Ojibwe Music - Access Music Therapy

This post is a re-post from 2012.

This post is a condensed version of a research paper I did back in 2005 in grad school. I had the opportunity to put together an ethnography project.  Being that I live in Duluth, MN, which is so close to the Ojibwe reservations, I chose to research and write about the Ojibwe Native American culture and music.  I spent a lot of time researching, reading, listening, viewing videos about their culture, and attending an amazing, colorful powwow.  With everything I’ve learned, I have decided to share a portion of the research paper section on music and how it relates to my work as a music therapist in the community.  If anyone is interested in other areas of this research paper, contact me and I will share them.   In addition, I am very open to any comments, suggestions, or corrections to my research.  I tried to gain a thorough perspective of the Native American culture, specifically the Ojibwe people.  But, as most are aware, there is a lot of information out there.

I hope what I have learned will open at least a small door into the Native American culture in regards to music, and specifically the Ojibwe people.
The Ojibwe/Anishinaabe (Chippewa) Native American tribe is the second largest tribe in the nation of the Upper Great Lakes Region.  Today, there are seven Chippewa and Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota:  Grand Portage, Bois Forte, Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, and Mille Lacs.  In total, there are 20 Ojibwe reservations in the United States.

The connection between the mind, body, and spirit is the basic idea in the foundation of family and education in the Ojibwe tradition.  Traditionally, the drum has been a Ojibwe symbol for the circle of life.  Music is considered sacred.  The drum brings people together.  It delivers peace, encourages reflection, and in the process, teaches people to love and respect one another.  Like a heartbeat, the drumbeat is felt deep within.  Native American music is truly the original folk music of America.

The Flute

Traditional Native American music is almost entirely vocal, monolinear, and is usually accompanied by drum, rattle, or both. It has unique qualities in instrumentation, speech, and rhythm. Curtis (1950) reported one characteristic peculiarity of Native American song that is almost universal. It’s the rhythmic pulsation of the voice on sustained notes. Some music has a mysterious quality with an entrainment effect (Fichter, 1978). The instrumentation of the music is used only as an accompaniment or background for singing. It doesn’t match the rhythm of the song. Sometimes the music is melodic, as in the case of playing the flute.
In regards to musical instruments, the flute is associated with love. It is a mournful instrument. The flute is symbolic of a woman in mourning. Women’s love songs are about farewell or loneliness. They are very beautiful songs. According to Benton-Banai (2000), a young woman was mourning the death of her husband, and her sadness was born of the wind through the flute. The spirit of the wind comes from the sound of the flute. The eagle whistle is a small whistle with great meaning. It is only to be played in all seriousness. There are strict rules about playing the eagle whistle (Fichter, 1978).

The Shaker

The creation story has a sound of a shaker (Benton-Banai, 2000). The shaker is an important part of the Native American culture. It is not be confused with rattles, which are a different instrument. They give babies a small shaker to begin shaking and intermediate sized shaker for bigger children. The shaker is meant to keep the rhythm and accompany the drum and voices. It is the first instrument of the Ojibwe people. It is sometimes held in conjunction with the drum mallet on a hand drum to add texture and accompaniment to the sound.
The drum is an important and integral part of the heartbeat of the Ojibwe people. There are different types of drums that are used in ceremonies. The big drum, the hand drum, and the water drum. The big drum uses a mallet called a beater, which resembles a cattail. The drum frame is made of hollowed sections of large trees. The drum is placed over a pit in the ground to help amplify the sound (Fichter, 1978). The big drum is the timekeeper. The hand drum is one-sided. It is held to control the pitch and timbre with pressure on the backside. The water drum is the original drum of all drums. The construction of it is symbolic of the Earth. The wood is made from trees. The covering is from deer pelt, and it represents peace. The water in the drum is the water that is necessary for life (Benton-Banai, 2000).
Along with the drum and shaker, the most common rattles are made of dried gourds filled with pebbles. Some are strapped to the dancer’s leg, just below the knee (Fichter, 1978). These adjunct instruments are used in accompaniment to the voice or melodic instruments when songs are performed.

