Tuesday, 25 August 2009

ojibwe music #3

With all that in mind, here is the first part of the article in Gilfillan's scrap book:
It is no longer to be doubted that there is real beauty in Indian music - in that of the Ojibway tribe, at least; and on of the most capable of our American composers, Frederick R. Burton of Yonkers, N.Y., is engaged in his summer home in Desbarats, Ont., studying the musical system of the Ojibways, reeducing it to notes and, to please the civilized ear, making harmonized arrangements of it which bid fair to become classic. The word "system" in the foregoing is used advisedly, for, notwithstanding that the Ojibway musical scheme does not recognize harmony, the Ojibways have unconsciously attained an artistic end. The singing of the Zuñis, the Omakas, and other tribes of Western Indians leads very nearly to the conclusion that, while rudimentary melodic ideas of a pleasing nature might be found in aboriginal music, no such thing as a well-defined, coherent Indian tune exists. Indian music, like Indian poetry, consists in the indefinite repetition of a single brief idea. Art music, on the other hand, is distinguished by repetition or imitation of a single melodic idea with various other melodic phrases as links to bind the essential fragments into a complete whole. This feature of art music is palpably manifest in the structure of Ojibway songs. They attain unity by the repetition of a definite melodic phrase, or motif, and they attain variety by the alternation of other phrases or by the familiar device of imitation of the main phrase on another interval of the scale.

Desbarats, since prehistoric times, has been the summer playground of the Ojibways, and it is there that the scene of Longfellow's "Hiawatha" is laid. It is there, too, that the Ojibways give from July 10 to September 1, their annual performance of their own play of "Hiawatha". Mr. Burton's successful dramatic cantata "Hiawatha" has been selected for combination with the Indian "Hiawatha" for the later delectation of audiences in the great cities, and the composer and conductor has been adopted into the tribe and given the appropriate name of "Neganne-Kah-boh" - "the man in front." Himself an Indian by adoption, it is peculiarly fit that it should fall to his lot to uncover to the civilized world the remarkable inherent beauties of the music of his tribe.

ojibwe music #2

This is a bit complicated and I hope I get it right! In the second volume of Gilfillan's scrap book, there is an article that he clipped from a 1902 edition of the New York paper, The Evening Post. The title of the article is 'The Music of the Ojibway Indians: Aboriginal Tunes on the Scene of Longfellow's "Hiawatha"' and it discusses a composer called Frederick R. Burton ('of Yonkers, N.Y.'), who had had been studying Ojibwe music and had made arrangements of some of the songs he had heard.

In the opening years of the twentieth century, at the instigation of one Louis Olivier Armstrong, a company of Native American performers had begun to enact scenes from "Hiawatha" with dialogue in Ojibwe. The performances took place at Desbarats, Ontario, and subsequently also at Little Traverse Bay, Michigan. Armstrong worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the performances seem to have been, at least in part, intended to draw tourists. Burton became involved with these productions when a tour of urban centres was planned for 1903 and he agreed to arrange the music. So, I guess the article in The Evening Post must have been part of the publicity for the tour.

I'll post something about the article in The Evening Post later. What's pretty cool is that our man, Michael McNally, who wrote the book about Ojibwe hymn-singing, did an article on these Native language performances of "Hiawatha" in a 2006 edition of the journal, American Quarterly. I can probably get hold of that through the university library but, at any rate, the abstract is freely available and this is it:
Each summer from 1901 to 1918, and intermittently thereafter through 1965, Odawa and Ojibwe actors in Northern Ontario and Michigan took part in operatic Native language performances of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha financed by area railroads and captured on silent film. While audiences and reviewers understood the pageants to validate the reality of Longfellow's representations of vanished noble savages and while Native actors peformed this script for pay in lean times, a closer look at their offstage lives, their onstage improvisations, and especially their humor reveals that these were also Indians playing Indian for Indian reasons. In an era of assimilation policies that outlawed drumming, dancing, and ceremony in public, and on stages designed to render them absent as twentieth century Native people, the actors insinuated their presence in heavily ramified, if subtle, ways. Crucially, performances enabled them to embody and thereby maintain a musical and dance repertoire associated with peoplehood and power, that could be rekindled with greater sovereignty by subsequent generations.
Interesting, no? And worth bearing in mind while reading the account of Ojibwe music developed in the 1902 newspaper.

