By The Conversation, The Canadian Press
This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site — it has been condensed to meet word parameters.
Authors: Dana Lepofsky, Professor in Archaeology, Simon Fraser University; Alvaro Fernandez-Llamazares, Researcher in Ethnecology, Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), University of Helsinki, and Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi, Contributor to the special issue on Ethnobiology Through Song/CEO Ninogaad Knowledge Keepers Foundation/BOD APTN
Academics are just beginning to see the deep significance of traditional songs and the knowledge they carry and some are working with Indigenous collaborators to unlock their teachings.
A recent special issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology celebrates the power of traditional songs as storehouses of traditional ecological knowledge.
Nine articles are rich accounts of Indigenous Peoples’ time-honoured music-making traditions.
The lyrics in traditional songs are themselves imbued with meaning and history.
For instance, among the Temiar singers of the Malaysian rainforest — who often receive their songs in dreams from deceased people and who believe all living beings are capable of having “personhood” — dream-songs help mediate peoples’ relationships with these other beings.
In many Indigenous cultures, songs recount detailed biocultural knowledge and documents responsibilities.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla was a trained Clan Chief, held four pa’sa chieftain seats, and among many other roles, was the keeper of hundreds of songs about the Kwakwaka’wakw people and more.
Potlatching was banned until 1951 and as a result, singing potlatch songs was a source of punishment and fear for many generations.
As one born to nobility and chosen since birth to be a conduit of key cultural knowledge, Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla let us hear the words of his ancestors through the many songs he remembered.
For instance, in 2002, he revealed an ancient ya’a (Dog Children song) that unlocked the mystery of lokiwey (clam gardens) on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Cultivating clams in clam gardens — rock walled terraces in the lower intertidal — is a widespread practice among Coastal First Nations. We now know this practice is at least 3,500 years old.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla’s sharing of this clam garden song unleashed a wave of research on traditional management practices and helped not only awaken people’s understanding of indigenous knowledge, but also the foundation for research on how to improve clam management.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla went on to mentor as the primary source on traditional ecological knowledge for over a dozen graduate students in ethnobiology and linguistics until his passing.
Despite the immense global value of traditional songs as libraries of ecological and other cultural knowledge, researchers and the general public have been slow to recognize their social and cultural importance.
For instance, the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), highlight the importance of protecting and honouring Indigenous languages, but songs are not explicitly mentioned.
In many Indigenous cultures certain dialects, words and expressions are found only in certain songs, not in spoken conversations. Thus, protecting traditional songs is a critical aspect of protecting Indigenous languages.
The cultural importance of song was not missed by the Government of Canada and the churches who administered residential schools for more than a century. They saw all Indigenous language, spoken or sung, as counter to the colonial government’s mission to remove the “savage” from “the Indian children.’’
The great uncle of Oqwilowgwa, one of this story’s authors, died from a beating at the residential school in Port Alberni for singing a child’s play song in his language. All music except hymns were strictly banned in residential schools until the 1960s.