also commemorated with celebrations involving music and dance. One example of this would be the Calumet ceremony of the Algonquins. When Nicolas Perrot encountered the Ottawas in 1665, he became one of the first ources to describe the Calumet dance of an Algonquin tribe. This type of dance was used in many ways for a variety of reasons. It seems as if the most prominent ways were to greet unfamiliar visitors and ambassadors from an enemy tribe, and in the celebration of ceremonial friendships or alliances. However, it was also often used in order to have a successful hunt or battle, to affect the luck of a group, to call for healing, and in peace ceremonies between tribes that had traditionally been adversaries. While this dance was practiced among the Ottawas, it was also practiced among many other tribes, including the southeastern Algonquins. It is generally believed that the ceremony and dance originated among the Pawnee Indians in the early part of the seventeenth century.

A calumet is a ceremonial pipe. The French named the pipe after the Latin term, calumus, meaning “reed.” These pipes were crafted out of hollow reeds and were popular among Native Americans throughout North America. When handled by Native Americans, the pipes were treated in a sacred manner. The smoking of calumets was often paired with elaborate ceremony with many songs, of which the Calumet dance was a part. The calumet included a stone bowl. The bowls were ornamented with golden eagle tail feathers made to look like a fan. Incense was burned in the bowl, so that the smell could travel to the spirits. The eagle tail feathers symbolize the power of the eagle, which was revered by most Native Americans. The eagle was considered to be the dominant and most magnificent creature of the air.

The Calumet Dance was only a part of these ceremonies. The celebration would begin with a parade, in which the pipe and other items would be carried. This symbolized those items welcoming and acknowledging everyone involved with the ceremony. After this, the Calumet Dance would occur. The dance is believed to have originated primarily as a solo dance; however, as time went on the dance would add more participants. To prepare, the dancer would be painted white, again in reference to the powerful eagle. The movements of the dancer mimicked the movements of the eagle, whose power and image was closely linked to both the calumet and the ceremony. The dancer would carry the pipe that had been ornamented. The ceremony would evolve with time. Eventually, a rattle would be carried and shaken with the beat of the drummers. Eagle bone whistles would also later be used to mimic the sound of the eagle call.

After the completion of this dance, the Discovery Dance would be performed. This was another important piece of the ceremony. This dance was done in celebration of the acts that a warrior had done while in battle. The next part of the ceremony focused on striking a post. This, like the Calumet Dance, was performed by a solo dancer, accompanied by drummers. The warrior would stand and the drums would begin to beat. As they did, the dancer would reenact an experience that he had encountered while in war. The drumbeats, which had begun quite slowly, would continue to accelerate rapidly until it was at a very fast tempo. The music would then halt and fall completely silent. The dancer would approach the post and strike it with the weapon that he carried. This strike symbolized a war deed, which he would describe verbally to his audience. Then the song would begin again and the dancer would reenact another deed, which he would describe after striking the post. This would continue until all of the acts of war from the man had been recounted. He would then pass this weapon off to the next man who would go through the process. Presents would often be given to the chiefs that were present at the ceremony after a man had finished his dance.

The last sections of the ceremony had much less involvement of music and dance. Honors would be given for performance in war. After this, presents would be exchanged among the attending parties. The actual smoking of the peace pipe would then happen, which symbolized the friendship or treaty that had been made. Finally, a great feast would be held in celebration. The animistic culture of these Native Americans is again portrayed through this ceremony. While this same type of ceremony was practiced among many tribes, local culture affected the meaning of these peace ceremonies. Tribes in the west ascribed more power and spiritual importance to the calumet ceremonies. These events would seal relationships of peace and would almost never be broken. However, tribes in the east, such as the Northeastern Algonquins, would break the peace contracts agreed upon by these rituals.

The Calumet ceremony could also be used as a healing ceremony. Due to these songs’ involvement in these ceremonies, they called the music used in healing medicine songs. Blamswe-Zozep Tene remembered a specific song of the genre from his youth as he heard his grandfather sing it. The lyrics of the song were mostly real words; however, by the time of Curtis’ interview the song was antiquated. Tene was only able to remember the refrain of the song which used vocables. It should be noted that some members of the Wabanakis disagreed with Tene and recognized the song simply as a soci than a medicine song.

