Fall Sing 2017 rejuvenates old ways
Singing societies and groups are comprised of one lead singer with a water drum, who is accompanied by roughly 10 to 30 supporting singers with horn rattles that contribute their voices to sing songs that were passed down from generation to generation, or to introduce new songs of the same style (Esganye). But there is a distinction between societies and groups. Each society upholds a responsibility to their respective community and will help their people through fundraising, manual labour or otherwise. When singing at a sing, the society performs for the enjoyment of the people who may sit and listen during all of the performances, and for themselves as a singing society can become like a second family.
OHSWEKEN – Haudenosaunee singing societies and groups from both Canada and the U.S. were welcomed to the Dajoh Youth and Elders Facility to share their voices and songs as part of the Fall Sing 2017 on Saturday, November 25.
Six Nations hosts four home societies alone including the Old Mush Singers, the Grand River Singing Society, Kontihen:te Womens Singing Society and the “Last Minute Gang.” The host societies opened the floor to the visiting Kanien:ke Women, Kahnawake Men, Ohi:yo Men (Allegheny), Cayuga Lake Singers, Onondaga Men, Tonawanda Women and the Rolling Stones to perform songs that are generations old, or to introduce new songs inspired by old. Visitors from Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Tonawanda, Ohi:yo, Onondaga, Oneida, Tyendinega and elsewhere gathered to listen to the groups sing throughout the day and partake in lunch and dinner provided by the community.
As a singer from both the Grand River Singing Society since he was 12, and the Onawęda’geh (Cayuga Lake) group, Elan Henhawk said that “Saturday was a great turn out.”
“Everyone worked together, right from the societies to the cooks, servers to everyone that was there,” said Henhawk. “The sing is all about bringi
ng people together and it’s been set in place for singing societies to fundraise for their community. It was great to see everyone come together and help support the different singing societies.”
“It was [also] great to get to sing along with my father and his fellow singers who I grew up singing with,” he said, as his mother Tammy Henhawk helped in the kitchen by cooking the meals.
But as you might guess, hosting so many people all at once isn’t a small feat.
Singer Cam Hill, who is also one of the co-ordinators of this sing, marvelled at how much communal support the gathering invoked.
“One of the things that I thought was really good was that everybody worked together, the whole community,” said Hill. “And that’s all we [the singing societies] really are too, we’re just community. We just help out.”
And a sing isn’t held just to share songs, or for the benefit of a sole purpose. Hill explained that the gathering invokes and takes a lot of communal support and effort, which is always given back by the societies.
“A lot of times we organize fundraisers for people who are sick, or experience maybe a house fire or different things like that. They can come to the singing society and ask for help during those times,” he said. “It’s kind of an age-old thing that’s been around here for a long time, and I guess that’s just the traditional way to be. To always have gędęǫ (gehn-dow), that compassion — to always be a caring person in situations like that, no matter who it is.”
The gathering also helps to keep each community updated on how other singing societies are helping their respective communities, as after the singing finalizes and before the social portion begins, the societies meet and share what they’ve done to help their people throughout the year. The societies do this using only Haudenosaunee languages which is another age-old tradition carried from the old societies.
This might make you realize that the history of the “sing” is much older than you think.
“There are singing societies from all over,” he said. “The genre has remained the same for many years. The style of singing has varied a little bit but not very much, like it’s still very close to the original way of singing. It’s passed down, just by hearing the older men sing and being in that environment is what passes it down.”
He explained that there are songs full of expressions, jokes, and sometimes love, but each of the songs have the same purpose — to be enjoyed by the people.
“I have some recordings from like the ’60s, and you can just tell that they’re having a good old time. Sounds like it anyways, everybody’s laughing and clapping,” he said.
Hill also brought up that it is documented in the field notes of an anthropologist from the 1930s in regards to the Salt Lake Singers, that singing groups would build homes, cut fire wood and perform other manual labour tasks for anyone in need to maintain the old way of being compassionate. He also explained that sings are generally held during the U.S., Thanksgiving and again during Easter, as these dates were chosen by the older societies long before as a means of traditionalizing the Western celebrations. And another way that things have evolved is in having the sing recorded, so that people that couldn’t attend or record the sets could contact Artie Martin for emailed copies.
“Times have changed and we’ve evolved,” he admitted. “But the idea and the same care goes into it, it’s just the job has changed a little bit,” he said.
But not too much, as Hill explained that in the future they hope to fund-raise for a chainsaw and axes to teach the younger members of the Grand River Singing Society how to chop wood. The wood would then be given to the longhouses on Six Nations to start, which will help to maintain the societies manual labour aspect of helping the people.
“If we can get the youth to learn and use our traditional knowledge and philosophy, not just for sings, but for everything and everyday life, I think that we’ll have a more healthy environment around here. And it will be a part of our health and our wellness, and our culture will survive,” he said.
It is common knowledge that it is within the younger generations, that the old ways of being are entrusted to continue, and the societies and people know this well.