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INDIAN MUSIC, SONGS, AND POETRY.
The North American tribes have the elements of music and poetry. 'Their war songs frequently contain flights of the finest heroic sentiment, clothed in poetic imagery. And numbers of the addresses of the speakers, both occasional and public, abound in eloquent and poetic thought. “We would anticipate eloquence," observes a modern American writer, " from an Indian. He has animating remembrances—a poetry of language, which exacts rich and apposite metaphorical allusions, even for ordinary conversation-a mind which, like his body, has never been trammelled and mechanized by the formalities of society, and passions which, from the very outward restraint imposed upon them, burn more fiercely within.” Yet, it will be found that the records of our literature, scattered as they are, in periodicals and ephemeral publications, rather than in works of professed research, are meagre and barren, on these topics. One of the first things we hear of the Indians, after their discovery, is their proneness to singing and dancing. But however char. acteristic these traits may be, and we think they are eminently so, it has fallen to the lot of but few to put on record specimens, which may
appealed to, as evidences of the current opinion, on these heads. With favourable opportunities of observation among the tribes, we have but to ada our testimony to tne difficulties of making collections in these departments, which shall not compromit the intellectual character of the tribes, whose efforts are always oral, and very commonly extemporaneous. These difficulties arise from the want of suitable interpreters, the remoteness of the points at which observations must be made, the heavy demands made upon hours of leisure or business by such inquiries, and the inconvenience of making notes and detailed memoranda on the spot. The little that it is in our power to offer, will therefore be submitted as contributions to an inquiry which is quite in its infancy, and rather with the hope of exciting others to future labours, than of gratifying, to any extent, an enlightened curiosity on the subject.
Dancing is both an amusement and a religious observance, among the American Indians, and is known to constitute one of the most wide spread traits in their manners and customs. It is accompanied, in all cases, with singing, and, omitting a few cases, with the beating of time on instruments. Tribes the most diverse in language, and situated at the greatest distances apart, concur in this. It is believed to be the ordinary mode of expressing intense passion, or feeling on any subject, and it is a custom
which has been persevered in, with the least variation, through all the phases of their history, and probably exists among the remote tribes, precisely at this time, as it did in the era of Columbus. It is observed to be the last thing abandoned by bands and individuals, in their progress to civilization and christianity. So true is this, that it may be regarded as one of the best practical proofs of their advance, to find the native instruments and music thrown by, and the custom abandoned.
Every one has heard of the war dance, the medicine dance, the wabeno dance, the dance of honour (generally called the begging dance,) and various others, each of which has its appropriate movements, its air, and its words. There is no feast, and no religious ceremony, among them, which is not attended with dancing and songs. Thanks are thus expressed for success in hunting, for triumphs in war, and for ordinary providential cares. Public opinion is called to pressing objects by a dance, at which addresses are made, and in fact, moral instructions and advice are given to the young, in the course of their being assembled at social feasts and dances. Dancing is indeed the common resource, whenever the inass of Indian mind is to be acted on. And it thus stands viewed in its necessary connection with the songs and addresses, in the room of the press, the newspaper, and the periodical. The priests and prophets have, more than any other class, cultivated their national songs and dances, and may be regarded as the skalds and poets of the tribes. They are generally the composers of the songs, and the leaders in the dance and ceremonies, and it is found, that their memories are the best stored, not only with the sacred songs and chants, but also with the traditions, and general lore of the tribes.
Dancing is thus interwoven throughout the whole texture of Indian society, so that there is scarcely an event important or trivial, private or public, which is not connected, more or less intimately, with this rite. The instances where singing is adopted, without dancing, are nearly confined to occurrences of a domestic character. Among these, are wails for the dead, and love songs of a simple and plaintive character. Maternal affection evinces itself, by singing words, to a cheerful air, over the slumbers of the child, which, being suspended in a kind of cradle receives, at the same time avibratory motion. Children have likewise certain chants, which they utter in the evenings, while playing around the lodge door, or at other seasons of youthful hilarity. Some of the Indian fables are in the shape of duets, and the songs introduced in narrating their fictitious tales, are always sung in the recital.
Their instruments of music are few and simple. The only wind instrument existing among them is the Pibbegwon, a kind of flute, resembling in simplicity the Arcadian pipe. It is commonly made of two semicylindrical pieces of cedar, united with fish glue, and having a snake skin, in a wet state, drawn tightly over it, to prevent its cracking. The holes
are eight in number, and are perforated by means of a bit of heated iron. It is blown like the flagolet, and has a similar orifice or mouth picce.