Social & Greeting Music

Music and dance were important in other areas of life as well. Songs of greeting would be performed when two tribes would meet. These songs, referred to N’Skawewintuagunul by some of the Northern Algonquins, were important in establishing connections between tribes. In the early 1900s Curtis interviewed two members of the Algonquin family named Blamswe-Zozep Tene and Asawhis from Maine. These Native Americans reflected on the process involved with these greeting songs. The following summary is taken from their joint account, recorded by Curtis. Other Native Americans would travel to their tribe by canoe. When the people of the tribe saw this, they would all gather on the shore in preparation for meeting the unknown men. As the boat drew towards land, an unfamiliar man would leave the boat and begin to sing his greeting song. The other persons would join in, repeatedly singing the vocable phrases “hega, hega”. The leader would then slowly dance towards the tribe’s chief while singing. At the end of his song, he would be standing next to the chief with his hand extended. The men recalled that the visitor would say: “I greet you, chief of the Passamaquoddy.” In response to this, the visitors would cheer by shouting and shooting guns. The visitor would then greet each of the leaders of the tribe in this manner. In response, the tribe would sing a song of welcome while performing a similar ceremony. Upon completion, they would all gather and feast together.

Music & Religious Ceremonies

Music was also an important factor of the religious ceremonies. Dances were used in partnership with the music in worship or in celebration of gods, spirits, or deities. The Doll Dance of the Delaware tribe, which is part of the Algonquin family, is a superb example of this type of dance. Dolls were very important to the Delaware tribesmen. These dolls were believed to possess powers. These powers included preserving one’s health and healing the sick. Medicine men would make or have a doll made in order to use the doll in a healing ritual. Additionally, dolls could be associated with black magic and witchcraft. These beliefs in the powers and spirits of these dolls further demonstrate the animistic world-view that was prevalent in the Eastern culture.

Legend of the Delaware tribe holds that once a child’s doll came to life. The doll commanded the owners to prepare a feast for it, mend new clothes, and have a dance yearly in the spring in its honor. The tribe did this, holding a celebration and dance every spring, known as the Doll Dance. Good luck and blessings would be bestowed upon the participants that took part in the ceremony and whoever owned the doll that was used. The ceremony involved tying a doll to a pole or stick. The doll was addressed with respect, as “grandmother”. The leader of the dance would then take the doll, which was still attached to the pole, and begin to dance in a circle. As he danced, others would join, creating two circles. The women danced on the outside circle and the men danced on the inside circle. After completion, the doll would be passed from the dance leader to another man, whom would dance with it. The process would continue until six men had a chance to join the doll in dance. At this time, the women would be given the doll to dance with. The same process would happen as did with the men until six women had danced with the doll. The reason for this was that the number twelve was believed by the Delaware tribe to be sacred. After the doll had danced with the men and women for six times, it had completed twelve dance sets.

Musicians would sit in the center of these circles from which they would play. The music accompaniment to this dance was slightly peculiar when compared to other traditional dances, specifically in reference to the instruments that were used. Instead of the traditional types of membranophones or idiophones that were discussed, musicians performing the doll dance song would use stuffed percussive instruments. The instrument was prepared using a dried animal hide. The hide would then be sewn so that it could be stuffed, usually with grass. The musicians would utilize sticks to beat these stuffed drums.78 Since the stuffed drums seem to only be recorded as being used in the doll dance, there could have been a correlation between the nature of the drum and the stuffed doll that was being celebrated. Doll dances were also practiced in the dances and ceremonies of other tribes not related to the Algonquins of the Northeast. Lewis and Clark reported that they had a major role in the Buffalo Dance of the Mandans. They were also used in the Sun Dances of the Crow and the Kiowa.

Music & Death

Music and dance were incorporated into every aspect of Native American life. The final stage of a person’s life, death, also involved music. In the culture of the Eastern Native Americans, those who had passed would be slowly and steadily separated from the society in which they lived. When a person was approaching death, they would be painted and dressed with the nicest clothes that the family could offer. The person’s weapons, trinkets, and other items would be placed around him as his family and the tribe’s witchdoctor or shaman gathered. While he or she was passing, the female relations or relatives present would sing mournful songs. These songs often reference the relationships the singers had with the dying individual. If the person seemed to be regaining awareness, the mourning and singing would stop.

