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Native Americans Flutist Shares Stories and Music of Ojibwe People

Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe.

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Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2019. Photo by Mike Garcia. VOA

These days, Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe. But few belong to any tribe or nation, something that troubles Darren Thompson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin and an award-winning flutist.

This week, he is performing at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York, sharing stories and music that speak to the history, trauma and resilience of the Ojibwe people. And of course, to the instrument itself, which the Ojibwe call “bibigwan.”

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Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson . Photo by Matt Kelly. VOA

“The Native American Flute’ is the name of the instrument, so anybody who picks one up and plays it can call himself a Native American Flute Player,'” said Thompson.

Technically, playing an inauthentic flute violates the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act, passed in 1990 to ban the sale of goods falsely labeled “Native American. But there is nothing to stop non-Native performers from falsely claiming Native American heritage.

“It’s not so much the fact that they are playing the flute that bothers me. It’s the fact that a lot of them are non-Native and try to play the part of a Native, wearing what they think is Indian’ attire. It’s offensive, and it perpetuates the stereotype that Native Americans are still running around as they did in the past,” said Thompson.

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A group of citizens of former Czechoslovakia portraying Native Americans at an “Indianistik” meeting in 1988. Indian hobbyism–the desire to dress or live like traditional Native Americans–has always been popular in Eastern Europe. VOA

‘Singing trees’

Thompson grew up hearing traditional Ojibwe music, but it wasn’t an important part of his life until he left the reservation.

“I went to Marquette University, where there weren’t any other Native kids,” he said. “I was still in Wisconsin, but it was a foreign environment.”

Homesickness led him to the music of Navajo/Ute flutist Raymond Carlos Nakai, which evoked memories of his childhood.

“One of the first stories I ever heard came from the elders, who talked about trees,” Thompson said. “I remember them saying trees sing to us and give us guidance.I think I was four, and that story came to mind 15 years later when I first heard Nakai playing.”

It was then, he said, he understood what the elders had been trying to tell him: Trees do sing — through flutes carved from their wood.

Thompson bought his first flute from a non-Native vendor at a cultural festival. He taught himself to play, and as he learned, he felt moved to connect to the music of his ancestors — music that preceded government assimilation policies that nearly killed off the Ojibwe language, culture and religious traditions.

“I went out to museums to research actual instruments that were seized 200 years ago and taken into collections,” he said. “Store-bought “Native” flutes are similar in construction, but they are tuned to a minor Western music scale. But an authentic one would be tuned to the maker himself.”

Traditionally, players carved their own instruments from a single piece of wood — cedar, for example, or ash. Each flute would have two chambers, which allowed the player to breathe, Thompson explained.

No two instruments would have been alike.

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Nineteenth Century Ojibwe flute, part of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y. VOA

“The length of the instrument would be the distance from that person’s armpit to his first knuckle,” he said. “The width would be the same as the width of his thumb. Even the spacing of the finger holes is calibrated to the player’s body.”

The number of open holes carved into the flute varies.Thompson owns several flutes, some he made himself and others custom made. Some have only four holes, which can produce eight notes. Others have five and six holes, allowing for greater range in melody.

The result is a sound unique to each player — a deep and clear tone that Thompson says “touches a lot of people.”

He has wanted to perform at NMAI for at least a decade.

“NMAI has a program called The Art of Storytelling.” My performance is unique, in that I try to reintroduce stories and music from history. Songs I’ve learned that were recorded in the early 1900s, before our culture got erased,” Thompson said.

The stories don’t just speak to what was lost, but what has survived. And some carry messages that are universal:

“If you take all the four-leggeds, those who walk on all fours, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take all the winged ones, those that fly in the sky, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

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“If you take away all the plants from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away all the water, and those that live in water, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away man from the Earth, life on Earth would flourish.” (VOA)

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Revive Bill Helping Native American Women: Alaska Senator

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the Greywind family, told The Associated Press on Friday that the bill asks for "a minimal level of accountability''

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks after an order withdrawing federal protections for countless waterways and wetland was signed, at EPA headquarters in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018. VOA

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she plans to reintroduce a bill intended to help solve crimes against Native Americans. The bill received unanimous Senate approval after being introduced by North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp but was blocked by the outgoing chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Goodlatte stops bill

Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte said he agreed with the intent of Heitkamp’s bill, which sought to expand tribal access to federal crime databases, set standards for law enforcement’s response to cases of missing or slain Native Americans, and instruct the Justice Department to increase its data collection on crimes against Native Americans.

But he said the bill would have hurt some agencies that have no link to tribal communities because they wouldn’t be able to compete for Justice Department grants that the bill sought to create, The Roanoke Times reported.

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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., attends her last hearing with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as they examine concerns about investigations into the deaths and disappearance of Native American women, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 12, 2018. VOA

Goodlatte, a Republican who is retiring after 13 terms in office, said only a limited number of law enforcement organizations are eligible for those funds “so every other law enforcement organization in America is opposed to it, and the Fraternal Order of Police and groups like that because they’re getting a cut in order to do that.”

With the House adjourned until further notice, it appears that the measure known as Savanna’s Act will expire at the end of the year. Murkowski, also a Republican, has said she will take up the measure when lawmakers return to Washington.

“It’s disappointing that one Republican member of Congress blocked Savanna’s Act from passing this year,” Heitkamp, a Democrat, said in a statement. “But fortunately, Rep. Goodlatte won’t be around to block it in the new Congress. I’ve talked with Sen. Murkowski about Savanna’s Act and I’m so proud that she will reintroduce my bill in the new year.”

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., answers reporters’ questions in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, July 13, 2018. VOA

Bill named for slain woman

The bill is named for Savanna Greywind, a slain North Dakota woman whose baby was cut from her womb.

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Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the Greywind family, told The Associated Press on Friday that the bill asks for “a minimal level of accountability” and the notion that it is too onerous for law enforcement is “absurd.”

“If that’s the case then this bill should be introduced as is and let them come and testify before Congress about why they don’t want an incentive for providing the appropriate data that is needed and that this bill requires,” Allred said. “Let’s see who they are. If there are any they shouldn’t be hiding behind some elected official.” (VOA)