the songs

With a bit of luck, you should be able to view the songs by clicking on these links:

Song of the Medicine Lodge
Dance Song
Love Song
Peace Meeting of Ojibways and Dakotas
Gambling Song

ojibwe music #1

Right - in 1904, Gilfillan published a novel called The Ojibway: A Novel of Indian Life of the Period of the Early Advance of Civilization in the Great Northwest. I first looked at it last week and thought it was a bit boring. But then I looked at it again today and it suddenly seemed much more interesting, which shows how much is in the eye of the beholder!

The interest lies in the fact that it constitutes a huge act of ventriloquism by which the missionary gives readers a sense that they are hearing the voices of Native Americans when, of course, all the voices of the book are mediated through the author himself. And the text presents us not only with *speaking* voices but with *singing* voices too in that, scattered throughout the narrative, are five songs:

Song of the Medicine Lodge (p.40)
Dance Song (p.57)
Love Song (p.168)
Peace Meeting of Ojibways and Dakotas (p.361)
Gambling Song (p.451)

They are all described as 'transcribed and harmonized by Edwin S. Tracey'. I'm a little curious about who Tracey was and whether he worked on Native American music regularly or just did this as a favour for Gilfillan. Will try to post copies of the songs now!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

minnesota maps

The MHS is currently presenting an exhibit called 'Minnesota on the Map' and you can look at maps from their collection online if you click here.


Yet more on Gilfillan. He seems absolutely obsessed with the idea of Itasca as the heart of the continent and, indeed, the nation. Witness these comments on eagles:
On the shores of Lake Breck and almost overhanging its waters, two American eagles have built their nest in a tall, yellow pine, and as we came bursting through the dense undergrowth they came sailing a long way to meet us, as if inquiring what this unusual intrusion upon their solitary haunts meant, and when we got to Lake Itasca itself there was another American eagle flying and circling over its waters, as if the national bird were keeping watch over the cradle of the national life. Strange to say, the only American eagles we saw in a journey of several hundred miles in the wilderness, we saw at that spot.

which side are you on?!

signs right before the Crow Wing State Park boat landing....(click for larger image -- sorry it isn't so clear: my iPhone isn't the greatest camera...)

Friday, 21 August 2009

gilfillan on place names

In 1886, Gilfillan published a list of Ojibwe place names along with English translations. For fact fans: It appeared as chapter 7 of the 15th annual report on The Geographical and Natural History Survey of Minnesota :o) Here are some of the entries relating to lakes and sections of the river that we kayaked. (The numbering appears in Gilfillan's text.)
116. Winnibigoshish is correct; means miserable-wretched-dirty-water, (Winni, filthy; bi, water; osh, bad, an expression of contempt; ish, an additional expression of contempt, meaning miserable, wretched).

119. Cass lake is Ga-misquawakokag-sag, or The-place-of-red-cedars-lake, from some red cedars growing on the island; more briefly Red Cedar Lake.

120. The large island in the lake was anciently called Gamis-quawako-miniss, or the island of red cedars. It is now called Kitchi-miniss or Great island.

121. The little pond, nameless on the map, two miles south of the extremity of lake Itasca, from which the furthest drop of water comes to the Mississippi, has no name given to it by the Indians; it was first named by the writer lake Whipple in honor of the first bishop of Minnesota.

122. Elk lake – on the map so called – separated from lake Itasca by a narrow piece of land and south of same is called by them Pekegumag-sagaiiun. The-water-which-justs-off-from-an-other-water.

122½. The river (nameless on the map) running from above lake is Pekeguma-sibiwishi, or brook-of-the-water-which-juts-off-from-another-water.

