Canada’s First Nations Music and Dance

Two years ago, Mowachaht elders were determined not to be wiped out and set a course for cultural revival, a first step that began simply – with singing, dancing and learning old songs.  Fiona Hughes, The Vancouver Courier, January 25, 1995

The visual arts of Canada’s First Nations have been subject to detail attention and deep admiration, but very little attention has been given to their music and dance. This course sets out to remedy this over-sight. First Nations traditional music does not have the same kind of direct appeal that the visual arts enjoy, but their compositional structures and performance practices are no less intriguing. In keeping with Edward Hall’s definition of High Culture, their roles are not disembodied aesthetic pleasures but rather, reflections and windows into some important truths. The program will begin with a careful examination of traditional music and dance, focusing eventually on the Kwakwaka’wakw traditions, Intertribal Pow Wow and Bone Game (slahal) gatherings, before the lectures move into contemporary Canadian aboriginal music as exemplified by Rez Rap and the Aboriginal Music Awards. The entire lecture series will be governed by the theories that have emerged from the study of Indigenous Decolonisation. At each step, the class will be made aware of role of First Nation elders in the pursuit of this knowledge. Although the lectures will mainly be concerned with providing knowledge to non First Nations people, the class can’t help but be enriched by the attendance of any First Nations students who may wish to learn new points of view and experience the reception given to their art. They are welcome to comment at any point in the lecture series.


Zimmerman, Larry J. Native North America (2003)

Lecture Schedule and Readings

Week 1 Theory and Practice of Indigenous Decolonization

Brown, Michael (2003) Who Owns Native Culture?

Root, Deborah (1996) Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference.

Emberley, Julia V. (2009) Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada

Week 2 Notation and music theory for First Nations music 

Levine, Victoria Lindsay, editor, (2002) Writing American Indian Music: A Musicological Odyssey

Ellingson, Ter (1992) “Notation” and “Transcription,”  in Ethnomusicology: an Introduction, pp. 110-164.

Blum, Stephen (1992) “Analysis of Musical Style,” in Ethnomusicology: an Introduction (1992), pp. 165-218.

Wickwire, Wendy (1985) “Theories of Ethnomusicology and the North American Indian: Retrospective and Critique,” in Canadian University Music Review, Number 6, pp. 186-221.

Week 3 Survey of North American aboriginal music and dance

Keeling, Richard (1997) North American Indian Music: A Guide to Published Sources and Selected Recordings

Levine, Victoria Lindsay, Bruno Nettl and Elaine Keillor (2005) Amerindian Music, in Oxford Music Online (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – 2nd Edition)

Week 4 British Columbia West Coast and Interior Nations 

Wickwire, Wendy (1988)  “James A. Teit: His Contribution to Canadian Ethnomusicology,” in Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Volume 8, Number 2 (1988), pp. 183-204.

Maud, Ralph (1982) A Guide to B.C. Indian Myth and Legend 

Muckle, Robert (1998) The First Nations of British Columbia

Week 5 Protocols of collecting, editing, and publishing

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.

Palmer, Andie Diane (2007) “Approaching a Sacred Song: Toward a Respectful Presentation of the Discourse We Study,” in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Volume 19, Number 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 52-61

Guidelines for Respecting Cultural Knowledge, published by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network (ANKN).

Week 6 Kwakwaka’wakw music and dance: potlatch

Masco, Joseph (1995) “It is a Strict Law That Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume 37, Number 1 (Jan, 1995), pp. 41-75.

Glass, Aaron (2004) “The Thin Edge of the Wedge: Dancing around the Potlatch Ban, 1921-1951,” in Right to Dance: Dancing for Rights, edited by Naomi Jackson.Week 7 Kwakwaka’wakw music and dance: winter ceremonies 

Holm, Bill (1990) “Kwakiutl: Winter Ceremonies,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast, pp. 378-86

Glass, Aaron (2004) “The Intention of Tradition: Contemporary Contexts and Contests of the Hamat’sa Dance,” in Coming to Shore: Northwest Coast Ethnology, Traditions, and Visions, edited by Marie Mauze et al. pp. 279-304.

Week 8 Kwakwaka’wakw music: form and content

Halpern, Ida (1989) “Native Music of the Pacific Northwest,” in Musicologica Austriaca, number 9, pp. 111-132.

Kolstee, Anton (1988) “The Historical and Musical Significance of Northwest Coast Hamaca Songs,” in Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Volume 8, Number 2 , pp. 173-182.

Week 9 Intertribal Pow Wow Dance

Fowler, Loretta (2005) “Local Contexts of Powwow Ritual,” in Powwow, edited by Clyde Ellis et al., pp. 68-85

Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie (2005) “Blood Borders: Being Indian and Belonging,” in Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture, pp. 211-53.  

Week 10 Intertribal Pow Wow Music

Powers, William K. (1990) War Dance: Plains Indian Musical Performance

Deloria, Philip J. (2004) “The hills are alive…with the sound of Indian,” in Indians in Unexpected Places, pp. 183-223.

Browner, Tara (2002) Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow

Week 11 The Bone Game (Slahal) and its Music 

Stuart, Wendy Bross (1972) Gambling Music of the Coast Salish Indians.

Culin, Stewart (1902-1903/1975) Games of the North American Indians 

Raibmon, Paige (2005) “Picking, Posing, and Performing: Puget Sound Hop Fields and Income for Aboriginal Workers,” and “Harvest Gatherings,” in Authentic Indians, pp. 74-97

Week 12 Country Music, Rez Rap, Rock and Pop

Samuels, David (2009) “Singing Indian Country,” in Music of First Nations: Tradition and Innovation in Native North America, edited by Tara Browner, pp. 141-160. 

Krims, Adam  (2000) “Cree Rap,” in Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity, pp. 177-197.

Week 13 First Nations music in the schools and the Tourist Industry 

Buchanan, Joan and Sandra Davies (1980)  Music in Our Lives (Grade 4): The Pacific Northwest Coast Indians: Music. Instruments. Legends

Smith, Melanie (2003) “Indigenous cultural tourism,” in Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies, pp. 117-32.

Blundell, Valda (2002) “Aboriginal Cultural Tourism in Canada,” in Slippery Pastimes: Reading the Popular in Canadian Culture, edited by Joan Nicks and Jeanette Sloniowski,  pp. 37-60.

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