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The keeper of hundreds of Kwakwaka’wakw songs, Kwaksistalla Wathl’thla (Clan Chief Adam Dick), chanting at a feast (qui’las) with Mayanilh (Dr. Daisy Sewid-Smith).
The keeper of hundreds of Kwakwaka’wakw songs, Kwaksistalla Wathl’thla (Clan Chief Adam Dick), chanting at a feast (qui’las) with Mayanilh (Dr. Daisy Sewid-Smith). - (Bert Crowfoot), Author provided

Indigenous song keepers reveal traditional ecological knowledge in music

Since the begin­ning of time, music has been a way of com­mu­ni­ca­ting obser­va­tions of and expe­riences about the world. For Indi­ge­nous Peoples who have lived within their tra­di­tio­nal ter­ri­to­ries for gene­ra­tions, music is a repo­si­to­ry of eco­lo­gi­cal know­ledge, with songs embed­ding ances­tors’ know­ledge, tea­chings and wisdom.

The music car­ries the word of the ances­tors across time, trans­mit­ting key know­ledge from deep in our sacred memo­ry. Aca­de­mics are just begin­ning to see the deep signi­fi­cance of these songs and the know­ledge they car­ry and some are wor­king with Indi­ge­nous col­la­bo­ra­tors to unlock their teachings.

At the same time, non-Indi­ge­nous resear­chers and the gene­ral public are beco­ming aware of the his­to­ric and cur­rent loss of songs. Indi­ge­nous com­mu­ni­ties are also grap­pling with what this means. The loss of songs was brought on by brought on by colo­ni­za­tion, for­ced enrollment in resi­den­tial schools and the pas­sing of the last of the tra­di­tio­nal­ly trai­ned know­ledge hol­ders and song keepers.

Here in 2014, Coral Napan­gar­di Gal­la­gher and Tess Napa­la­jar­ri Ross, two Warl­pi­ri women, from Yuen­du­mu, cen­tral Aus­tra­lia, per­form a mime­tic dance on their knees. They are depic­ting a scene from a song about a child who attempts to take seed paste from a coola­mon but is fought off by the mother as she grinds the seeds. (Mar­ga­ret Carew), Author pro­vi­ded

Time-honoured global traditions

A recent spe­cial issue of the Jour­nal of Eth­no­bio­lo­gy cele­brates the power of tra­di­tio­nal songs as sto­re­houses of tra­di­tio­nal eco­lo­gi­cal knowledge.

Nine articles are rich accounts of Indi­ge­nous Peoples’ time-honou­red music-making tra­di­tions. These range from women’s songs rela­ting to wild seeds in Aus­tra­lia, to impro­vi­sa­tio­nal sin­ging tra­di­tions in Sibe­ria, to the use of turtle shell rat­tles across the Uni­ted States and the hun­ting songs of Ama­zo­nian hun­ter-gathe­rers.

Although tra­di­tio­nal music is threa­te­ned by past govern­ment-sanc­tio­ned actions and laws, with much alrea­dy lost, Indi­ge­nous Peoples glo­bal­ly conti­nue to use music in sacred and ritual contexts and cele­brate their tra­di­tio­nal songs.

The lyrics in tra­di­tio­nal songs are them­selves imbued with mea­ning and his­to­ry. Tra­di­tio­nal songs often encode and model the pro­per, res­pect­ful way for humans, non-humans and the natu­ral and super­na­tu­ral realms to inter­act and intersect.

A Tsi­mane’ woman in Boli­vian Ama­zo­nia playing a hand­made woo­den vio­lin. Vio­lins came to the Tsi­mane’ through contact with mis­sio­na­ries. Today, some Tsi­mane’ play the vio­lin while sin­ging tra­di­tio­nal songs, illus­tra­ting the adap­tive nature of Indi­ge­nous music. (Álva­ro Fernán­dez-Lla­ma­zares), Author pro­vi­ded

For ins­tance, among the Temiar sin­gers of the Malay­sian rain­fo­rest — who often receive their songs in dreams from decea­sed people and who believe all living beings are capable of having “per­son­hood” — dream-songs help mediate peoples’ rela­tion­ships with these other beings.

