Indian Music Of The Pacific Northwest Coast - Page 1

Notes by Dr. Ida Halpern

This album was prepared for the Canadian Centennial Year, 1967, with the help of a grant from the British Columbia Government in 1966 to the Canadian, Folk Music Society.

In the compilation Dr. Halpern was assisted by Margaret Sargent McTaggart, formerly of the National Museum of Canada. Ida Halpern received her Ph. D. in musicology from the University of Vienna in 1938 where she studied under Robert Lach and Egon Wellesz. She has taught at the University of Shanghai, the University of British Columbia and is at present an Honorary Associate, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.

General Introduction

The Indiana of the Pacific Northwest Coast are among the most interesting and colorful to be found north of Mexico. Their tribes include the Kwakiutl, the Nootka, the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimahian, the Bella Coola and the Coast Salish. The highest cultural development occurred in the northern tribes, gradually diminishing as one moves south to the Coast Salish.

The Kwakiutl occupied reserves in the northern corner of Vancouver Island, ranging from Johnstone Strait to Cape Cook; it is their music with which we are mainly concerned in this presentation.

In addition to music, the Kwakiutl culture was greatly enriched by totem poles, masks and costumes, and a variety of myth and legend which form a most rewarding study. They express themselves masterfully in the weaving of blankets and intricate basketwork, in carvings of wood and stone, and in the working of metal.

(Dr. Halpern's study centered around the Kwakiutl and Nootka tribes.) While they showed no distinct political organization, both religion and society placed great emphasis on prestige, rather than power. Much importance was given to wealth, family possessions and the ownership of slaves. Social climbing and the denigration of rivals were strong motives. Of great importance also were their rituals and ceremonies, kept according to strict rules, and resulting in the exercise of medicine-man power, the acquisition of supernatural powers, the establishment of direct contact with the spirit world, and the initiation of secret societies.

The nucleus for all these activities was the celebrated potlatch, the tribal ceremony which kept all the facets of life functioning in high gear. The potlatch was the cultural artery of Indian life.

In 1770 on the arrival of the white man, the entire West Coast Indian population was estimated to be about seventy thousand people while the Kwakiutl population was between seven and eight thousand. In 1882, through infectious diseases the Kwakiutl had dwindled to about three thousand, five hundred. In 1924, there were slightly under two thousand. Since that time, however, the trend has been reversed, and they now number about four thousand, three hundred, (1964).

The political unit of the Kwakiutl was the village, which was self-supporting. Only luxuries, including slaves, were traded. The chief, who lived in a great house, posessed those names which, with other rights, titles and privileges, were handed down from generation to generation. These might include the ownership of a song, a crest, a special seat at the potlatch, or the right to membership in secret societies such as the Hamatsa, the so-called "cannibal society."

The Hamatsa originated with the Kwakiutl and later spread to the Haida and Nootka tribes. Initiation was a great honor, accorded only to those of high rank, and was compulsory for chiefs.

The Hamatsa songs and dances are usually interpreted and understood as "cannibal" dances and songs. Chief Billy Assu was very anxious to point out to Dr. Halpern that these "cannibal" dances were only make believe, or illusions. The idea was for a young chosen man to be sent out into the woods without food for a long period and through fasting to become one with nature. Through meditation in that seclusion, this chosen person was geared to receive supernatural powers and, on his return to the village, festivities, dances, and potlatches were given in his honor. (For further relevant information see the Hamatsa songs.)

The Kwakiutl were composed of four phratries--Raven, Eagle, Killer Whale and Wolf. They were allowed to marry outside their own phratry. The child belonged to the mother's phratry (matrilineal descent) but later could change to his father's. Human beings dressed in Raven dress but were not considered descendants of the Raven.

Every phase of Indian life is portrayed in songs and dances. The Indian has a song for each occasion and endows it with great importance. Four phases of their lives were chosen for the respective four sides of the recordings, which really can be understood as a part of a great potlatch, the mainspring of Indian existence.

The songs on the recordings were selected from a group of nearly three hundred, collected by Dr. Ida Halpern during the years 1947-1953, at Alert Bay, Cape Mudge, Port Alberni, Victoria and Vancouver.

The National Museum of Canada had them catalogued for their archives, and the number shown after each singer's name corresponds to the catalogue number.

The recordings are in the possession of Dr. Halpern. Research and transcriptions of the material have been done by the collector intermittently; also a contribution of three songs to a Columbia LP on Canadian folk music, a paper on Kwiutl music, 1962 (International Folk Music Council), and numerous broadcasts for the C.B.C, B.B.C, Ravag, and R.I.A.S.

For authenticity's sake the words of the informants in the explanations of the songs have been kept as close as possible to their way of expressing themselves.

The explanations of songs and meanings come directly from the singers and informants themselves. Chief Billy Assu, Mrs. Assu, Chief Mungo Martin, Mrs. Martin, Fred Louie, Stanely Hunt, Dan Cranmer, Mary Wamiss and Ella Thompson. All the singers are now dead with the exception of Mrs. Billy Assu, who sang unobtrusively with Chief Billy Assu, and Ella Thompson who sang with Fred Louie.

Some of the songs in these recordings are transcribed into our Musical notation and supplied with detailed analyses. Others have shorter analyses with pertinent observations and specific information.

In the scale illustrations, a whole note indicates the tonic, or the most important tone; a half note, the second most important tone; and quarter notes, tones of lesser importance. Notes without heads have uncertain pitch. When whole notes only are used, relationship was not determined.

None of the many linguistic phonetic systems for transcribing Indian texts were used here, with the sole exception of the Gambling Song (Side 4, Song 7, transcribed) which was written down by Mungo Martin.

The vowel sounds commonly used and referred to as the continental System, according to Boas, were employed in all the other songs:
a as in bear--i as in feet-a as in father--u as in moon--o as in oh--e as in fell.

Dr. Halpern says of her collecting: "I started to collect Indian folk music as soon as I entered Canada, in 1939. However, it took six years of intensive contact-making before I was successful in convincing the Indians that they should sing for me their old authentic songs, known only to the old chiefs.

Chief Billy Assu was the first one to understand the importance of such recordings when I pointed out to him that none of his three sons were interested in knowing the old songs, and that when he died, the songs would also be dead.

He then invited me to stay with him and his wife in his house on the Indian reserve in Cape Mudge, where I recorded on disc 85 songs."

The songs on the recordings are mainly from the Kwakiutl tribe, along with Nootka and Tlingit.