Songs with Purpose

Ojibwe songs have meaning and purpose in order to promote a better, happier, and healthier life. Many Native American songs are sacred to certain occasions or ceremonies. Some songs are so sacred that they shouldn’t be performed other than at the proper time (Curtis, 1950). All of the songs have a purpose. Songs are sung to the spirits for giving thanks or asking for help (Fichter, 1978). They mark important steps in people’s lives.
Nakai & Demars (1996) discuss the nature of sacred and ceremonial songs. A solo chanter or small group usually performs the songs with vocalists and percussion instruments. Many tribes have limited means to store and retrieve their extensive histories and traditions. They rely upon song, story, and dance to remember historical traditions.
Songs are made and played for a specific purpose and special meaning. Songs originate for many through dreams and visions. People make some songs from their thoughts (Fichter, 1978). According to Bierhorst (1979), singing in the traditional Native American style is much different than singing in the Western style. The Native American style requires an open throat, relaxed, and fully open. The singing is in the throat, and there is a vibration in the throat, and the tone is heavier and darker. The tone comes out with a raid, or slow pulsing, producing with the voice a kind of drumbeat effect on long notes. All Native American songs are sung in this manner. It is unique to Native Americans and is very difficult, but they are quite able to master this style of singing. Women rarely sing in the throat because it’s not considered feminine. Women sing with a squawking nasal tone in imitation of the flageolet, an ancient French whistle.

Song Poetry

According to Curtis (1950), the English version of Native American songs gives only a bare and literal translation of the symbolic word instead of the full expression of the meaning. This does not give justice to the poetry. It takes many more words to explain what the Native American songs speak of. These songs use sounds like, “hi ya ya ya” or “ho ho se ho” (Hofman, 1967). They are used to fill out the remainder of the rhythm of the song just like in Western music with the use of “tra la la la” or “fa la la la”. In song poetry, sometimes just one or two words can bring about the image of an entire story.
The following is an example of song poetry for young children. The children painted their faces with dandelion yellow, and as they danced, they joyfully sang, viewing themselves as ducklings following their mother’s tail. Their view of the world was through their parents, and their parents were their guidance. This song is called “Dandelion Song,” from Jones & Jones (1995):

“I dance in the Spring Wind. I connect to Earth. I open to Sun. I reach out for Sky. I stand now as One. I dance in Spring Wind.
All is here for me to grow. I remember you before me. I dream of soft flight. I move with the day. I sleep with the night. All is here for me to grow.
I dance in Spring Wind. I wonder where I end. I wonder where I start. I am circled with my scent. I belong and I am part. I dance in Spring Wind.”

Making Work Lighter

Songs were sung to make work lighter as they brought joy and thanks for their food. A sacred song called, “What is this I promise you?” written by Densmore (1913) (as cited in Bierhorst, 1974), promises happiness and long life to the young Chippewa who devotes himself to the religion of his ancestors.

The Medicine Man

The medicine man uses songs in his practices of curing the sick. He carries a small bag with a collection of herbs, roots and other objects that are revealed to him in dream and visions. Rituals and songs accompany the healing treatment. Music plays a large role in these ceremonies. Drums and rattles are shaken while songs call on the spirits to bring healing to the sick person. This process continues until the person recovers or dies (Fichter, 1978).

Therapeutic Application of Native American Music

The past, present and future life of Native American tribes is forever changing, but there are still some who desire to keep the old traditions alive. This is evident in the powwow celebrations. We can see the young children being taught the ways of dancing, drumming, and singing of their ancestors. There is a window of opportunity for music therapists to meet Native Americans in their own culture. This can come about through understanding, respecting, and offering traditional Ojibwe music to support their ceremonious rituals. They have long been using music in their healing rituals.
Native American music can create a wonderfully peaceful presence when there is a need for quiet, contemplative atmosphere. Instrumentation can be a cedar flute, rainstick, buffalo drum, and shakers. To add a bit of present day Native American sound, I would add the sounds of a synthesizer. Vocals, if sung, are usually chant. This type of approach can be found beneficial for hospice, cancer, and cardiac patients to assist in managing anxiety, restlessness, fear, and pain. Flutes can provide a source of rehabilitation and encourage a sense of accomplishment. The mechanics of taking a deep breath and using controlled exhalations to blow through the flute can help in exercising the lungs. The by-product of using the flute therapeutically is that the patient learns how to play an instrument. The cedar flute is a simple instrument that can be easily adapted for varying functional levels by taping over some of the holes on the flute.

The Drum

The drum is seen as the heartbeat of the community. It can bring families and friends together. Drumming creates a sense of community and belonging. The use of drum circles is growing. They are being utilized throughout the world to encourage and promote wellness. Music therapists are also encouraging many people to use the drum as a tool of self expression, sharing and contributing to the whole. Simultaneously, they adhere to the need to keep the drum sacred by respecting the sacredness of the drum in the Native American culture.
I believe it is unethical to use these techniques with a patient without prior knowledge of customs, rituals, and gender boundaries. In first meeting with someone, one might ask, “What nourishes your spirit?” instead of, “What church do you go to?” (O’Connor, 1988). This is a better way to approach someone’s spirituality while respecting those who believe in things of the Earth and living beings. It is very important to approach everyone with a heart of respect for their customs.


References for Jody Tucker’s entire Musical Ethnography project titled, “Ojibwe Native American Culture and Music.”

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