I have been known to, well, brag about my skills as a musician in the past. When it comes to playing instruments, I pride myself on being able to play most mainstream instruments (drums, guitar, piano, bass guitar, ukulele) quite well, and if I cannot play it, you can bet i’ll sit down and lock myself in a room with said instrument and will not leave until I can produce a somewhat decent sound from it. Singing on the other hand… well that’s a whole different story.
Singing for me, doesn’t leave the comfort of my shower and confined space of my car with the radio blasting. So when I get the opportunity to listen to or find myself in the presence of truly talented singers, I can fully appreciate their talents.
I have just recently come across an Indigenous music trio called ASANI. The three that make up the trio are First Nations and Metis women, Debbie Houle, Sarah Pocklington and Sherryl Sewepagaham. They use their voices in such an amazing way that one might compare them to an acapella singing group- in the sense that they create both sounds and lyrics with their voices- but they accompany their singing with “traditional First Nations instruments such as hand drums and rattles and the Metis fiddle.” (Sewell 213)
I knew from the second I heard them perform their version of ‘Oh Canada’ at the 2009 Northern Harmony Hall of Fame Induction that I wanted to write a blog post about them. It was upon further research of this music group that I realized ASANI took on a much larger role in the music scene than just singing and performing for crowds.
In an article by Catherine F. Sewell titled “Decolonization Through Harmonization” she spoke of how when ASANI travels to perform or to do shows that they were often met with frustrating circumstances. Of course the group was thrilled to perform and express their cultural heritage to a mainstream audience by way of their music. However, they were often “faced with the weary task of having to educate our audiences before we could even begin dialoguing with them.” (Sewell 213) It soon became apparent to ASANI that no matter how polite or good-intentioned people were that conversed with the group, that there was still an extensive amount of stereotypes present and a “phenomenal amount of ignorance about these cultures 500 years since contact.” (Sewell 213)
ASANI constantly faces the typical ‘Indian’ stereotypes and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to share one’s cultural heritage and cultural music to the world, only to be met with ignorant questions like “Are you an Indian Squaw?” (Yes this is unfortunately true). For reasons such as this, ASANI feels as though they often must educate their audience before performing in order to provide them with a blank slate, free of all predisposed judgments before listening to their music.
Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but think about readings that our Indigenous Fiction class reviewed earlier this year that relate to the theme of Indigenous stereotypes and the need to confront, target, and then destroy these stereotypes. The first is Anthropologists and Other Friends by Vine Deloria, and the second is a poem that we read in passing during our lecture on September 23rd, titled, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie. While both of these works do not directly state what it means to be Indigenous or apart of the Indigenous community, they do however openly state the obvious stereotypes that plague the Indigenous culture and our Western society even today.
Anthropologists and Other Friends uses Juvenalian Satire to dictate that the way in which we are to identify Anthropologists is by their physical appearance. Here is an example of one of the descriptions used to distinguish Anthropologists from other people:
“Anthropologists can readily be identified on the reservations. Go into any crowd of people. Pick out a tall gaunt man wearing Bermuda shorts, a World War II Army Air Force flying jacket, an Australian bush hat, tennis shoes, and packing a large knapsack incorrectly strapped on his back” (Deloria 56).
This excerpt easily allows the reader to form a mental image of what the average Anthropologist is to looks like, but then reality kicks in and we realize that we can’t define an entire group of people simply by the way that they look…right? This is where the Juvenalian Satire comes into play. We can read the description of a ‘typical Anthropologist’ and laugh it off as being utter nonsense, but the sad truth is, this is how Indigenous people have been defined for decades. Many uneducated people (I say this in a kind way) assume that Indigenous people all dress in clothes made of animal fur, wear feathers in their hair, and paint their faces for ceremonies. This image is of course is due in part to the media portraying Indigenous people in such a way (Pocahontas *cough cough*) But the truth is, this is no different, and genuinely worse that the ludicrous description of Anthropologists found in Deloria’s Anthropologists and Other Friends.
I also find that Sherman Alexie’s poem, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, successfully accompanies Deloria’s Anthropologists and Other Friends in the way in which it confronts Indigenous stereotypes. While Deloria uses Satire to compare the stereotypes of Anthropologists to the stereotypes of Indigenous people, Alexie candidly states the typical kinds of stereotypes used when describing Indigenous people, or in her case, when writing an American Indian novel. Alexie starts by describing how Indians generally are to look, they “must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms. Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.” He then goes on to describe how Indian women are to look. “When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature: brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.” Indian men, on the other hand “are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian men unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.” These are just a small few of the types of excerpts found in the poem; the more you read of Alexie’s poem, the more in-depth and descriptive the stereotypes become.
Like I said before, ASANI has faced (on numerous occasions) many Indigenous stereotypes. Some, just on the street in conversations with friendly strangers, and others in Q & A segments after their performances. I find it quite tragic that in the 21st century we haven’t become educated (either on our own or with the help of education systems) on the Indigenous culture.
Personally, I get nervous enough performing in front of a large audience when my band has a gig. I couldn’t imagine standing up on stage, as ASANI does, and wondering if the hundreds of eyes watching me even understand who I really am…
The video clip provided is of ASANI performing their rendition of Oh Canada at the Northern Harmony 2009 Hall of Fame Induction. I encourage anyone reading my blog to watch/listen to this amazing song and to check out ASANI’s other work. The song itself starts at 4:20.
Alexie, Sherman, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237270
Deloria, Vine, Anthropologists and Other Friends
Sewell, C. F. (2001). Decolonization through harmonization. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 25(2), 94-104. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/230307568?accountid=14391