The Tarwa’EGUN, (struck-sound-instrument,) is a tamborine, or oneheaded drum, and is made by adjusting a skin to one end of the section of a moderate sized hollow tree. When a heavier sound is required, a tree of larger circumference is chosen, and both ends closed with skins. The latter is called MITTIGWUKEEK, I. e. Wood-Kettle-Drum, and is appropriately used in religious ceremonies, but is not, perhaps, confined to this occasion.
To these may be added a fourth instrument, called the SHESHEGWON, or Rattle, which is constructed in various ways, according to the purpose or means of the maker. Sometimes it is made of animal bladder, from which the name is derived, sometimes of a wild gourd; in others, by attaching the dried hoofs of the deer to a stick. This instrument is employed both to mark time, and to produce variety in sound.
Common as the Indian songs are, it is found to be no ordinary acquisition to obtain accurate specimens of them. Even after the difficulties of the notation have been accomplished, it is not easy to satisfy the requisitions of a correct taste and judgment, in their exhibition. There is always a lingering fear of misapprehension, or misconception, on the part of the interpreter—or of some things being withheld by the never sleeping suspicion, or the superstitious fear of disclosure, on the part of the Indian. To these must be added, the idiomatic and imaginative peculiarities of this species of wild composition-so very different from every notion of English versification. In the first place there is no unity of theme, or plot, unless it be that the subject, war for instance, is kept in the singer's mind. In the next place both the narration and the description, when introduced, is very imperfect, broken, or disjointed. Prominent ideas flash out, and are dropped. These are often most striking and beautiful, but we wait in vain for any sequence.
A brief allusion-a shining symbol, a burst of feeling or passion, a fine sentiment, or a bold assertion, come in as so many independent parts, and there is but little in the composition to indicate the leading theme which is, as it were, kept in mental reserve, by the singer. Popular, or favourite expressions are often repeated, often transposed, and often exhibited with some new shade of meaning. The structure and flexibility of the language is highly favourable to this kind of wild improvisation. But it is difficult to translate, and next to impossible to preserve its spirit. Two languages more unlike in all their leading characteristics, than the English and the Indian were never brought into contact. The one monosyllabic, and nearly without Inflections—the other polysyllabic, polysynthetic and so full of inflections
of every imaginative kind, as to be completely transpositive--the one from the north of Europe, the other, probably, from Central Asia, it would seem that these families of the human race, had not wandered wider apart, in their location, than they have in the sounds of their language, the accidence of their grammar and the definition of their words. So that to find equivalent single words in translation, appears often as hopeless as the quadrature of the circle.
The great store house of Indian imagery is the heavens. The clouds, the planets, the sun, and moon, the phenomena of lightning, thunder, electricity, aerial sounds, electric or atmospheric, and the endless variety produced in the heavens by light and shade, and by elemental action,--these constitute the fruitful themes of allusion in their songs and poetic chants. But they are mere allusions, or broken description, like touches on the canvass, without being united to produce a perfect object. The strokes may be those of a master, and the colouring exquisite ; but without the art to draw, or the skill to connect, it will still remain but a shapeless mass
In war excursions great attention is paid to the flight of birds, particularly those of the carnivorous species, which are deemed typical of war and bravery, and their wing and tail feathers are appropriated as marks of honor, by the successful warrior. When the minds of a war party have been roused up to the subject, and they are prepared to give utterance to their feelings by singing and dancing, they are naturally led to appeal to the agency of this class of birds. Hence the frequent allusions to them, in their songs. The following stanza is made up of expressions brought into connection, from different fragments, but expresses no more than the native sentiments :
The eagles scream on high,
They whet their forked beaks,
'Tis fame our leader seeks. Generally the expressions are of an exalted and poetic character, but the remark before made of their efforts in song, being discontinuous and abrupt, apply with peculiar force to the war songs. To speak of a brave man—of a battle—or the scene of a battle, or of the hovering of birds of prey above it, appears sufficient to bring up to the warrior's mind, all the details consequent on personal bravery or heroic achievement. It would naturally be expected, that they should delight to dwell on scenes of carnage and blood : but however this may be, all such details are omitted or suppressed in their war songs, which only excite ideas of noble daring.
The birds of the brave take a flight round the sky,
They cross the enemy's line,
Where brave men love to die.