In many Indi­ge­nous cultures, songs recount detai­led bio­cul­tu­ral know­ledge that sits in spe­ci­fic places and thus can also docu­ment rights to, and res­pon­si­bi­li­ties for, tra­di­tio­nal territories.

Inspired by potlatch speaker

Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla sin­ging the star­fish song.
(Ran­dy Bou­chard), Author pro­vi­ded

The spe­cial issue was ins­pi­red by Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla Clan Chief Adam Dick.
Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla was a trai­ned Clan Chief, held four pa’sa chief­tain seats, and among many other roles, was the kee­per of hun­dreds of songs about the Kwakwaka’wakw people, their tra­di­tio­nal ter­ri­to­ry in coas­tal Bri­tish Colum­bia, and all aspects of their lives and their ritual world.

In his role as nino­gaad (cultu­ral­ly trai­ned spe­cia­list), Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla was the last cultu­ral­ly trai­ned pot­latch spea­ker. The cultu­ral prac­tice of pot­lat­ching is a cen­tral orga­ni­zing struc­ture of nor­thern Nor­th­west Coast peoples.

Pot­latch expla­na­tion, from ‘Smoke From His Fire,’ a film by Oqwi­lowg­wa Kim Recalma-Clutesi.

Pot­lat­ching was ban­ned until 1951. As a result, sin­ging pot­latch songs was a source of punish­ment and fear for many gene­ra­tions. The inter­rup­tion of the trans­mis­sion of tra­di­tio­nal songs in eve­ry­day and ritual life has been profound.

Revealed songs

As one born to nobi­li­ty and cho­sen since birth to be a conduit of key cultu­ral know­ledge, Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla let us hear the words of his ances­tors through the many songs he remembered.

For ins­tance, in 2002, he revea­led an ancient ya’a (Dog Chil­dren song) that unlo­cked the mys­te­ry of loki­wey (clam gar­dens) on the Paci­fic Nor­th­west Coast. Culti­va­ting clams in clam gar­dens — rock wal­led ter­races in the lower inter­ti­dal — is a wides­pread prac­tice among Coas­tal First Nations. We now know this prac­tice is at least 3,500 years old.

Author Oqwi­lowg­wa lis­te­ning to Clan Chief Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla sin­ging at the ‘loki­wey’ (clam gar­den) where he was seclu­ded as a child at Deep Har­bour in the Brough­ton Archi­pe­la­go, Nor­thern Bri­tish Colum­bia, Cana­da. (Diane Woods), Author pro­vi­ded

Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla’s sha­ring of this clam gar­den song unlea­shed a wave of research on tra­di­tio­nal mana­ge­ment prac­tices and hel­ped not only awa­ken people’s unders­tan­ding of the extent to which Indi­ge­nous Peoples ten­ded their land­scapes, but also pro­vi­ded the foun­da­tion for research on how to improve clam management.

Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla went on to men­tor and be the pri­ma­ry source on tra­di­tio­nal eco­lo­gi­cal know­ledge for over a dozen gra­duate stu­dents in eth­no­bio­lo­gy and lin­guis­tics until his pas­sing last year. Each gra­duate the­sis had songs from Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla’s reper­toire as its foun­da­tion.

Song and reconciliation

Des­pite the immense glo­bal value of tra­di­tio­nal songs as libra­ries of eco­lo­gi­cal and other cultu­ral know­ledge, resear­chers and the gene­ral public have been slow to reco­gnize their social and cultu­ral importance.

Kwax­sis­tal­la Wathl’thla dig­ging for clams in one of the ‘loki­wey’ (clam gar­dens) he built and main­tai­ned as a child at Deep Har­bour in the Brough­ton Archi­pe­la­go, nor­thern B.C., Canada.
(Dana Lepof­sky), Author pro­vi­ded

For ins­tance, the fin­dings of Canada’s Truth and Recon­ci­lia­tion Com­mis­sion (TRC), high­light the impor­tance of pro­tec­ting and honou­ring Indi­ge­nous lan­guages, but songs are not expli­cit­ly mentioned.

