American Indian Festivals Honor Tradition, Diversity

Across North America, gatherings celebrate vibrant culture.

Almost every weekend through the summer and early fall, a celebration of American Indian music is occurring somewhere in North America.

Many of these festivals are regional in nature, reflecting the traditions of a particular tribal group, but several attract national audiences. All of them feature a sharing of culture and a display of its variety.

"If you think something is not American Indian music, then check your perceptions," says Bob Doyle, president of Canyon Records, which has been recording Native American music for almost 50 years.

"There's so much variety out there, it's hard to recommend one festival or another. Just go!"

Four of the major festivals where traditional and contemporary American Indian music can be heard are Indian Summer at Hunter Mountain, N.Y., on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2 and 3; the Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee, Sept. 8–10; the Native American Music Awards, held in Albuquerque, N.M., on the first weekend in November; and the Gathering of Nations, also in Albuquerque, set for the fourth weekend in April.

Joanne Shenandoah appeared at the 1994 Woodstock Festival, won the Best Female Artist award at the Native American Music Awards in both 1998 and '99, and sings in her native Iroquois on her Peacemaker's Journey (Silver Wave, 2000). She and Robert Tree Cody are set to appear at Hunter Mountain, which usually attracts an audience of more than 15,000.

Bill Miller, whose "Ghost Dance" (RealAudio excerpt) helped him to five Native American Music Awards last year, including Songwriter of the Year, will appear with Robert Mirabal, Clan/Destine, Freddy Fender and Red Earth at the Milwaukee fest, where more than 30,000 attendees are expected.

Mirabal is a New Mexico native who's combined ceremonial drums and chants with electronic dance beats and electric guitars on songs such as "Painted Caves" off his latest album, Taos Tales (Silver Wave, 1999).

Awards Show Proves Popular

The lineup for this year's Native American Music Awards hasn't been finalized, but the show routinely sells out Popejoy Hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico. Last year it included such luminaries as Miller, Arigon Starr, Native Roots and Walela, the vocal trio featuring sisters Rita and Priscilla Coolidge and Priscilla's daughter Laura Satterfield.

The lineup for the next outdoor Gathering of Nations hasn't been set yet either, but singers and dancers representing more than 300 tribes travel to Albuquerque to share their music each year in this, the largest tribal gathering in North America.

Music in American Indian culture arose as a sacred accompaniment to religious observances of everyday life, and even in the most modern of shows there is a sense of sharing culture as well as music. In part, that's what makes these festivals a bit different from the blues, folk or bluegrass shows that also dot the summer and fall calendars.

In other gatherings, such as the Navajo Fourth of July Powwow at Window Rock, Ariz.; the Taos Pueblo Contest Powwow at Taos Pueblo, N.M.; and the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal's 19th Annual Traditional Pow Wow at Bonsecours Island in the Old Port of Montreal, the emphasis is on dance and on music as an accompaniment to the dance.

The center of most traditional American Indian music is the drum — which refers not only to the physical instrument itself, typically a wooden shell covered with cowhide, but to the six or eight people who play the instruments with mallets and three or four singers.

Drum groups can travel thousands of miles to appear at particular festivals, as can dancers, who may be competing for prizes in more modern festivals or sharing sacred histories in older-style gatherings.

Music On The Move

"For a long time, Native music has been a private music, confined to the reservations," said Sandra Schulman, Nashville Director of the Native American Music Organization. "Now, that's changing."

Indeed it is. Recently the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the organization that oversees the annual Grammy Awards, announced the creation of a American Indian music category.

Additionally, high-profile American Indian artists such as Robbie Robertson, Rita Coolidge and others are increasingly emphasizing their heritage in their work. Others, including Carlos Nakai and John Trudell — whose latest, Blue Indians (RealAudio excerpt of title track), was produced by Jackson Browne — are gaining visibility of their own.

American Indian music festival dates:

American Indian Exposition

Aug. 7–12

Caddo County Fairgrounds, Anadarko, Okla.

Indian Summer at Hunter Mountain

Sept. 2–3

Hunter Mountain, N.Y.

(212) 228-8300

Indian Summer Festival

Sept. 8–10

Henry Maier Festival Park, Milwaukee, Wis.

(414) 774-7119

Native Friendship Centre of Montreal's 19th Annual Traditional Pow Wow

Sept. 9–10

Bonsecours Island, Old Port of Montreal, Quebec, Canada

(514) 499-1854

Chickasaw Festival

Sept. 30–Oct. 7

Tishomingo, Okla.

(580) 371-2040

88th Annual Cherokee Indian Fair

Oct. 3–7

Cherokee Ceremonial Grounds, Cherokee, N.C.

(888) 291-0632, (828) 497-2952

10th Anniversary "Day of the Wolf" Pow Wow

Oct. 6–8

County Fairgrounds, Bardstown, Ky.

(502) 348-0425

Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow & Trade Show at 24th Annual Indian Nationals Rodeo

Oct. 7–10

New Mexico State Fairgrounds, Albuquerque, N.M.

Native American Music Awards

Nov. 3–5

Popejoy Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M.

(212) 228-8300,

Gathering of Nations

April 26–28

Albuquerque, N.M.