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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiwuQ6UHMQg.

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” (unl.edu). 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” (unl.edu). 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. <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/medwyn-goodall-mn0000407942/biography&gt;.

Arkenstone, Diane. “Diane Arkenstone Interview – New in 2013.” Interview by John P. Olsen. New Age Music World: Defining Our World of New Age Music. NewAgeMusicWorld.com, 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <http://www.newagemusicworld.com/diane-arkenstone-interview-new-in-2013/&gt;.

Heilig, Steve. “Native American Music.” The Beat 15.2 (1996): 46-53. ProQuest. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <http://search.proquest.com/docview/217513640/abstract?accountid=10796&gt;.

Unl.edu. “Native American Music.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Ed. David J. Wishart. University of Nebraska, 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.mus.034&gt;.

Yurth, Cindy. “Census: Native Count Jumps by 27 Percent.” Navajo Times. The Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc., 26 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <http://navajotimes.com/news/2012/0112/012612census.php#.VHu_pMm9Z8E&gt;.

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Some Reflections on the Editing Process

In working on the staff of two separate literary magazines — one incredibly local and one on a slightly larger scale — I’ve come to develop my own biases when it comes to editing and selecting pieces for submissions.

Ultimately, I think my primary concern lies with the honesty and truth contained within a piece.  For me, regardless of the genre — prose or poetry, fiction or not — a piece needs to transcend itself in order to claim any great worth.  And the greatest sin a piece can commit is not to induce boredom — though that also ranks fairly high on the list — but to stake a false claim to transcendence.  I’ve seen too many sub-20-year-old college students who believe that they are the next Shakespeare or Poe: “That big, dumb upperclassman with a chip on his shoulder the size of outer Mongolia just can’t see it; but I’ll show him!”

One such student once handed me a four-line poem, perceived by him to be the next “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  There were only so many ways that I could provide constructive feedback: only so many ways that I could avoid using the terms “drivel” and “pretentious.”  I will fully admit that my shit, too, stinks; but sugarcoating has lost its sweetness for me.

Someone like William Carlos Williams only comes around once in a great while; the rarity of the author is part of what makes “The Red Wheelbarrow” the poem that it is.  Personally, I’m not so sure how much praise eight lines on chickens and man-made carrying equipment really deserves.  And then again, maybe the imagery can stand alone.  Maybe I’m just spouting off my own nonsense that fails in any attempt to approach a higher purpose or meaning…

I don’t sugarcoat it for myself, either.

Advice for Social Activist Writers and Readers, Inspired by the work of Adriana Paramo

(1) A literary work of social activism is nothing if not a series of ethical decisions made by the author, one that invites a return volley of decisions from the reader: what is important, whose story needs telling, do I recognize the importance of this issue, et cetera, ad nauseam.

(2) Always be mindful, but never forget to take the step that comes after contemplation; reflection is the best of starts, but a true work of social activism inspires action — recognition is where it starts, but movement is the ultimate goal, a realization in reaction.

(3) Finally: if your decision-making process and/or your understanding of the world has changed since reading a book, you must take a moment, a breather, and recognize that you have just read a good book.  Do not hide it; pass that information along.

Adriana Paramo’s talk was provoking, to say the least; more on this talent in the world of social activist writing can be found at her website, here.

From and On “What Is the Business of Literature?” By Richard Nash (2013)

“[Publishing has the power[ to disrupt industries like education, to drive the movie industry, to empower the gaming industry. … the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.”

The entirety of Nash’s article can be found here.

I worry that the closing argument contained in Nash’s article opens up too many opportunities for Michael Bay to defend Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as a work of art; having been involuntarily exposed to those reels on a half-dozen occasions, I would argue that there exist exploitation films–ones severely lacking in explosions–that do a better job of embodying “literature.”

Some of us like to think of ourselves as the disciples of long-established creeds, the guardians of the holy world of literature against those that might defile it, against the corrupting influence of a loose-moral-having wave of newfangled filth; some of us like to think of ourselves as anarchists, revolting against an established hierarchy that we ourselves find revolting, tearing down the tyranny of an industry that refuses to recognize the beauty in looking forward rather than behind.  The truth is that we are, all of us, a mixture of the two.

