Welcome to Native American Studies
I am an Ethnomusicologist who has spent 20 years researching and writing about Wind River Shoshone music and culture. Starting in 1977, I spent six summers of fieldwork on the reservation in Wyoming, living with various Shoshone families. I returned for very brief visits every summer after that for fourteen years in order to keep in touch with friends and ask the never-ending “one more” question from my Shoshone teachers. One July morning during my second summer on the reservation, I was thinking about my growing friendship with five Shoshone women of different generations who were all singers. It dawned on me that, until that time, no one had ever written a book devoted to Native American female singers—their songs or their lives. This was the germ idea for my book, Songprints: The Musical Experience of Five Shoshone Women, which was published in 1988 along with an accompanying cassette tape. The five women had strong and distinctly different personalities. I wanted to let their discussions of Shoshone culture, their personal lives, and songs shine directly through the pages of my book, so I wrote much of the book as a careful transcription of our taped conversations. It is as if I had put the reader in my pocket during all my many interviews and let them peep out and hear everything I was hearing. It was definitely a cooperative venture, and my agreement with the University of Illinois Press stated that all royalties from the book and cassette tape were to be divided equally between the five women. There was great pride in all six of us when the book won the 1989 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award and the Pauline Alderman Prize for New Scholarship on Women in Music.
It was my hope that Songprints would be used by scholars, certainly, but equally important, be engaging for the general reader. Colleges have used it extensively, and the feedback that I have received from others gives me heart that the book has touched a variety of readers.
As soon as I had finished writing Songprints, a labor of a decade, I plunged into the research for another decade-long project, culminating in a second book entitled, Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion: Poetry Songs and Great Basin Context. This book flowed out of the deep relationship that I had developed with the oldest woman in Songprints, Emily Hill, and her half-sister, Dorothy Tappay. Shoshones believed in and had performed the Ghost Dance religion until the mid 1930s; by 1977, it was nowhere to be seen on the reservation. But from my first visit to Emily and Dorothy, Shoshone Ghost Dance songs, or Naraya songs as they called them, and Naraya belief were vividly present. They sang their first Naraya song for me on that afternoon—the first of a repertoire that was to eventually grow to 147 songs. There were so many remarkable aspects to these songs, and qualities that set them apart from all the other songs they sang for me. Musically, they were short and encompassed a tiny range of notes. Most strikingly and unlike all the other songs, Naraya songs had poetic Shoshone texts: beautiful images from nature. Emily described the power of these songs: they ensured a bounty of plants, greenery, animals, and water. They were songs for nature.
Each summer Emily and Dorothy sang more Naraya songs; each fall I learned and transcribed every new “treasure.” I dug deeper and deeper into the library stacks to mine the rich scholarly literature of, what was for me, a new world of Great Basin religion, symbolism, and mythology. I was also driven to counter some of the disparaging assessments of Great Basin Indians in older accounts. My own study of the music and the poetic texts led me to marvel at their beauty and deep meaning and I wanted to show it to others—scholars and the public. In Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion, as in Songprints, I sought to let the reader hear exactly what the women said about each of the songs in their own voice. Only then did I add the rich Great Basin context that I had gleaned from all my readings. My study brought me also to a revolutionary understanding of the larger Ghost Dance movement. I posit that it was not one religion, but rather a religious movement that had two very different branches, one of the Plains Indians (known by most Americans in connection with the massacre at Wounded Knee) and the other of the Great Basin, previously unknown, and of which the Shoshone were a sterling example.
Every song in Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion is transcribed, both the music and the Shoshone text, along with an English translation. In 1998 I was honored to have the Society for Ethnomusicology award this book The Alan Merriam Prize for Outstanding Book in Ethnomusicology.
A Fieldwork Anecdote
In 1977, when I headed west from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming in order to study Shoshone music and culture, I knew no one on the reservation. I was driving solo cross country with my tape recorder, lots of notebook paper, and a letter from the University of Michigan, which identified me as a graduate student in an Ethnomusicology program. Thus began a twenty-year adventure. A woman in her forties, I became a child again, a Euro-American child within Shoshone culture. I would make all the mistakes a child would make as I learned how to be socially appropriate, how to sing the Shoshone songs I taped, and how to dance at the powwow.
I decided that the first thing I must do was to get the Shoshone Council’s approval of my presence on the reservation and my pursuit of learning Shoshone music and culture. I entered the Council room and sat at a table with the five male Council members and male Chairman, they in blue jeans, I with my heart pounding. They asked what would I do if I caused trouble. My voice became smaller and smaller. They did not look me in the eye and that unnerved me. Later I learned that this lack of eye contact was polite by their standards. But for me, I felt that I was not making any contact, they could not possibly hear me if they did not look me in the eye. In the end, they felt that giving me approval to study Shoshone music and culture was much too strong language. The vote came down three to two that the Shoshone Council did not mind that I was on the reservation studying Shoshone music and culture. I had thought to receive their official approval, which I thought would help me with my work. As it turned out, Shoshones are very egalitarian. Each person listened to my petition for help and decided, individually, whether my project and I were worthwhile.
P.S. The next year when I returned to the reservation for continued study, the Council gave me a present of a Shoshone beaded necklace in appreciation for the copy of historic tapes that I had presented to the Council.