Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who am I singing songs from endangered tongues?

If I'm their "follower," I guess that makes The Smithsonian my "leader," so one of my leaders on Twitter reports that on Tuesday, May 12, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will host “From Code Talkers to Immersion: Native American Language Summit.”

Some 200 Native language speakers and teachers will get together in our nation's capital to talk about their dying languages.

Kara Briggs turned over some statistics, in reporting on this event - "sobering" doesn't quite capture their effect. Maybe "pulverizing".
The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., has documented the decline in Native languages in the United States from 175 in 1997 to 154 today. In 1997, most languages were spoken by people middle-aged and older. Now more than half of Native language speakers are older than 70. Only 20 languages are now routinely spoken to children.
Too bad the federal government doesn't bail out dying languages the way it bails out moribund banks.

I can't say I have done anything to keep alive a Native language, nor learn one, though I do remember speaking to a young Lakota blood one day at a Sun Dance on the Santee Reservation. Santee is tiny, and traditionalists on the res are a struggling minority.

This young blood was from the much larger Rosebud reservation, which had a much larger and more established traditional population. He told me he lived on a part of the reservation where English was seldom spoken and there were people unable to speak it. Lakota was its lingua franca.

I'll never forget the look on his face when he told me, "I can't believe I am standing here right now and speaking to you in English. When the wars come again, like my people say they will come again, I will be trying to kill you."

I did my very best to take that in stride. He honestly didn't seem to mean me any personal harm. He was speaking about prophecy, something larger than either of us and independent of us both. As of now, thank God, the wars were not on.

I have done a fair among of songwriting working with texts translated from Native tongues, including Lakota. Singing a rock song setting of an English translation of a traditional Lakota text obviously does nothing to keep the Lakota language alive, but it does pay homage, at several removes, to the resources of that language and the genius of the people who speak, sing and dream in it.

"Short Life" - which I wrote on my own and recorded twice, with Eleanor Roosevelt and again with Three Fried Men - adapts two Lakota songs recorded, transcribed and translated by the great musicologist Frances Densmore.

Densmore's classic text Teton Sioux Music, available for free download on, documents the Lakota texts along with her translations, but the orthography has some letters I can't reproduce, so I'll just give her English versions.

"An Elk I Am"
By One Feather

an elk
am I
short life
I am living
That gave me the first verse and title of my song, "Short Life," though I inverted the order and flipped it into a question.

Short life
I'm living
Am I an elk?
I'll admit I also was loving the confluence with the traditional Appalachian song "Short Life in Trouble".

"I Am the Fox"
By Old Buffalo

the fox
I am
to seek

This got the same treatment in my song, turned upside down and turned into a question.

Something difficult
I'm seeking
am I a fox?
If I was writing about my adaptation and trying to give the songwriter credit for having done something intentional, I would say making the confident assertions of the traditional texts - "an elk/am I" - into open questions - "am I an elk?" - is a way of making the material contemporary, infusing it with our modern anxieties and uncertainties.

One Feather and Old Buffalo knew exactly who they were, even if their identities in their songs happened to be fantastical animal creatures of the spirit world, whereas I have no clue who I am, which is why I keep looking through all of these ancient traditions, in all of these endangered tongues, trying to seek something that is difficult to find.

Free mp3

"Short Life"
(Frances Desmore, Chris King,
One Feather, Old Buffalo)
Eleanor Roosevelt

From Crumbling in the Rain

Available via digital download.


Image is "In Whose Honor?" by Lakota Eyes from his Deviant Art blog.

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