Background For The Indian Music of Western Washington

by Erna Gunther
Professor of Anthropology
University of Washington, 1954

The region from which the music in this album comes is not a large one in the American landscape, since it includes only the western part of Washington, with a slight extension into southern British Columbia. From the point of view of Indian life, it is the southern margin of one of the great cultural developments in native America, namely the Northwest Coast, a region generally defined as reaching from southeastern Alaska to either the Columbia River or to north-western California. Since the area covered here is small and compact, a more exact definition is advisable. In western Washington, between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, there were villages, all of which obtained their living from the forest and the sea in varying proportions according to their specific location. On the basis of these proportions, anthropologists have divided the region longitudinally into three broad strips running from the Canadian border to the Columbia River. The central area includes Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound, and the lower stretches of the many rivers emptying into the Sound. Villages here were located along the beaches and around the mouths of rivers and creeks. The inhabitants used shellfish like clams and geoducks and gathered many roots, bulbs, and berries from the forest and the occasional open meadow. Many families owned fishing sites part way up the rivers where they went seasonally for salmon runs. The eastern strip, in the foothills of be Cascades, gave a more restricted life and movement to the villagers who lived permanently up the longer rivers, like the Skagit and Nooksack. They subsisted largely on salmon but supplemented it with more game than the Sound people and were compelled to go down the rivers to trade for dried clams and other saltwater delicacies. They were looked upon by their Sound neighbors as the "country cousins" and in the Chinook jargon, a trade language, were referred to as "Stick Indians."

To the west of Puget Sound is the great Olympic Peninsula with its Pacific Ocean front as well as the southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Here lived, among others, the Quinault, the Quileute, and the Makah, who were truly maritime people. They also fished for salmon but made extensive use of halibut as well. However, much more dramatic was their courageous pursuit of seals and whales. Outstanding in this enterprise were the Makah at Neah Bay who, like the other Nootkan-speaking people of the west coast of Vancouver Island, made it ritual of whale hunting and esteemed the whale hunter above all others in the community. These people hunted land animals less than the other groups but made use of an abundance of wild vegetable foods in their immediate environment.

There were many features of living which all these people shared. The social and political unit was the village, and even though a number of villages often spoke the same dialect and for that reason have been loosely referred to in the literature as tribes, such a political structure hardly existed. These villages consisted of a number of fairly large cedar plank houses, rarely more than twenty, with each house containing from two to ten families. At house was generally built, by several related men, like brothers or cousins, and each claimed ownership to a section. The houses were constructed on a framework of upright posts, with crossbeams to support the roof. The cedar planks were set in loosely between the posts. The Indians of this part of the Northwest Coast did not make totem poles, but instead, the owner of each section of the house would carve the posts of his area with figures representing his guardian spirit. This carving was usually in low relief, augmented with painting in red, black, and white. The section inhabited by each family was screened off by cattail mats that hung down from the roof. When a large gathering was expected, these mats were removed, making a great hall of the entire house. There was a passage down the center of the house where the fires were kept for cooking and where great fires blazed during ceremonials.

Travel was very important in Indian life and throughout this area was generally done by canoe. Whether the family was going to one of its fishing sites, or to a ceremonial gathering in another village, the necessary clothing, equipment, children, and dogs were piled into canoes, ranging from thirty to sixty feet in length. If the journey was a long one the company would beach the canoe at dusk and camp, often sleeping under the overturned craft. These canoes matched the outrigger boats of the Polynesians for seaworthiness and carried Indians long distances for visits, friendly or otherwise, including slave raids. In the second half of the nineteenth century, they used them for transportation from the Queen Charlotte Islands to the hop fields of Washington where the Indians worked as pickers. The canoes were always made of a single log, but in many sizes, and were designed for many purposes. The large ones just mentioned were for traveling and had high prows that cut through the waves. Shovel-nosed canoes with flat bows and sterns were used in the rivers. Small canoes, pointed at both ends, were good for fishing and duck hunting.

Since paddling can be a very rhythmical motion, it is to be expected that the extensive use of the canoe would present occasions for canoe songs. There are a few to be found, but no great numbers of them, probably because the stern waters of the Northwest Coast rarely permitted the leisurely attitude conducive to song. Howerver, the early explorers all mentioned that, the Indians, coming out to their ships to trade, arrived singing.

