Native Music: An Ongoing Process of Definition

Often, when reading, I try to immerse myself in the piece of writing at hand in as many ways as possible. This includes aurally; I often end up listening to music that somehow pertains to the text. For example: with my current pleasure reading, Morgan Llywelyn’s Irish-myth-turned-novel, Red Branch, I often find myself listening turning on something like:

This seemingly innocuous course of action starts to take a more complicated turn whenever I read texts by Native American authors. For myself, music has often served as supplementary to a text: a means of reinforcing the thematic elements of the language or the inherent message of the book. But problems arise when I start to compare the origins of the readily available collections of so-called “Native American music” with the meaning behind some of the texts I’ve read.

One of the most common themes of Native literature is the concept of Native authenticity. Is there such a thing as definable Native-ness? What does it mean to be Native American? Who, if anyone, has the right and the ability to define the quality and experience of being a Native? I’ve seen this in Leslie Marmon Silko’s fiction (Ceremony), N. Scott Momaday’s nonfiction work (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Simon J. Ortiz’s poetry, (from Sand Creek), and Sherman Alexie’s short stories (The Toughest Indian in the World). Native authenticity is universally considered to be an ongoing process, continually defined and redefined by those who live it every single day.

And in terms of Native authenticity, the definition and lived experience of Native identity, music plays a crucial role. It “lies at the heart of Indian culture” and “serves numerous functions” ( The music of Native peoples is entirely intertwined with their cultural identity, with traditional their traditional values: from “spirituality arising from a long tradition of close-knit community, respect for and understanding of the forces of nature, and acknowledgement of humanity’s place in the World” (Heilig). One would hope, then, that the music identified as belonging to the Native American tradition—and also being consumed by the general public—would be produced and defined as such by Native peoples. One problem: that’s not what’s happening.

More often than not, music labelled as “Native American” has roots decidedly not so. More often than not, said music has been produced by non-Native musicians who seek to benefit from Americans’ “periodic… romantic obsession with things Indian” (Heilig). Music critic and scholar Steve Heilig has written on this topic extensively, claiming that such musical creations, despite any and all positive intentions, do more harm than good: that “for those whose culture is being misrepresented such appropriations may be nearly as insulting as previous prejudices.” It makes me think twice before turning on something like “Spirit Dancer” by Medwyn Goodall. Goodall has released dozens of albums over the course of his near-thirty-year-long career, some of them with titles such as Medicine Woman II: The Gift, Sacred Medicine, and Tribal Nation. On YouTube, his music has some of the highest hits under “Native American music.” Again, one problem: he is of English birth and has no Native American heritage of which to speak (Ankeny). Artists like Goodall are part of trend that makes us ask the question, so well-phrased by Heilig: “how many of those touring ‘indigenous’ bands or cds in the now-overflowing world music bins have been from America’s first residents?” By tapping into this music, we may ultimately be perpetuating the stereotypes that Native authors have tried to fight against for years.

Additionally, the music feeds into additional problems. A moment ago, I stated that Goodall’s lack of Native blood places him outside of the realm of producing authentic Native music; but then we have something along the lines of the Ah Nee Mah project by Diane Arkenstone, who self-identifies as having “Cherokee heritage” (Arkenstone). One could argue that her work is authentic simply because she has some measurable amount of Native blood; but within the same interview in which she acknowledges that aspect of her identity, she also admits that she and her husband merely “lived in the Southwest for a few years, next to several reservations” (Arkenstone). Some might argue that she does not have enough of the modern Native American experience to claim that her music ties into Native cultural identity. But then that feeds into additional problems of Native identity. With more than three-quarters of Natives living outside of reservations (Yurth), does the reservation experience truly hold sway as being definitive and crucial to Native identity?

Ultimately, though, attempts to define the music of Native peoples are just as complicated and convoluted as attempts to define the cultural identity to which said music belongs. Native music, just like the associated culture, “continues to thrive and evolve…. [with many artists] exploring combinations of traditional and non- Indian musics [sic] to create new styles… that retain a distinctively Native American identity” ( Heilig acknowledges that the mixing and mingling of music on both sides can serve as a means “to open [the] door” between Native Americans and Western civilization. On one end of the spectrum, we have artists like Medwyn Goodall: non-Natives expressing themselves through the trappings of Native-flavored music. On the other end, we have musical acts such as Redbone—a Native/Mexican-American rock band—and Testament —an American heavy metal band fronted by Chuck Billy, a member of the Pomo Native American peoples: Native groups expressing their experiences through styles and genres not typically associated with Native identity.   Both sides play roles in the ongoing process of defining and redefining Native music and culture; in the words of Steve Heilig, it’s all part of the process of finding “good ways to dip your ear into this music, with deeper delving into more traditional forms and other artists as desired.”

References (aside from YouTube links)

Ankeny, Jason. “Medwyn Goodall Biography.” AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC., 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <;.

Arkenstone, Diane. “Diane Arkenstone Interview – New in 2013.” Interview by John P. Olsen. New Age Music World: Defining Our World of New Age Music., 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <;.

Heilig, Steve. “Native American Music.” The Beat 15.2 (1996): 46-53. ProQuest. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <;. “Native American Music.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Ed. David J. Wishart. University of Nebraska, 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <;.

Yurth, Cindy. “Census: Native Count Jumps by 27 Percent.” Navajo Times. The Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc., 26 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <;.