Native American Music Traditions

Native American Musical Traditions and Traditional Adirondack Music

Because Traditional Adirondack Music primarily draws on folk styles originating in Northern Europe, its structure is based on shared musical elements including similar arrangements of rhythm, texture, form, melodic contours, and chord progressions. Traditional Native American music including the music of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois nation, is based on quite different arrangements of these elements, making musical synthesis between the styles difficult. Folklorist Lynne Williamson writes, “The Native peoples of upstate New York and southern Ontario and Quebec call themselves the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse. Their clan systems, political and spiritual structures, oratory, musical forms and repertoires, and material culture productions continue in active practice. Haudenosaunee cosmology, rhetoric, oral history, and expressive culture are extraordinarily poetic and symbolic, and cultural literacy in their metaphors and stories exists among the Haudenosaunee to a high degree. “

Meet the Masters Radio Documentary:

Since 1993, TAUNY has been recognizing individuals, families and community groups with North Country Heritage Awards their significant contributions to our living local cultural heritage. The major criteria include evidence of traditionality, mastery, and creativity; a commitment to the art form over time; and a commitment to the community and to the teaching of others.

During 1999-2000, folklorist Varick Chittenden and audio producer Lamar Bliss researched, wrote and produced a series of 19 half-hour documentary features on award recipients for broadcast on
North Country Public Radio.

The following is the program about the
St. Regis Catholic Mission Mohawk Choir
from that series.

Long before Vatican II, Mohawk was the language of the parish of the St. Regis Mission Church at Akwesasne.  This piece demonstrates the importance to local Mohawk families of maintaining the language today and, in particular, the songs and hymns sung for weekly Masses. 

Women of the church describe the interior of the old stone church and the numerous Native American symbols in the building, recite the Lord’s Prayer in Mohawk and English, recall religious festivals like Corpus Christi with processions and singing, the still common use of music at wakes, funerals and weddings, and the reconciling of traditional longhouse and Roman Catholic traditions in many families at Akwesasne. 

Excerpts from several Mohawk hymns and “Adeste Fidelis” are included.

Mohawk Choir of St. Regis

The most important Iroquois musical genre is vocal music.  Traditional songs do not use harmony —everyone sings the same melody, although “call-and-response” or antiphonal song are common in many   genres of dance music. Songs are often accompanied by drums and rattles whose beats correspond to the songs.  The rhythms of the melody are typically irregular in the sense that they do not fall into strict metric groups. Mohawk songs are often based on vocables (syllables without lexical meaning) although curing songs and some genres of communal dance-songs also include words.  Singers generally use a moderately relaxed and open vocal production with some pulsations and other embellishments, in contrast to the tight, falsetto style associated with Plains tribes.  Songs have a strong sense of tonal center, and use a scale system of four to six pitches that does not necessarily correspond to Western norms. Melodic contours often descend or undulate downward.

A chief difference between Mohawk music and other traditions in the North Country concerns their functions. While Traditional Adirondack Music is generally secular and informal, Native American music is integrally tied to the maintenance of essential balances between individuals and the spiritual and physical worlds. Although there are  many  secular uses of Native American music, its link to religious beliefs is profound, requiring music to be treated with utmost respect.  Traditional music is used in curing ceremonies and in many  ritual ceremonies associated with the changing seasons, such as fall harvest and the annual midwinter ceremonies. These seasonal rituals help to insure the health and well-being of the community and its environment.  The rituals of Iroquois medicine societies, such as the False Face (Kakoh’sa) and Husk Face (Gadjisa) societies, also involve extensive musical performance.  The Haudenosaunee also have secular events that include the Standing Quiver (or Stomp) dance.

In Haudenosaunee communities today, it is possible to find a wide range of musical performance styles, from very   traditional songs to Christian hymns and pan-tribal styles such as the Ghost dance and Peyote music. The Iroquois have also adopted new aspects of styles and repertories from outsiders over the years. For example, the Mohawk Choir of St. Regis has a long tradition of singing Roman Catholic hymns that have been translated into Mohawk.  Some community members have viewed this synthesis of Western religion and indigenous language as a threat to their culture; others feel that it has helped to preserve the threatened Mohawk language from extinction.

Mohawk Choir of St. Regis

While many North Country residents have not been exposed to Mohawk music, and are consequently uninfluenced by it, the Mohawks have selectively borrowed ideas, and still maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity. 

It is not unusual for Native Americans to develop fiddle traditions based on those introduced by their neighbors, and there are indeed Mohawk musicians playing their version of fiddle music today.

In fact, Mohawk composers and performers today participate in the full range of popular idioms, including rock, folk, hip hop, gospel, country and classical music, as an internet search will quickly confirm.