The annual economic cycle was very closely bound to the ceremonial and social pattern of activity. Since the food supply was available in the summer and fortunately consisted of many products that could be preserved through drying, the Indians performed their major tasks during that season, leaving them considerable leisure for other activities in the winter. The ceremonial life here had three major motiviations: the social activity necessary to gain and maintain social prestige, the ceremonials involving the guardian spirit, and shamanistic performances. For all these occasions the people gathered in a large house and included visitors from neighboring villages and even distant places according to the importance of the host and the significance of the affair. Social activity depended upon the leadership of the upper class in a society divided loosely into three groups: leaders, common people, and slaves. Mobility between these classes was considerable except for slaves, whose only possibility of social improvement was through ransom by their own people, since they were obtained by raids on distant villages. A person of good social standing had to maintain his position through giving the proper feasts, as, when his children received new names, each with greater social importance, when a daughter arrived at puberty, when her hand was sought in marriage, when the marriage took place, when a man himself took over an important name from a dead relative, and when important funerals occurred. Some of these occasions have been generally called patlatches, but if one reserves that term for the involved social and economic transactions of the north, these feasts are clearly marginal forms. Social position was achieved by the generosity displayed on these occasions, both in the amount and kind of food set before guests, the amount of property given away (and perhaps destroyed at funerals) and by the extent of the entertainment provided.

Perhaps reconstructing here the procedure of a typical gathering will show the place of music in the ceremonial life of western Washington. When the guests arrived from another village by canoe, they always landed in a little cove near their destination and dressed in ceremonial clothes and painted themselves. To make a spectacular entry into the host's village, often two canoes were lashed together with a platform between them, on which dancers stood ready to perform when they were close enough to be seen easily. The songs and dances used on such an occasion were the property of the head of the family. The arriving guests were greeted by the host, and his family, also ceremonially dressed, and a welcome song with a slow stately dance was performed on the beach. The guests were then led into the ceremonial house where they were assigned space according to their social position. The farther their position was from the door, the higher their rank. As the guests assembled and waited for the meal to be served, individuals would spontaneously sing any song that belonged to them, as for instance the Chinook songs of Henry Allen. Such songs have no serious implications and are purely for entertainment, yet nobody sings a number to which he or his family does not have a right, either through inheritance or purchase. At meal time songs of thanks were often sung to the host. After the meal, if the occasion was for one night only, the business of the gathering would begin, but if the assemblage was to stay for several days, a gambling game might be organized.

In western Washington this was generally the "bone game," the object being for one side to guess in which hand an opposing player held the unmarked one of two tubular bones. The two sides sat behind parallel planks of wood and beat time on them with short sticks as they sang. Only the hiding side sang. Gambling songs belonged to well-known players, but older ones whose ownership had been forgotten were freely sung by all. The game was universal in the Northwest and many songs had words in Chinook jargon since that was understood more widely than any local language. This game is still played at local Indian gatherings today and new songs are often composed and added to the repertoire.

During the winter the social gatherings gave way to the more serious conditions of guardian spirit dancing. In this region, religion was extremely individual, for each person went out at adolescence to acquire, through fasting and vigil, the help of a spirit who came to him in a vision. The spirit gave the devotee the ability to be a good hunter, gambler, or basket maker, or to perform any other socially sanctioned activity. At this time, also, a song was heard and a dance seen. When the young person returned successfully from such a vigil the older men in the village helped him develop his song and arrange his dance in an accepted pattern. Then during the next ceremonial season, when he felt his spirit upon him again, he danced for the first time. To celebrate this occasion the young dancer's father had to give suitable presents to all the important people who witnessed his son's performance. In this way his possession of his spirit was validated and at succeeding ceremonial seasons he would dance if he was repossessed by his spirit. If a person was possessed by a spirit and did not respond by singing and dancing the power was strong enough to kill him. In other words, singing and dancing here was a form of exorcism.

Whether the spirit dancing lasts for several days for each participant as in former, days or is done in a single night as at present, the procedure is the same. When a dancer felt his power coming to him he groaned with agony, a signal for the drummers to gather around him. As soon as he intoned his song, the leader picked it up and they drummed the rhythm. When the dancer was ready, he jumped into the center of the floor with a great leap, and faced his drummers while he sang a verse of the song. Then he turned and danced counterclockwise around the house, moving between the fires in the center and the people sitting on the platforms along the walls. Periodically he stopped, faced the drummers and sang another verse and then continued on his way, making a circuit of the house, never less than once, never more than four times. Formerly these possessions were preceded by days of listlessness during which the family prepared for the dancing to follow. It is interesting that now, when so much of this culture has disappeared, this feature still remains in a shortened and less spontaneous form, but in the last twenty years, gaining rather than losing importance.