123. Itasca lake has been called by the Indians, from time immemorial, Omushkozo-sagaiigun; Elk lake.

124. The Mississippi running thence is called Omushkozo-sibi from lake Itasca till it reaches the lake.

125. Lake Bemidji is Bemidjigumag-sagaiigun, or the lake where the current flows directly across the water, referring to the river flowing squarely out of the lake on the east side, cutting it in two as it were.*

[*footnote: Others interpret it as meaning the same as the French Travers, i.e. where it is necessary to go directly across the body of the lake in passing up or down the Mississippi. —[N.H.W.]]

126. From lake Bemidji to Cass lake the river is called Bemidjiguma-sibi, or Cross river. [For fuller description see No. 439.]

127. From Cass lake to Winnibigoshish it is called Ga-misk-quawakoka-zibi; Red Cedar river, or river of the place of red cedars.

128. From outlet of Winnibigoshish to mouth of Leech Lake river it is called Winnibigoshish-zibi; Winnibigoshish river.

129. Below the junction of Leech Lake river it is called Kitchi-zibi, or Great river.

[N.B.—I can not find by inquiry that the Chippewas have ever called it Missizibi (Mississippi) or Missazibi. But I consider it very probable that in remote times they did, for Missa-zibi (Mississippi) would express the same idea in their language, and would be proper, as witness Missa-sagaiigun (Mille Lac) meaning Great lake. It so exactly corresponds with their language that it must have been taken from it.]

439. The part of the Mississippi – nameless on the map – which flows between two points in Cass lake, where the church is on one side and the chief of Cass lake’s house on the other – being less than half a mile long – is called by the Indians Wub-itigweia-zibi. The-river-that-flows-through-the-narrow-constricted-place.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

gilfillan on ojibwe

I've spent a fair proportion of today reading what Gilfillan has to say about the Ojibwe language. In the late 1880s he prepared an essay on the subject for publication at the invitation of Henry Whipple, the Episcopalian Bishop of Minnesota. He spends quite a lot of the paper explaining how complex the Ojibwe verbal system is, with a wide range of forms expressing all kinds of distinctions that are not marked grammatically in English. And he confesses that this state of affairs has taken him by surprise:
To one studying the language it is a matter of extreme astonishment how such a rude people ever constructed such a highly inflected system of speech for expressing every thought of the mind with such delicacy and the slightest variation in a shade of meaning, or how they have ever handed it down among themselves, even if originally made and given to them. As a clergyman once expressed it to the writer, that is as much a surprise as it would be to find a beautifully sculptured Corinthian temple, with all its delicate carving, standing on one of our bare prairies. Yet a child, even, who does not know a letter and has never heard of grammar will use those forms with accuracy, and any step outside the grammatical rule will be instantly detected.
Later he considers the question of whether Ojibwe can function as a vehicle for the expression of Christian doctrine and, again, he begins by anticipating the reader's prejudices:
It might be thought that having been constructed and used by a rude nation of hunters the language would be an insufficient vehicle of religious truth, employed on a new and strange subject of which its constructors never thought. But it is found to be a perfectly adequate vehicle by which to express any religious truth, however lofty or subtile. The Epistles of St. Paul, for instance, which strain all language to express the ideas which were struggling in his mind for utterance, and which sometimes deal with things above the region of sense and of all ideas of men in this world so that they are a critical test of the capacity of any language to express them, those sometimes lofty flights of his above all language of earth, almost into things of a to us incomprehensible sphere, are yet found to be as capable of expression in the language of the Ojibways as in our own, or the Greek in which they were written. Yes; from the wonderful precision and delicate shades of meaning obtained by the nice distinction and almost innumerable inflections of the Ojibway, it often seems to possess a superiority in conveying definite religious ideas to the mind.
Eve: I may be wrong but I have a feeling that, in your book about Ojibwe hymn-singing, the author quotes the guy who re-translated the Ojibwe hymns into English and he says something that is almost the opposite of this. I *think* he says something about Ojibwe leaving meaning open in a way that is particularly conducive to religious discourse?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

