Native American Music Proposed As New Grammy Award Category

Supporters see legitimate, dynamic musical genre in albums by Native Americans.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is considering a proposal to establish a Native American Music category for its annual Grammy Award presentations.

This proposal was submitted to NARAS early in March by the Native American Music Association, a nonprofit group best known for sponsoring the annual Native American Music Awards.

The proposal outlines several reasons for establishing the category. Statistics suggesting steady or rising sales of albums by Native American musicians are cited, while artists, label executives, music journalists and academics argue that these recordings identify a legitimate and dynamic musical genre.

The proposal's greatest emphasis, however, is on defining the genre. While acknowledging a growing diversity in the work of Native American artists, the proposal points to "a deep reverence of America's landscapes" as a trait shared by all such artists. More specifically, "a consistently distinct element of today's Native American music is the usage of ... vocals performed in tribal language and/or the utilization of natural instrumentation, such as hand-crafted drums, rattles and flutes."

Ellen Bello, president and founder of NAMA, acknowledges that much of the music grouped under this umbrella — approximately half, by her estimate — emphasizes contemporary arrangements far more than assorted percussion. But its underlying identity is retained, she said.

"[Native American] music has a traditional base, whether it's through the instrumentation or the rhythm or the spiritual wisdom that comes out of the lyrical content," Bello said. When combined with guitars, synthesizers and other modern instruments, the identity of the music survives "in the delivery and the authenticity of the music in its combination of traditional elements with contemporary forms."

Bello notes that a Native American category in the Grammys would be defined by this more contemporary style, whereas the NAMA Awards focus on ethnicity. The group Indigenous, for example, are Native American by heritage, but they perform blues-rock music, as in the track "Holdin' Out" from their album Things We Do. "The current Grammys would consider Indigenous a blues-rock submission," Bello said. "They would be eligible in our awards show as well, but in the Best Blues/Rock category."

Consideration by NARAS of all proposals for new categories involves a two-step process. It begins with the annual meeting of the Awards and Nominations Review Committee, which is scheduled for April 17. If approval is recommended, the proposal is forwarded to the full Board of Trustees for review in May. According to Diane Theriot, NARAS Vice President of Awards, if the NAMA proposal passes muster, the Native American Music category could be on the program for the Grammy presentation in February 2001.