We are the breadwinners who publish Poe and Austen as a surefire means to put food on the table in an attempt to find secure ground in an industry in which taking a risk on an untested author could get a whole floor fired.

We are the artists who pour a sentence–one that has somehow never been written before–out onto the page in an effort to release the creative fluid that burns behind our eyes, so tightly compressed within our minds that pens act as our safety valves.

It’s in finding the balance between these to identities that we thrive.  It’s in pulling together that we branch out, in imploding that we explode; in reconciling, we blow shit up.

On ‘Dogwood’ Poetry and Its Place Within Weird Fiction

HP Lovecraft, who is, as some of you might have noticed, my self-appointed paragon of literary beauty, tried his hand at poetry only a few times in his tragically cut-short life.  Having read several of these attempts, I can confirm the belief that poetry of prose does not directly correspond with poetry of verse.  Kindle erotica writers, with the help of Sir Mix-A-Lot, might be able to moonlight as lyricists for Nicki Minaj (id est “Anaconda”), but it seems that not all authors are born with the gift of songwriting.  Regardless: it is Lovecraft’s prose, not his verse, that defines the genre of weird fiction (see my thoughts on that here).  Which begs the question, “Does poetry have a place within Lovecraft’s genre?”

I prefer my poetry in forms of Andrea Gibson and Taylor Mali, but I’m into the weirder side of things, too.  And, going back through old copies of the locally (to me) edited, nationally published Dogwood literary magazine, I would argue that “Sea Stories” by Derek Sugamosto (published in Dogwood 2013) and “The Moths” by Jan Bailey (published in Dogwood 2003) would both feel at home, to one extent or another, in a journal of weird (in the Lovecraftian sense) poetry.  To me, at least, it’s about the minuscule details that illuminate the larger concepts: the strands of DNA that house remnants of a long-dead sun.  The best of Lovecraft’s work lingers on each living moment, something that all great fiction should do.  And I suppose the only thing that separates weird fiction from popular fiction is that it gets to the inner workings and the ultimate truths of the universe not through everyday human drama but through celestial geometry and the fever dreams of discarded youth.

So yeah, if you’re into that sort of thing, feel free to join us.  Cthulhu bakes a mean cookie.

An Argument of Alliteration: A Manifesto for a Literary Diary of the Weird

From Wikipedia: “Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be said to encompass the ghost story and other tales of the macabre…. Because genre or stylistic conventions had not been established, weird tales often blend the supernatural, mythical, and even scientific.”

Give us your tired and drained, your apocalyptic visions and your new-beginning reveries, your lifeblood and your death rattle; we have no qualms. Those streams rejected by the sea may yet find homes in these lakes—let the shores of this, a refuse-and-refused-ridden Lac Supérieur, be combed by treasure-hunters and dream-seekers alike. Let them see that our words are not landmines but gold mines, rivulets of meaning overlooked by those spent too long basking in a sun of terseness. We are the broken, the beaten, the downtrodden host made anew in words often thought best left unsaid. Let it be known: we are the weird.

We are the macabre beyond the mundane, the ones who know that raw emotion requires the touch of adjectives. We are those who know that the editor’s knife carries no anesthetic; it stings. And we long to feel something other than pain, despite what the subjects of our pieces might convey. From sci-fi noir to the feelings of stars, we crave what the human mind might initially reject, what the scions of so-called “literary quality,” forged in a century plagued by war, would call “the old ways.” These, our detractors, are men and women born in a period of terror, born into fearing the atom bomb and the suddenness with which it snuffs out all life; and so they write with sentences short, so that whatever diminutive addition they might make to the written word—and their associated, underdeveloped meanings—might be heard before the shockwave hits and their bodies become shadows upon a wall.

We carry our souls, ones that were born in the pre-nuclear age, upon our hands and wrists, and we bleed them out upon the page; we know the value in revery, the positivity of proliferation—not of weaponry but of language, despite that we might use the latter as the former. Our mouths and pens were raised in the era that had nothing but time, the era that knew when to pause and when to proceed laterally, spiraling out across the stars, our spilling-out words resonating with the background hum of the universe. We might still fear the bomb, but we know that the way to fight against it is to proceed regardless; wee do not bow to terseness. We are the weird and we speak volumes.

