Tag Archives: Standing Rock

Analysis: What is sonic sovereignty? And why should Native Nations care?

Language and songs go hand in hand

Walters, Oklahoma on July 18, 2017. (Photo courtesy Renata Yazzie)

This article was written by Renata Yazzie and originally published by Source NM on May 31st, 2022.

Songs are historical documents, narrating the histories of our origins, geographies, relationships and more. Songs and language are so intimately tied and their survivance depends on each other.

“Kiowa people sing Kiowa more than they speak Kiowa,” said Maxwell Yamane, a Japanese-American Ph.D candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland.

The sentiment is also echoed by Native musicians across genres, including by Mato Wayuhi, Lakota producer and composer most well-known for scoring the hit TV series, “Reservation Dogs.”

“Being Lakota, [song] is so integral to the culture,” Wayuhi said in an interview. “Even if you don’t sing or play anything, the musicality of the culture is so formative on kids growing up.”

The Native American Languages Act (NALA) was passed by Congress back in 1990, allowing Native American languages to be used for instruction in schools and affirmed the right of Native American children “to express themselves, be educated, and assessed in their own Native language.”

Just last year it was amended by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to request federally mandated evaluations that ensured NALA was being carried out appropriately. The evaluations track the status of Native American languages every five years, and the results guide federal financial resources for language revitalization projects where they are most needed.

Yamane is researching how songs are used as a tool in response to calls for language reclamation and revitalization, and how federal policy such as the NALA is shaping the future of Indigenous sonic sovereignty.

Yamane describes all the ways songs could be used as a tool for language learning. Language teachers have options to teach songs from their community passed down from generations ago that are both composed in the language and musical style of their community. Other teachers opt to teach English songs that have been translated into a Native language. Sometimes there is an associated dance or instrumental accompaniment taught, but the core of the lesson is in participatory singing.

The elders in the Kiowa community that he joins in prefer to use hymns for teaching words not commonly found in everyday conversation, Yamane said. Kiowa hymns are entirely lyrical and usually do not contain vocable syllables (think: “fa la la la la” in “Deck the Halls”) like songs from other genres might. The hymns were composed primarily by Kiowa contributors and often contain lyrics that promote better understanding of Kiowa worldviews and philosophies — despite originally being written for Christian contexts.

“Songs and music are woven into the fabric of an Indigenous communities’ cultural ways. Songs are often viewed as being their own entities capable of interacting in sonic relationships with listeners of all backgrounds.”

And songs govern. They provide structure and protocol for a variety of events and situations. Songs heal and bless, functioning as both medicine and prayers. Together, they form the center of socialization and the cornerstone of our lifeways. Because songs are so important to the continuance and affirmation of cultural ways, one would think that it is within the best interest of tribal governments to claim sovereignty over the sonic realm of their communities.

Trevor Reed is a Hopi citizen and associate professor of law in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Reed completed a Juris Doctorate and a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology simultaneously from Columbia University in 2018. His research focuses on Indigenous sovereignty and creative production.

He broke down exactly what the Native American Languages Act meant for Indigenous sovereignty. “It doesn’t really produce any enforceable rights for individuals, but it does reaffirm the inherent sovereignty of tribes to pass laws or make law in the area of language. So that means individual tribes can exercise their right to govern language.”

The right of a tribe to govern their language has been most recently exercised in Standing Rock Sioux tribal courts with the banning of non-Lakota linguists and their organizations — Jan Ulrich, Wilhem Meya, the Lakota Language Consortium and The Language Conservancy — for a long list of offenses including, “breaking of traditional protocol,” ”breaking Tribal laws in the collection of our language,” and “commodifying and copyrighting our sacred language.”

In an article Reed wrote for the “Journal for the Copyright Society USA,” he states that “Congress has remained silent as to whether or not it intended copyright to apply on Tribal lands, and whether it intended to pre-empt Tribal laws occupying the same field as copyright.” The few cases addressing copyright issues on Tribal lands were split, he said, and did not offer a consensus.

Reed reminds us that, “music and sounds, it’s much different for us [Native Nations]…it could mean something totally different from what we think of when we’re thinking about something that’s copyrightable, like an album or a piece of sheet music.”