gilfillan at itasca

Today I've been going through the Gilfillan material at the MHS library and found a short article that Gilfillan himself published in The Minnesota Missionary in July 1881, describing his visit to Lake Itasca. It doesn't incorporate the text of the sermon he preached there but it does include this comment:
The lake itself is not remarkable for beauty, there being many much more beautiful lakes in Minnesota, and it would not, therefore, but for its being the source of the great river, attract the tourist. But in another way it is very remarkable, namely, in that in shape it is a very striking emblem of the Holy Trinity. It is composed of three long and narrow arms, nearly corresponding in length, width and volume, and meeting at a central point. Roughly speaking, it may be described as a three pointed star. There is no other lake, of the 7,000 in Minnesota, so far as a perusal of the map shows, anything like it in shape, and the first thought of any one who looks upon it is, that here God had stamped Himself and His own mysterious nature on this, the fountain head of the great river of the continent. Here, one is almost tempted to exclaim, is the baptismal formula graven, not as Job wished, with an iron pen, but with the finger of the Almighty Himself, in the heart and centre of this continent.
I thought the reference to Job was interesting. It's actually to a passage that is well known because Handel set part of it in the Messiah:
Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book!
That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
Whom I shall see for myself,and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my veins be consumed within me.

I think it's quite sweet that he thinks 'the first thought of anyone who looks upon it' will be that the shape of the lake is an emblem of the Trinity!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

satellite view

I was just using google's satellite images to look at the area where I got lost on my first day of kayaking and - yes - google does show a left-hand channel that simply runs out and that isn't marked on the DNR's map. (It's circled here in red.) I'm sort of interested in this section of the river because, at that point, the picturesque qualities of the landscape were very far from my mind...

back in the cities

Well, I've spent my first day back in Minneapolis-St Paul and have actually crossed the river twice: once cycling *to* the Minnesota Historical Society's building and once coming *back*. (It looked pretty big!) I've mostly been doing practical things - moving into my new accommodation, finding a bike to rent, getting food, etc - and the trip to St Paul was really just to work out a decent route. But I spent an hour or so in the library and the staff were extremely helpful. I'm going to order the Gilfillan papers tomorrow and start going through them. The sermon he preached at Lake Itasca isn't listed in the inventory of the collection but there *is* a later article relating to the construction of the monument at Itasca and dating from 1940. It's possible that will have something to say about it, since the sermon is mentioned on the monument. Will keep you posted!

Sunday, 9 August 2009


We spent last night and the night before at a camp site right where the Leech River meets the Mississippi (and a heron is often standing at the point formed by the confluence of the two streams). This morning, a pick-up truck pulled up and a local man - probably in his 50s - got out and came over to talk. He obviously loves the area very much and has lived here all his life. We talked about the river - he said that the level of the water was very low - and also about the wildlife round about. He told me he had once seen a turtle in the campsite laying eggs and burying them in the sand.

At one point he mentioned the campsite at Gambler's Point and I asked him about the name. It's pretty obvious that the name comes from the fact that people used to gamble there but I was interested to see if he'd have anything else to say about it. He said that they used to have a 'fine old time' at the point and that a couple of people even got shot there. But then he said, 'There's a reason for everything'. And he repeated it a number of times.

I like this because, as I said in my last post, I've been having some problems seeing the connection between the present experience and the history. 'There's a reason for everything' is a nice assertion of the connection that I'm sometimes missing.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


Well, it's been a while since I've posted here and we're already two weeks into our Mississippi journey. To be honest, I've found it difficult to formulate what I wanted to say beyond very routine statements about what I've done on each particular day and I'm not sure how interesting that is. It's being in the thick of it that's producing this effect. I feel a little overwhelmed and I think a lot will become clearer on reflection.

HOWEVER, in the interests of getting going, I'm just going to record the strong contrast that I've been experiencing between my sense that the headwaters are essentially a wilderness area in which one can pass long stretches of time without being reminded of the human presence at all and my growing awareness of a very human history that has unfolded across the same landscape in the past few centuries.

On my first day of kayaking, I found myself lost in a wetland area where the river channel divided with little clue as to which route was the right one. Later in the day, looking down on the area from a road bridge, it looked far more benign - as if the gentle, and not particularly extensive, territory visible from up there were superimposed on a more disturbing one that could only be entered by water. I think this works well as an image for my sense that the present wilderness somehow occupies the same space as a very human sphere of action. It is as if there were more than one space somehow occupying the same place.