The individual character of these songs has frequently been mentioned, but it must be added that in spite of this, everyone knew many songs. However, a song could be used only if the owner started it or gave his permission for its use. A very old man, who could no longer sing, would pay a younger man to sing his song for him at a gathering. If the people especially liked the song, many individuals would, in turn, give the owner a present for having made it possible for them to hear his song. Once a song was started, everyone would join in, and the degree of participation indicated the social esteem in which the owner was held. During a man's spirit dance, his wife often walked around in front of the audience and urged then to sing. Volume was generally regarded as more important than quality.

In the culture of former days, there were individuals who had relations with more powerful and dangerous spirits. "These people were shamans or medicine men, who used their spiritual power to cure the sick, foretell the future, recover lost articles, and go to the land of the dead for departed souls. Their powers were specific according to their spirit helpers, and they could work for harm as well as for good. They were generally people to be feared, and children were warned not to linger near a shaman's house. A medicine man usually worked alone and came to a patient's house on call. He would sing quietly to attract his spirit and then with the help of the onlookers' singing, dance and cure by means of massage or sucking the afflicted part of the patient. Again, as soon as his song was intoned everyone present joined in. Such a cure might last only a few hours, but if the patient did not respond, it might go on for several days. Shamanistic curings have been crowded out of the Indian life of today by knowledge of modern medical practices and by missionary preaching, but, there are still many older people who are minor shamans or resort to a shaman for help.

As the power of the shaman diminished in Puget Sound villages, a partial substitute for it developed. At the southern end of the Sound, there began in 1882 one of the great religious movements so frequent among the Indians in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A Squaxin Indian, John Slocum, believed dead, came back to life and, announcing that he had seen God, preached a revivalistic type of religion called, in English, the "Shakers." This name is derived from the violent trembling indulged in during services and has no connection with the Shaker cult of the eastern United States. The religion is composed of features drawn from the guardian spirit cult, Catholicism, and Protestantism, both Christian religions having been familiar to the Indians through missionaries for several decades. In addition to Sunday services, the Shakers undertake to cure the sick, who are regarded as afflicted because of lack of faith or as being under the power of evil spirits. They also hold special meetings to convert new members and hear testimonials from "backsliders" who have rejoined the church. The music of the church often has a vague resemblance to the Protestant hymn, which is historically correct. Since these people believe in direct revelation as a guiding factor, the music is equally spontaneous, and just as the Guardian Spirit songs vary within a definite range of pattern, so this style is easily recognizable. A hymn is started by someone and taken up by the rest of the congregation. Singing in the Shaker church is accompanied by bells rather than the drum. In the curing service, the members move around the patient with a stamping step that increases in tempo until the leader breaks it and brings it down to a slower beat. In the Sunday service, the same step is used in parading around the church, but it does not become so violent.

This church still exists, and while its numbers are not great, it has spread from Puget Sound up the east coast of Vancouver Island and southward to Hupa in California. Inroads have been made on its membership by modern evangelical cults like the Pentecostal Mission and the Assembly of God, but a strong leader can still get a following, and even in the summer, count among his congregation some who dance guardian spirit dances during the winter ceremonial season.

The Shaker interest in curing the sick was a characteristic of Northwest culture where the shaman's gift tapered off among the lay people in the ability to effect minor cures. Among the Makah, the Nootkan-speaking relatives of the tribes on the west coast of Vancouver Island, lay curing was organized into a society. In the region from which the songs in this album come, one of the features which marks the culture as a marginal form of the Northwest Coast was the occasional presence of a very weak form of the secret society. The Makah had this trait in the Wolf Ritual and in a poorly defined society which was less exclusive and admitted practically everyone who cared to join. This was called the "Tsaiyak." Its members were on call to sing for the sick, as an aid to recovery but not to replace the shaman. They expected no pay for this, but a household they visited would feed them during their services. The songs were described as soothing and encouraging so that the society was often called upon by families where a member suffered from "depression."

The individual songs in the album, like the love songs and the lullaby, were also personal property inherited from relatives or sometimes bought. Another person's song was never publicly used without arrangement and compensation. In this type of singing, quality of voice was important in contrast to the standard of, volume in spirit singing. Singers have been described as having 'too rough" a voice for love songs. Today love songs are more often sung for recordings by women, perhaps because men are bashful about them, but that was not the pattern in the former culture.

Singing had an important function in the culture of the Northwest. There is evidence from early explorers, the Spaniards (1774), Cook (1778), and Vancouver (1792), that there has been little change in the type of music or in the occasions that demand it for the last one hundred fifty years of this culture. As in many other places, songs have disappeared with their singers, but it is encouraging to find among the Indians a renewed interest in their music. At Guardian Spirit dances there are young people participating and the bone games stimulate new songs on many reservations. And when recordings are made, no one is more eager to hear them than the Indians themselves.