2016 Montana Folklife Area July 8-10 - Native Voices

the Varied Expressions of Montana’s Native Peoples.

by Dr. George Price

When human beings of differing cultures come into contact, from that moment on, their cultures will never be exactly the same. Sometimes cultural change is very direct and obvious, a product of showing, telling and trade, but even when cultural change is not immediate or outwardly apparent, the mere memory of difference, passed on through stories about “when those strangers came through here,” works its magic. Curiosity is stimulated and new ideas that have been slowly brewing are put into physical motion, bringing to cultures new songs, decorative motifs, tools, languages, foods, medicines, and much more. For the twelve Native nations of the lands and waters of what is now called “Montana,” these types of interactions and processes of cultural change and exchange go way back, thousands of years, long before the arrival of European, African and Chinese descended people from the United States.

From the Native peoples to the West of here came the seashells, which eventually were turned into earrings by the Qlispé (a.k.a., “Kalispels” and “Pend Oreille”) and the Salish. From the Native nations to the East, in the area now called the “Great Lakes” region, came the floral designs for beading and quillwork, which enhanced the beautiful geometric patterns that were previously popular among the Crow, Cheyenne, and other nations of what is now called “eastern Montana.” Intertribal marriages and adoptions have always been common and were also an ancient agent of cultural exchange, including the spread of plant medicine knowledge and new foods. Human cultures have never been static or unchangeable and the arrival of new peoples from the United States and elsewhere around the world simply expanded what had already been an ancient, ongoing process. Scottish plaid blankets and blankets from Navajo weavers both found their way into the Fort MacKenzie trading post in Blackfeet country in the late 1820s, and within a few years became a popular item among the Blackfeet and neighboring Native nations. In all regions of the country, whenever trade cloths from Europe were first introduced to the First Peoples of this land, the people began to embroider upon them with porcupine quills or trade beads, as they had done previously on buckskin. When quilted blankets first came to the attention of Assiniboine and Aaniiniih (a.k.a., “Gros Ventres”) embroiderers, they excitedly began to apply their own designs to that new medium, leading to beautiful results and the now long-established tradition of making quilts for giveaway ceremonies and honorary occasions. Native quilt designs and uses, in turn, influenced non-Native quilters, just as Native cuisine, the wearing of buckskin and moccasins, the use of canoes and other Native inventions found their way into European colonial cultures long ago.

Each new cultural adaptation brings exciting and enriching results, and it is very important to realize that each adaptation brings something to it from both the giving and receiving parties to cultural exchange, creating new, unique forms of whatever the medium or genre may have been prior to that cultural exchange. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in music, which is one of the greatest universal languages of all humanity. Indigenous peoples worldwide recognize the unifying power of the drum and other percussion instruments and brought that awareness with them when introduced to new types of drums in the marching bands of the boarding schools. When the Anishinabé (a.k.a., “Chippewa”) and Cree nations mixed with French people they brought new cultural meanings and applications to the violin, creating the popular folk genre known as “Métis fiddle” music, which those nations eventually carried with them from Canada into central Montana, leading to some delicious innovations and blending with Irish folk forms. Many more examples could be brought forth, with some of the more recent being found in Montana Native youth adapting and reformulating rock, reggae, hip-hop and much more.

Let us also not forget that the root of all Native or Indigenous cultural knowledge in Montana (and everywhere else) began with a respectful, harmonious, reciprocating relationship with Earth, Water and Spirits of all beings. When the first person of any nation, who had been humbly living in connection with those sources of life, first realized that if you stretch some wet rawhide over a section of a hollow log, tie it, let it dry and start tapping on it you can bring the people together and empower them—that was a very special moment. Each time that it happened, in each Native nation, it was a very powerful gift. Many Native people still say that the drum is the “heartbeat of the nation.” Likewise, when the First People of many nations received the knowledge that we can respectfully use the roots of a cedar tree or a section of its bark to make beautiful baskets, or learned that we can sing like birds with our voices and by blowing through hollow reeds or wing bones, or that we can put the seeds of some of our food plants into the ground, nurture them, and receive more food in return—those were all magical cultural transformation moments. May the exchanges continue.

We hope that you fully enjoyed your interactions with the cultural demonstrators from several Montana Native nations in the Folklife Area of the 2016 Montana Folk Festival.

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