Celebrating Canada’s 150th with Music (Part 1: Indigenous Music)

On July 1 this year, Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial. Like any nation, however, Canada’s history begins long before confederation. Thousands of years before. Although I called this series of posts Celebrating Canada’s 150th with Music, I feel like I would be doing the country’s music history a great disservice by only focusing on post-confederation music.

Let’s begin right from the earliest people on the continent.

Music of Canadian Indigenous People

The Indigenous peoples of Canada crossed the Bering Strait beginning approximately 25,000 years ago and migrated across North America. These ancient people became the First Nations and Inuit. The two groups, though both indigenous, are quite different and, as such, I will discuss them separately.

First Nations

Historians have divided Canada into seven distinct geographical locations with similar tribes of First Nations:

  • Pacific Coast (coastal areas of British Columbia)
    • Languages: dialects of Tsimshian (Gitskan and Niska), Haida, Salishan dialects (Bella Coola, Songish, Cowichan, Puntlatch, Squamish, Comox, Sechelt, and Semichmoo), and Wakashan dialects (Heiltsuk, Nootka, Kwakiutl, and Hailsa)
    • Built permanent settlements with a multi-levelled society and highly developed trade with interior bands.
  • Plateau (interior plateau of British Columbia and the Yukon)
    • Languages: Salishan dialects (Shuswap, Lillooet, Ntlakyapamuk, and Okanagan), a Takisha dialect (Tlingit), and a Kutenai dialect (Kutenaian)
    • Lived in semi-permanent settlements with very little political organization
    • Fished and hunted
  • Mackenzie River (along the Mackenzie River and the woodlands north of the Churchill River)
    • Languages: all dialects of Athapaskan (Hare, Beaver, Chipewyan, Slave, Dekani, Nahane, Loucheaux, Dog Rib, Yellowknife, and Tutchone)
    • Lived a migratory life with temporary leaders and no political unity between bands
  • Plains (the Prairies)
    • Languages: Algonquian dialects (Ojibway, Cree, and Blackfoot), Athapaskan dialects (Beaver and Sarcee), and Siouan dialects (Assiniboine, Sioux, and Dakota)
    • Followed herds of buffalo, living a migratory life, and held close political bonds
  • Eastern Woodlands, nomadic, Algonkian (east coast and central woodlands that extend past the Great Lakes, not including south-eastern Ontario)
    • Languages: all dialects of Algonquian (Micmac, Malecite, Ojibway (Chippewa in Ontario), Cree, Algonkin, Montagnais, Abenaki, Naskapi, Potawatomi, Delaware, and Ottawa)
    • Lived a migratory life with no permanent settlements; loosely organized, the small northern bands chose leaders for specific tasks while larger southern bands developed stronger political systems and chose leaders for longer time periods
  • Eastern Woodlands, sedentary, Iroquoian (south-eastern Ontario and several north-eastern States)
    • Languages: dialects of the Iroquoian language (Huron, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora)
    • Culture evolved around agriculture and permanent villages with a highly developed political system and religious societies

Although each geographical group differs greatly, many similarities do exist. Consistency in instruments that the First Nations use, for example. The majority of instruments across all First Nations and Inuit cultures are percussive. Various rattles and different types of drums are found in nearly every tribe. For example, Plains and both nomadic and sedentary Eastern Woodlands all use water drums. What each group uses as material for their percussive instruments depends greatly on the resources available in each geographical location. Pacific Coast First Nations make great use of the rainforest for carving their rattles out of wood, whereas Mackenzie River and Plains First Nations use animal skin and rawhide as a covering for their rattles. Nomadic Easter Woodlands First Nations made use of the plentiful birchbark, animal horn, and animal skin for rattles and their sedentary neighbours who farmed often used gourds in addition to rawhide, horn, and, on specific occasions, tortoise or turtle shells. Pacific Coast First Nations also used strings of shells, bear claws, or bird beaks as instruments and Plains First Nations made buzzers out of buffalo hooves.

via Library and Archives Canada

Many groups also used wind instruments. Perhaps the most significant wind instrument in several geographical locations was the vertical whistle flute. Found mostly in both Eastern Woodlands cultures and the Plains First Nations, it has a unique construction with a piece of wood on the outside, called an external block, that directs air into the chamber. Think of an instrument similar to a penny whistle. Often used by young men when courting, Plateau First Nations used it for a signal in horse-stealing raids and Plains First Nations adopted it as a war signal.

via Library of Congress

The geographical group with perhaps the most variety in instruments was the Plains First Nations. In addition to their rawhide rattles, various types of drums — including a large, two-headed powwow drum suspended by four stakes — and the vertical whistle flute, these people also used buffalo-hoof buzzers, rasps, bells, bull-roarers, and whistles made from the long bones from eagles’ wings.

