Song As Sacred Action: Learning From Native Americans

Song As Sacred Action: Learning From Native Americans
Dan Wilt

In a small, Native American community center in eastern Maine, a group of friends gathered from towns on both sides of the Canadian/US border. A potluck and music-sharing evening had been arranged between the communities on the Pleasant Point reservation, and an air of joy and festivity filled the room. By the time I arrived with my children, the music had started and we were soon serenaded with a guitar and fiddle weaving together reels and jigs – engaging the whole, ethnically-mixed group in contagious humming and irrepressible foot-tapping.

Songs And Sacred Acts
Our hosts were from the Passamaquoddy tribe (part of the Wabanaki confederacy, meaning “people of the dawn”), and they warmly welcomed us to the gathering. After a few more songs, a group of young men began to gather in a sacred drum circle for the next expression of the night. They seemed to be both chatting and offering prayers as they prepared themselves to play, enrobing their hands and large drum in smoke from a smudge pot, while they breathed in the strong vapors.

Video cameras and audio recorders were poised, ready to capture the thundering beauty of the energetic native sounds we had come to know and appreciate. Then, a young man from the circle stood, and walked over to the microphone. His eyes and face revealed the striking characteristics of an ethnic heritage that is said to reach 600+ generations into the story of this area.

“The songs we will do are sacred songs of our people,” he proudly said. “For that reason, we ask that there be no video-taping or recording of what we are about to do.” My immediate response was to sigh with sadness. For anyone who has ever been stirred by the communal, impassioned performance of a native drum circle, capturing it in some form of media for others to behold is a rare opportunity.

I turned off my recorder, honored his request, and lingered in the raw celebration of tribal history and spirituality embodied in their intricate melodies and rhythms.

Music As A Shared Experience

The next day, I spoke with a good friend who had organized the non-native contingency of musicians. He had spoken to one of the drum circle leaders, and discovered a fascinating truth about their view of the sacred music they played, and why we were asked to turn off our recorders.

In the eyes of the tribe, it seems, their sacred music is not a commodity to be somehow captured and passed around for enjoyment or spectating after the performance. The very essence of the music arises from those participating in the live, sacred moment. The sacredness of the music is intimately tied to the shared, live experience of praying its themes together, and both the music and the focus of the music may be dishonored when we seek to document the event for a second-hand listener.

The tribal “pow-wow songs” (i.e. the ones we were allowed to record) were historically written to make money for the tribe – by playing them for the white man. Pow-wow songs were created, in effect, to be a loophole in the native vision of music. They are a necessary accommodation, enabling the tribe to survive in a system ordered against them.

In ceremonial music, the music is sacred because of its focus, and our shared experience. In fact, the music is the shared experience for the players and those gathered – our fellowship is an essential instrument in the offering.

For the Passamaquoddy, the playing of the music, and the community praying with it, creates a sacred space not meant for mass consumption. In ceremony, the beating of prayers to the sky becomes more important than the actual musicality of the playing. In summary, the music is not the center point in the experience, but rather the playing of that music. In many ways, Passamaquoddy sacred music is all about the moment of encounter, and the community’s participation in that moment, together.

The High Goal Of Communal Worship
While we may not fully embrace this view of intentionally sacred voicings of music, there is an insight here to be gleaned from our native brothers and sisters. In today’s contemporary Christian music experience, the gift of documenting music in media is that it multiplies a powerful message, and to some degree extends to us the experience embodied by the recording. However, our view of worship, employing music that is explicitly directed toward interacting with God should possibly undergo some reflective scrutiny.

According to this native view of sacred music, the fact that this past Sunday our church connected with God, through shared songs, may have been the highest goal to which our gathering could attain. As the worship leader, I am deeply aware that our band sounded great in some moments, and similar to a train wreck in others. And yet, without veiled spiritualized attempts to justify a flawed performance, the fact that we shared a common voice through those songs may be a higher goal to be celebrated than the pristine execution of the music (have you ever been to a music execution before? I sure have; I’ve even led the proceedings!)

Connected In The Music Of Worship
The next time you gather with a body of believers to sing the songs of faith, consider this view of sacred music brought to us by our native brothers and sisters. The music that you jointly make with the group gathered is the gift itself, offered exuberantly to God, in that moment. See yourself as an integral part of this sacred experience, whether you sing on the stage or from your seat, and share the vitality of the music with those playing and singing near you.

We may not want to skip recordings all together, but if we are attentive to the living moments of worship we share with others in our churches, we may find ourselves more present to our community’s shared moment of worship ¬– and more fully engaged with the One we adore.