The TRC cal­led on the fede­ral govern­ment, with Abo­ri­gi­nal peoples, to : draft new legis­la­tion to com­mit to suf­fi­cient fun­ding to pro­tect Abo­ri­gi­nal peoples’ rights to their lan­guages (Call to Action 10); to ack­now­ledge that Abo­ri­gi­nal rights include Abo­ri­gi­nal lan­guage rights, and to seek with urgen­cy to pro­tect Abo­ri­gi­nal lan­guages through an Abo­ri­gi­nal Lan­guages Act and an Abo­ri­gi­nal Lan­guages Com­mis­sio­ner (Calls to Action 13 – 15).

In many Indi­ge­nous cultures cer­tain dia­lects, words and expres­sions are found only in cer­tain songs, not in spo­ken conver­sa­tions. Thus, pro­tec­ting tra­di­tio­nal songs is a cri­ti­cal aspect of pro­tec­ting Indi­ge­nous languages.

The cultu­ral impor­tance of song was not mis­sed by the Govern­ment of Cana­da and the churches who admi­nis­te­red resi­den­tial schools for more than a cen­tu­ry. They saw all Indi­ge­nous lan­guage, spo­ken or sung, as coun­ter to the colo­nial government’s mis­sion to remove the “savage” from “the Indian chil­dren.

The great uncle of Oqwi­lowg­wa, one of this story’s authors, died from a bea­ting at the resi­den­tial school in Port Alber­ni for sin­ging a child’s play song in his lan­guage. All music except hymns were strict­ly ban­ned in resi­den­tial schools until the 1960s.

Protecting rights and privileges today

Reco­gni­zing the impor­tance of tra­di­tio­nal songs and crea­ting a context to pro­mote this know­ledge is fun­da­men­tal to Canada’s recon­ci­lia­tion pro­cess. Spea­king at the Truth and Recon­ci­lia­tion Commission’s Tra­di­tio­nal Know­ledge Kee­pers Forum, Black­foot Elder Reg Crow­shoe said :

« …So we are loo­king at fin­ding those true mea­nings of recon­ci­lia­tion and for­gi­ve­ness. We need to be aware or re-taught how to access those sto­ries of our Elders, not only sto­ries but songs, prac­tices that give us those rights and pri­vi­leges to access those sto­ries …  »

Indi­ge­nous songs, as detai­led bio-cultu­ral archives, are ave­nues for gai­ning a more nuan­ced and com­plex appre­cia­tion of eco­sys­tems, inclu­ding humans’ place within them. There is not only a moral impe­ra­tive for pro­tec­ting tra­di­tio­nal songs, but also a prac­ti­cal one.

Such know­ledge, as in the case of clam gar­dens, may pro­vide impor­tant les­sons about how people today can more res­pect­ful­ly and sus­tai­na­bly inter­act with our non-human neigh­bours. In these times of dra­ma­tic eco­lo­gi­cal and social change, honou­ring and safe­guar­ding tra­di­tio­nal songs has never been more important.

This article is repu­bli­shed from The Conver­sa­tion under Crea­tive Com­mons Licence. Read the ori­gi­nal article.



Dana Lepofsky, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi

Dana Lepofsky
Dana Lepofsky

Professor in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University, Dana Lepofsky is an archaeologist and ethnoecologist who, for the last three decades she has worked collaboratively with Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast to blend traditional knowledge with western scientific knowledge. This blending results in a richer understanding of the past, but also allows us to contextualize the past in current social and ecological contexts.

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares
Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares is a conservation researcher working at the University of Helsinki, in Finland. He has undertaken more than 26 months of fieldwork in Bolivian Amazonia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Madagascar, mainly with Indigenous Peoples. He has co-authored over 30 peer-reviewed scientific publications. He is also a Fellow for the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi
Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi
Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi is a contributor to the special issue on Ethnobiology Through Song/CEO Ninogaad Knowledge Keepers Foundation/BOD APTN

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