After the passing of the individual, he or she would be made to sit up. The body of the person would be left in the area in which he or she had died. This allowed time for people to visit the body before a burial ceremony. In these meetings people would mourn. Part of this process involved singing. One female would begin to sing doleful music while she cried. Others in the room would then join in singing. However, as soon as the leader stopped, everyone else would stop as well. Then they would offer a present to the grieving family, such as food.81 Although very little can be found on the musical nature of these songs, it is recorded that they were focused on the one who had died.

Mourning Dances & Music

There were also dances that were part of ceremonies associated with the death of an individual. These are referred to as mourning dances. One such dance that was practiced among the Algonquins was the Skeleton Dance. The Delawares had been impacted culturally by the Nanticokes’ treatment of the dead. These groups would remove the flesh from the bones and the keep the bones while the family grieved. It was believed by some tribes that the soul of a person could not make its final journey into the after life until the body had been cleaned of all its flesh. This could happen in different manners depending on the tribes’ beliefs. Some chose to allow nature to decay the flesh of the individual, while others believed that it should be removed by scraping the bones.

This specific dance was only practiced by the Wolf Clan of the Delawares, after removing the flesh and drying the bones for twelve days. After this period, the bones would be prepared by being placed in white deerskin. At the ceremony an elected member would be responsible for holding the skeleton. The singers would begin to sing; again, no specifics are available about the music, while the skeleton would be shaken. The bones would act as an idiophone, providing a rattling noise. The men would dance around the bones. After the ceremony, the bones were buried.

The Wolf Clan believed that the treatment of their dead in this manner had been shown to their past leaders in a dream. By the time of Adams account of the story in 1890, the dance was no longer being practiced. The last dance of the Skeleton dance by this group was believed to have been in the mid-nineteenth century. It had been a long lasting tradition, being practiced for many centuries.

Not only is music of a people impacted by other communities, with whom they share geographical borders, it is also impacted by temporal changes. As time has passed, there have been changes to the music and the musical culture due to the colonization of the Americas by Western nations which overwhelmed the Algonquin culture. However, while the musical heritage of these people had been suppressed, it has not been completely abandoned. Traditional dances, including spiritual dances, ceremonial dances, and social dances are performed at powwows, dances competitions, and at workshops to educate and train further generations in the subject. Research on the music of this culture and other Native American tribes is being conducted by institutions, such as the Smithsonian.

Technology is providing opportunities for members of the same heritages to connect, discuss, and become involved with the continuation of their culture. The Internet allows for the contemporary musical culture to be shared, taught, heard, and seen by a much wider audience than has been possible in the past. While the stylistic characteristics and as long as the Native American people choose hold onto their musical heritage, the tradition will not be deserted.

Advances in technology of the last century have allowed the recording of musical performances which can be audited; such resources can aid preservation of what can still be recorded. However, these are recent innovations. The technology that enabled field recording was did not come into use before 1890, so early audio recordings of the music of these Native Americans are unavailable. This means the ability to recover the music in its pure form, before the extensive influence of outsiders of the culture, is questionable.

Contemporary Native American Music

Musical taste and style are as diverse among Native Americans as among the remainder of American society. In addition to preserving music from past generations, contemporary Native musicians such as the Porcupine Singers (Lakota) produce new songs in these traditional styles. New Age, jazz, country, and rock groups have been formed by musicians from all tribal backgrounds. Native composers and performers are also active in producing symphonic works, including ballets, chamber works, symphonies, and operas.

Although the styles and forms have changed, contemporary Native American music in many cases continues to serve the same social and ceremonial functions as in the past. No matter how removed this music has become from traditional styles, contemporary music deals with important social issues, provides entertainment, honors the "Indian way" (traditional lifestyles and beliefs), and incorporates elements of traditional music, including the use of vocables, Native instruments, and Native languages.

