by Doug-George Kanentiio
The music of America was rightfully indigenous for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the immigrants from the east. Not only drums and flutes by the power of the human voice drifted across the plains, through the forests, across the mountains and back into the thousands of communities emanating from the millions of Native people who defined pre-contact Anowara: kowa-the Great Turtle.
The music produced by the first peoples could be as complex as a symphony or as simple as a personal chant sung along a southwestern mountain trail. Songs were made to celebrate life, to communicate with the winds or to cross across species to speak with the animals. Music was the first thing a child heard upon birth and marked the passing of an elder into the spirit world.
One of the most wicked of myths is that other music forms have been classified as the first “true” American art in this genre. It is not jazz, the blues or rock and roll- it is the music composed and performed by indigenous artists in the pueblos of the southwest or the longhouses of the northeast.
Native music remains in a cultural ghetto, unheard by most people, unmarketed by the major music companies and alien to a world that is in desperate need of its power and beauty. For the past 19 years the Native American Music Awards, under the direction of the remarkable Ellen Bello, has put forward the best in aboriginal music through its annual award ceremony.
While the Recording Academy, sponsor of the GRAMMYS, removed the Native music category and regulated it to the obscure “regional” niche, the NAMMYS solicits hundreds of submissions each year. This year alone over 200 artists submitted their work for consideration as the best in Native music over the past year.
These recordings are creative and professional, equal to non-Native musicians in quality. But they will not find a way into the mainstream markets which would then enable the performer to actually make a living do what they clearly do very well.
How many North Americans will hear the music of Artist of the Year Shelley Morningsong? Group of the Year The Cody Blackbird Band should be performing their unique rock and roll in much larger venues than they now booked into; my wife Joanne Shenandoah won “Indie Single of the Year” but cannot crack apart that race-based ceiling. Others like Alex Fire Thunder, Shon Denay, Painted Raven, Young Spirit and Atlatl are now part of a long list of honorees stretching back to the first NAMMY show in 1998 which highlighted Native artists who do have national standing: Wayne Newton, Robbie Robertson and Rita Coolidge.
This year’s event held on November 2 at the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, NY was hosted by Wes Studi, the most noted Native actor of the past generation and Micki James, the world women’s wrestling champion. They were also elected to the NAMMY Hall of Fame joining other artists of Native heritage whose honorees include Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Link Wray, Jesse Ed Davis, Ritchie Valens, Felipe Rose, Redbone and the great Lakota ballad singer Buddy Red Bow.
Clearly, a breakthrough has to be made. The NAMMY show is tailor-made for national broadcast and the artists of the highest quality. They need their time. The current state amounts to an unacceptable form of blacklisting.