While enforcing copyright law would protect the sonic cultures of Native Nations from outsiders who have intentions to exploit, it could also suck the life out of them through overcomplicating bureaucratic measures. A copyright law encompassing all 574 federally-recognized Native Nations would be reductive, as each Nation has their own distinct laws, lifeways, languages, and sonic cultures.

Reed is a staunch advocate for tribes to claim sovereignty over their sonic expressions in a way that best fits their respective communities. As language and songs go hand in hand, “just like how the Native [American] Languages Act says that tribes have inherent sovereignty over language, I think tribes also have inherent sovereignty to govern music and it would be wonderful if more and more tribes exercise their rights in that area.”

A Protest Music Interview: Raye Zaragoza

Cover photo by Terry Bruce Herring

Since releasing her debut album ‘Fight For You’ (2017) Raye Zaragoza has been titled a protest singer, and she is fine with that. Injustice and inequality inspire her to write songs that can power protesters in their fights for nature and fellow people. But Raye is also more than just a protest singer as she explains in the interview below. She tackles anything that inspires her with an enormously soothing voice and vulnerable honesty. Raye was kind enough to take time while on tour to answer a few questions about her music and activism.

First off, for those not familiar with your work, who is Raye Zaragoza?

“Hi everyone! I’m an LA-based, New York City-born singer-songwriter. My latest album Fight For You is a collection of songs of social justice and finding your voice. I’m very passionate about writing about topics that are not talked about in mainstream music such as politics and indigenous rights.”

How and when did you get into making music?

“I started writing songs in my late teenage years, but I’ve been singing and playing guitar since I was 12. In middle school, I had a little band with my friends and we played Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton songs at local restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, New York (where I lived in my pre-teen years). I grew up doing musical theater, and always knew I wanted to be a performer, but it wasn’t until my late teenage years that I realized being a singer-songwriter is what I always wanted to be doing.”

When did you realise you could use your music to spread messages of protest or activism?

“Although I had written some social justice songs before this, I really started writing songs with an activist message during the Standing Rock movement. During that time I realized how much a song can comfort and inspire people who are fighting injustice. Speaking up can be a vulnerable and scary thing, and music can truly make you feel stronger and not alone. Many of my songs from Fight For You were written about Standing Rock and my journey there.”

How do you feel people are receiving your political music these days?

“With the exception of the expected occasional backlash, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s really been amazing to hear stories about how the songs have comforted people in tough times.”

How important is it for you to send out a specific message in your music? Are all your songs tackling a political subject?

“No — not all of my songs are tackling a political message. I write songs about all kinds of subjects — like nature, love, heartbreak, New York City, California, and anything else that inspires me! I’ve definitely been labeled as a protest songwriter after this album, and although I don’t have a problem with that, it’s definitely not all I do. I like to write songs with light-hearted messages too!”

Photo by Ursula Vari

Do you find it hard to balance between being political and poetic in your lyrics?

“I think that’s exactly my favorite part about it — when the poetry meets the politics. When a verse or a line can help make sense of the madness around us. I feel like social justice music is really what keeps the movement moving and the activists inspired — so for me, even if it’s a challenge at times, finding the balance is the most rewarding part.”

How do you see the current music scene, is there an abundance of socially conscious music today or a lack of people using their voice and talent for good?

“I think there are definitely more and more artists speaking up through their music. I think regardless of whether an artist writes social justice songs or not, it’s very important to be vocal on their platforms. People look to artists for guidance and inspiration — so it’s important we share a positive message.”

What are some of your inspirations or favourite protest musicians out there, active or not?

“I love Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I also love my friends Calina Lawrence and Nahko Bear who are doing so much as activists and artists currently.”

Outside the music, do you partake in any other activism?

“Absolutely. Whenever I’m not on the road, I am very involved in my indigenous community in LA. Last year, I participated in the Run4Salmon, and March to Oak Flat — two indigenous rights causes very in need of support (everyone should look them up!). This year, I hope to return to both and continue to contribute to the protection of indigenous sites around the country.”

Photo 2 by Ursula Vari
Photo by Ursula Vari

What is on the horizon for you?

“I am currently working on my next album that will be released in 2019. I am also touring around the US, Canada, and Europe for the rest of 2018!”

Thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

“Thank you for having me! if you’re hearing of me for the first time, I hope to meet you at a live show soon!!!”

You can catch Raye currently on tour. Check out her webpage for further details.