Native musicians using popular genres have created syncretic styles that incorporate elements of Native American music and Western popular sounds. For example, instruments may include Native drums, rattles, and flutes in addition to the drum sets, guitars, pianos, and synthesizers of contemporary popular styles. Waila music (popularly known as "chicken scratch"), performed throughout southern Arizona by Tohono O'oodham, Pima, and Maricopa musicians, resembles a hybrid of Native American, Hispanic, and polka band music of the Midwest. Lyrics may be in a Native language, in English, or any combination of English, a tribal language, and vocables. Tom Bee's "Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Forty-Niner" includes Native instruments, descriptions of popular Native dance styles, quotations from a traditional social dance song ("One-Eyed Ford"), and the vocables "be bop a lu la" from Gene Vincent's early 1960's rock tune. Sharon Burch creates haunting folk-rock style melodies with Navajo lyrics and themes concerning tribal issues and traditional ceremonies.

Some prominent Native American performers in these syncretic styles include Buddy Red Bow (country), Keith Secola (country), Tom Bee and XIT (rock), Red Thunder (rock), Jackalope (jazz-fusion, termed "synthacousticpunkarachinavajazz" by members of the group), A. Paul Ortega (country blues), and Joanne Shenandoah (folk rock). R. Carlos Nakai performs not only with Jackalope but also with other artists, including William Eaton and Peter Kater in a series of New Age recordings. Nakai has also recorded a number of traditional Native American flute albums.

John Rainer, Jr., a member of the Taos tribe, bridges the gap between traditional Native American and symphonic works with his album Songs for the American Indian Flute, Volumes I and 2 (Red Willow Songs). Songs are presented in a strictly traditional style on one side of each album. On the other, contemporary accompaniments and orchestrations have been created for the songs through the use of synthesizer and studio orchestration techniques.

The collaborative efforts of R. Carlos Nakai and James DeMars have created a series of works featuring Native American flute and chamber orchestra. "Premonitions of Christopher Columbus," from Spirit Horses (Canyon Records CR 7014), uses Native American flute to represent the original settlers of the Western continents, the violoncello to represent European cultural influences, African percussion to represent African cultural influences, and the saxophone to represent the "new Americans" in a concerto grosso format. Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids composed "Mtukwekok Naxkomao" ("The Singing Woods") for the Kronos Quartet, incorporating an Apache violin, specially constructed instruments, and fragments of Native American melodies in what may well be the first string quartet composed by an indigenous composer. Louis Ballard (of the Cherokee-Quapaw) has composed many works in all symphonic genres. In addition, Ballard was the first Native American composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra.

Contemporary Native American musical life is extraordinarily diverse and encompasses every sound and style of music performed on the North American continent. Despite evolutions of style and use of contemporary sound and techniques, Native American musicians keep "one foot planted firmly in tradition," placing an indelibly Native American stamp upon these modern musics.

Native American Music Awards or N.A.M.A.

The Native American Music Awards (also known as the NAMAs or "Nammys") are an awards program presented annually by Elbel Productions, Inc., The Native American Music Awards Inc., and The Native American Music Association, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization incorporated in 1998, which recognizes outstanding musical achievement in styles associated with Native Americans, predominantly in the United States and Canada. While Native American performers in a variety of genres are also recognized, nominees do not have to be Native American themselves. The awards were created in 1998 to offer Native American musicians greater recognition from the American music industry and to create opportunities for international exposure and recognition.

Founded by music industry executive, Ellen Bello, The Annual Native American Music Awards is the largest membership-based organization for Native American music initiatives and consists of over 20,000 registered voting members and professionals in the field. They also hold the largest Native American music library in the world with a national archive featuring a collection of over 10,000 audio and video recordings in all formats housed since 1990.

Native American Music & Sub-Genres

Click on any of the names below to hear samples:

Native American

Native Voices

The Native Spirits

Native American Nature

Native American Music

Earth Songs

Native American Music 2

The Native American Chanters

Native American Meditation

Bow Pop


Fourth World

Indigenous American

World Meditation


Native American World Drums

Mesa Music Consort

Red River Chants

Native Passions

Earth Song

American Native Orchestra

The Unconquered Spirit

Tha Tribe

Indians From North America

Native American Coyote

Great Mystery

Native American Flute Works

American Native

The Flute Keeper

Medicine Dream

Big City Indians

World Music All-Stars

Brooke Medicine Eagle

Native Traditions

The Spirit of the Eagle

Native Flute Ensemble

Sound Therapy Masters


Copy Art

Various Indian Tribes


The Flute Clan


Apache Dream

Indian Calling

Lakota Language Consortium

Indian Rock