Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Native American Contemporary Song Lyrics: The New Ghost Dance Literature?

Native American oral literature has been commonly categorized as originating thousands of years ago as some kind of ancient artifact, which comes down to us from a distant past rather than moments of a living poetry.  In an effort to explore this myth, I investigate the literature of modern-day Native American song lyrics taken from the 2011 Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) winning Pop, Rock, and Song-Single of the Year songs.   

The limitation or exclusion of Native oral literature from the 21st century American canon is what Jace Weaver calls “a way of continuing colonialism…and denies to Native literary artists who choose other media any legitimate or ‘authentic’ Native identity.”  Oral poetry, or song lyrics, are another literary avenue in which Native Americans can express their worldviews and demonstrate what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” Weaver calls “communitism,” Robert Warrior calls “intellectual sovereignty,” and Georges Sioui calls “autohistory.”  Although some critics have described Native Americans as finding themselves in-between two cultures, the most recent song lyrics indicate they are participating in both cultures.

Selecting a few threads from the mainstream cultural cloth and pulling them through to the Native cultural fabric (such as the musical award format, song verse configuration, and elements of Western technology) is a way for indigenous people to stabilize identity by getting recognition, reinforce traditional values and customs between generations, and share worldviews. 

The Internet is the new campfire. 

The result is not only survival of a culture, but the beginning of vocalizing a resistant, yet positive identity by dispelling the historical, descriptive inaccuracies using worldviews to illustrate new perceptions of identity.  There is an ongoing process of negotiating the forces of assimilation into mainstream American culture, but modern song lyrics are one way Native Americans appear to regenerate and maintain their foundational culture.

Lindy Hensley
M.A. in English candidate
University of St. Thomas

1 comment:

  1. The Ghost Dance is a leitmotif that stirs in the background of the Michael Apted directed movie, _Thunderheart_ (1992).

    Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dfmkymTr4c

    (Val Kilmer is of Cherokee ancestry, a bit of information that makes his "cover," as he questions himself at the start of the movie, a bit less implausible, and works in the context of his character's confronting who he may become based on interactions on his assignment).

    The movie, set on Lakota territory in and around Pine Ridge Reservation, is of interest aside from the Ghost Dance material. The narrative is a conflation of the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation and the Leonard Peltier case and the murders of F.B.I. special agents, Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams.
    During the 1973 Occupation and standoff between AIM members and sympathizers and federal, state, and local law enforcement, Marlon Brando famously refused his Godfather Academy Award by sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium to speak in support of First Nations rights, and lack thereof.
    That moment can be viewed here:

    It's important to be mindful of the Ghost Dance within its context of a new religious movement, one only possible post-contact.

    On this point, one creative source from an earlier century is E. Pauline Johnson's/Tekahionwake's short story on the miscegenation of Native and Christian beliefs: "As It Was in the Beginning": http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/tbacig/cst1030/1030anth/epauline.html

    Though Lindy is focusing upon 21st century Amer-Indian music, it's interesting to see how recent popular articles like "Ghosts of Wounded Knee" (Matthew Powers, Harper's, Dec. 2009) cite as rememory the Ghost Dance, refers to a memorial for the dead from the first massacre, and then presents one view of the current status of the living dead and desperate plight of life on the rez currently.

    To riff on the title of George R. Stewart's classic account of place naming, Names on the Land, there can be found, and felt, Ghosts on the Land, too.
    Lindy is engaged here is a topic that is vital, literally.

    J. Renye