[Briefly] On Video Games As An Artform and As Literature

As a young writer who thinks too highly of himself–and as a self-loathing capitalist eager to find the next market that will put a dollar in his bank account–I am intrigued by possible career path of writing for the video game industry.  I imagine that the backlash the gaming community has received from literary elitists mirrors the hate mail sent by the old guard to the first filmmakers who picked up cameras in an effort to capture the human mind rather than the human wallet.  Hideo Kojima, writer/director of the Metal Gear video game franchise famous for twists and conspiracies that would leave David Lynch spinning, has famously stated that video games are not so much art as they are a “service”, despite the fact that his own creations are often held up as prime examples of video games as art and/or literature.  I can understand where he’s coming from, his belief that a game should engage through interaction rather than through introspection; but in the same way that the best novels have inspired generations of young men and women to pursue writing, the best games–paragons of interactivity–have also spawned thesis-papers’ worth of reflection.  And, drawing on another example from my gaming life that has fostered my belief in video games as literature, I wonder how one might watch the opening 15 minutes of Naughty Dog Inc.’s The Last of Us and not believe in the narrative and provocative power contained therein, the artistic and literary nature of the piece.

For examples of how Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series can be examined in a literary / artistic light , check out the community-driven study “An analysis on genetics, evolution and information regarding Metal Gear Solid 2:Sons of Liberty” (try to overcome the poorly formatted html scripting), as well as Chris Zimbaldi’s essay “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as a Post-Modern Tragedy.”

From ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland (1379)

“Yet he’s won the victory in the fight for all his vast wound, / For your champion jouster, the chief knight of you all, / Weeping admits himself worsted […] / For when this darkness is done, Death will be vanquished, / And you louts have lost, for Life shall have the victory; / And your unfettered freedom has fallen into servitude; / And you churls and your children shall achieve no prosperity, / Nor have lordship over land or have land to till, / But be all barren […]”

5 Actions of the Day, 9/10/14

– Twelve guitar picks ordered for $6.00, free shipping: the same price as two packs of trading cards from childhood, causing me to rethink the dollar value of paper and plastic

– Inter-library loan used for first time: attempting to get a copy of Die Antwoord’s Ten$ion without it influencing my Amazon.com suggestions

– First attempt at illuminated manuscript made: stanza from Andrea Gibson’s “Letter to the Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8½”

– Called the sister who read the book: wondering why the children of The Maze Runner got the bright idea to map out a maze that changes each night

– Read a piece of Native American literature for the first time: figuring out what Edward Elric and the Blackfeet have in common — recognition of misused power

From and On ‘Paper Dreams,’ edited by Travis Kurowski (2013)

“1922–Hemingway publishes his first story, ‘A Divine Gesture,’ in the New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer. Throughout the following decade Hemingway continues an active, though often contentious, relationship with literary magazines….” (393)

I have a dislike-hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway in addition to any and all other authors who would reduce the already-bland sentence “John sat down to dinner with his wife” to “He ate with her.”  Knowing Hemingway’s disposition, the sentence might more accurately read as “He ate.”   And again, knowing Hemingway, we’d see that two-syllable sentence many times over the course of the novel in which it appeared, the contents of a soup given greater play than interpersonal relationships and/or internal musings.  The current school of fiction-writing dictates that terseness is next to godliness; I have seen far too many Hemingwannabes in my time.  This is why I, perhaps erroneously, value the second paragraph of HP Lovecraft’s “Celephais” as one of the most beautiful and truthful pieces of English fiction.  I search for and fail to find those “fountains that sing in the sun” among the pages written by the so-called father of modern fiction.  I have a growing disbelief in the value of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And as an editor of my own inconsequential shit-stain of a collegiate literary magazine, part of me takes a fair amount of pleasure in knowing that my turn-of-the-century forefathers gave Hemingway something of a “contentious” time.

For the ill-fated ones among us who hold value in adjectives: Lovecraft’s “Celephais.”

For those who would rather read of pasta-consumption: The Hemingway Cookbook.