Nature, Games, Love, War, Dance, Home: Heartbeat 1 & 2: Voices of First Nations Women

By Daniel Garrett

Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women
Produced by Howard Bass and Rayna Green
Smithsonian Folkways, 1995

Heartbeat 2: More Voices of First Nations Women
Produced by Howard Bass and Rayna Green
Smithsonian Folkways, 1998

I used to know a beautiful young man, an Italian boy named Tom, who revered Native American culture, Kenneth Burke, hockey, and the Carlo Levi memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli—it is wonderful to think of someone and remember him for the things he liked, especially when those things are significant; but my interests, which were different and about which I was passionate, meant that I did not explore some of Tom’s recommendations until years later.  I grew to enjoy independent films featuring Native Americans, and the Native American museum in lower Manhattan, with its paintings, sculptures, furnishings, tools, and costumes, became a favorite refuge.  It can be difficult to convey the value of the spiritual to people in a material world—it is easier for them to understand religious dogma, moral judgment, and institutional power than the perceptions, thoughts, and feeling that constitute the spiritual and convince one of the fragile, precious, and timeless connections between all things.  Yet, one gets a glimpse of the spiritual in Native culture, the culture of an original people, the indigenous North Americans, long called American Indians.  Listening to the two volumes of Heartbeat, featuring Native American women’s voices, is to encounter mystery—if only because the language in which much of this music comes is foreign, but the songs are about nature, games, love, war, dance, home, family, community, the stars, and the divine, things that concern most of us; and a praising, resilient spirit comes through the songs.

On Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women, are the tribal chant and percussion of “Mother Earth,” and the high harmonies, chanting, drumming, and shake percussion of the “Bingo Song,” with “Ho Way Hey Yo,” all three performed by the Six Nations Women Singers, collected with songs performed by the Sweethearts of Navajoland, the Tewa Indian Women’s Choir, and the Crying Women Singers.  Individual performers here who have achieved some renown include Joanne Shenandoah, Lillian Rainer, Georgia Wettlin-Larsen, Anita Anquoe George, Mary Ann Meanus and Verbena Green, Nancy Richardson, Betty Mae Jumper, Geraldine Barney, Poldine Carlo, Cornelia Bowannie and Arliss Luna, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, the iconic Canadian Cree singer-songwriter who grew up in Maine and Massachusetts and wrote “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “Up Where We Belong.”  Ulali performs “Going Home” and “Mother,” the first containing a political perspective as well as a pretty but intense voice.  The album notes draw attention to the shift from shared existence between Natives and whites to forced servitude, and the cultural mixing between Natives and Africans, resulting, for instance, in the subject, and the elements of the blues and field shouts, that can be heard in the song “Going Home.”

The New York Oneida Joanne Shenandoah’s voice is beautiful as she repeats apparently simple words in the “Fish Dance Song,” and then in “I May Want A Man,” the words of a confident, thinking woman, her performance is tender and soulful, accompanied by a flute.  The harmonies of the “Bunny Hop Dance” by Mary Ann Meanus and Verbena Green are not exact, and that gives the singing an interesting quality, as the voices shadow each other rather than meld into one.  The voices of the Sweethearts of Navajoland have a droning sound, singing both English and Native lyrics, supported by drumming, in “One Woman’s Man.”  Nancy Richardson’s singing seems deep and spooky, with distinctive vibrato, in “Lizard, His Song,” reminding me a little of rock singer Patti Smith, who one assumes was influenced by this kind of music.  The recitative “”The Mice and the Bad Angel,” from Seminole tale-teller Betty Mae Jumper, is playful (her “BeautifulMansion in the Sky” is terrifically intimate, vivid).  In the Athabaskan performer Poldine Carlo’s increasingly involving “Honor Song for an Old Sister,” one hears a low, throaty voice that sounds like that of a vigorous older woman.  The album notes draw attention to the blend of northwestern Anglo-American and Native traditions that Carlo inherited.  The duet in the “Blessing Song” of Cornelia Bowannie and Arliss Luna rings with the aura of an alarm, with a dense, rattling and rolling percussion.  On the album Heartbeat are melody and rhythm, slow and fast tempos, low and high voices, precise and slurred singing, long and short verses, and joy, sadness, and anger; a panoply of styles, sound pictures of different ways of being.

It is no surprise that someone, or many people, would want to have a sequel to Heartbeat, and that was done with Heartbeat 2: More Voices of First Nations Women.  It too features a wide range of performers, including more contemporary songs.  The performers include Bernice Torrez, a Kashaya Pomo healer whose chanted “Coming Out Song” has short, sharp percussive beats, and Tzo’kam, with its large rich downbeat group sound, yet full of energy, and Mary Youngblood, whose contribution “Children’s Dance” contains the long, contemplative and melodious notes of a flute.  “Children’s Dance,” the album notes remind the reader and listener, can speak to the child in each of us, calling us to refreshing play.  Other performers here are Mary Stachelrodt, Elena Charles, Janie Lauzon, Tudjaat, Wabanoag Singers, and the Kiowa singer Mary Ann Anquoe, whose voice is piercingly strong—contemplative, forceful, sad—in the “War Mother’s Song,” a voice that contrasts with the nicely fragile, soothing sound of Sissy Goodhouse, a Lakota, in the “Encouragement Song.”  The collection is completed by Dorothy Whitehorse Delaune, Nellie Two Bulls, Crying Women Singers, Laura Wallace, Sharon Burch, Judy Trejo, and Joy Harjo with Poetic Justice.  Laura Wallace’s work, built on her light voice and melodious sound, is particularly playful in “Potter’s Bull” and “Beautiful Mountain,” and the songs, rather than self-expression or practical service, seem intended to give pleasure to others.  So seems Sharon Burch’s “Welcome Home” and “Trail of Life,” the former features, to my ears, a harmonica and guitar, and the latter, in which Burch’s voice sounds double-tracked, has drum and rattle.  A woman’s recitation made against male chanting, the soulful composition dedicated to Kaw jazz musician Jim Pepper, “The Musician Who Became a Bear: A Tribute to Pepper,” by Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, has rock guitar.  That was, indeed, a good place for the anthology Heartbeat 2, gathering together individual and communal voices, personal and social visions, rough and smooth sounds, to stop.

 Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

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