Unfortunately, we know little about the Plateau First Nations’ music. We do know that they occupied the interior plateau of BC and the Yukon and their way of life involved fishing, hunting, and live in semi-permanent settlements with very little political organization. Additionally, we know the languages that the tribes spoke: the Salishan dialects Shuswap, Lillooet, Ntlakyapamuk, and Okanagan; the Takisha dialect Tlingit; and a Kutenai dialect called Kutenaian. Research does suggest, however, that that eastern bands’ cultural practices are similar to Plains First Nations and the western bands’ are similar to the Pacific Coast First Nations.

Other similarities include specific ceremonies. Both the Eastern Woodland Iroquoian and Mackenzie River First Nations have a Drum Dance Ceremony. In the Eastern Woodlands, First Nations on Six Nation Reserves in Ontario and the eastern US still perform the ceremony. It lasts several hours, although it no longer remains the central religious expression that it used to be. Led by a drum leader who plays and sings and an assistant who plays a horn rattles, the ceremony includes a preacher delivering short prayers and chants sung on a single pitch along with a number of ritual and dance songs, each with their own characteristic text, distinct drumbeats, and melodic characteristics.

For the Mackenzie River First Nations, this ceremony is one of their most culturally important. It occurs in summer as the first occasion for renewed friendships after a long, hard winter in near-isolation. The ceremony begins in one of two ways: one of the drummers makes a speech that gives the reason for the ceremony or the drummers perform a religious song and ask for help drumming and singing. These events last anywhere from three hours to two days and involve five specific musical events: the Rabbit Dance, the Tea Dance, the Round Dance, a religious ceremony with only the drummers, and a solo ceremony with only one singer-drummer. Furthermore, titles like “Beyond Me” and “Toward My Friend” suggest that the songs involved in the Drum Dance ceremony once had words, though most are now sung with only vocables. Today, the Mackenzie River First Nations perform the Drum Dance ceremony when important people arrive or a tribal member returns.

Other important First Nations ceremonies include the Pacific Coast’s Potlach. Lasting up to several weeks, this very involved ritual includes songs, dances, and prayers summarizing the tribes’ social customs and religious beliefs. Even the main event, a distribution of gifts by the hosting chief to show personal wealth and power, involves song. The Plains First Nations have the Sun Dance ceremony. Sponsored by the medicine woman, it takes place in a lodge specially constructed for the purpose. Although different for each tribe, most begin the ceremony at the first full moon after the summer solstice and lasts up to two weeks. As the first large social event of the warm season, the ceremony also serves as a time to renew old friendships. Some songs give thanks to and express the First Nations’ dependence on the earth for food, while others accompany gift-giving. Between different parts of the ritual, people perform social dances.

In Iroquoian culture, rituals surround the agricultural cycle with songs accompanying rituals for planting and harvest. Traditional ceremonies took place in the Longhouse. During ceremonies, men and women sit separately with specific seating arrangements that change depending on the occasion with fires lit at each end of the Longhouse. When dances begin, the leaders sit on a bench in the middle of the Longhouse. First, the dancers circle around one of the fires or the central bench and then, as the community joins in, they circle the entire building. Typically, dances include costumes and small hand-held props relating to the dance’s purpose. These help with the dance’s message.

via Library and Archives Canada

As a general rule, songs make up the majority of First Nations’ music. Many songs consist entirely of vocables, or, in other words, syllables and exclamations. However, some include words telling a story, express a prayer or wish, or describe an emotion, and others contain both words and vocables. At one point, some vocable songs may have had words that have been forgotten or changed over the centuries, while others may have never had words; meanings transmit in different ways, like vocal tone, general melodic and rhythmic characteristics, or the occasion. Often, instruments provide accompaniment, notably in dance music.

One absolutely fascinating thing about the music of the First Nations is the notion of ownership. In areas where the issue is important, a song belongs to the person who composed or “received” it. This means that only they can sing the song. However, if the person composes the song for their tribe, family members, or anyone else, then that person or those people may sing the song as well. Rarely do ritual songs enter the “public domain”. However, when a composer dies, their songs may be inherited by family or close friends, but restrictions still exist on who can perform the songs. Each song is a personal expression of its composer and has a purpose within the tribe’s rituals.

Unlike Western tradition, a First Nation composer often only composes a single song in their lifetime, and typically do not compose the song deliberately. More commonly, they receive a song while in a trance or from a vision or dream. Because First Nations consider these experiences as proof that the composer contacted a spirit who gifted them a song, they believe each song possesses supernatural powers and sung only in special situations. Songs passed through the generations embody the personal strengths of former owners and gain power.

In other tribes, people share their songs freely. Some tribes have specific writers, usually women, creating songs for entertainment.

Common to many tribes is a sense of songs for specific times and occasions. For example, a song composed for a ceremony in the summer would never be sung in the winter or a song for one clan would not be sung for another. No matter what the occasion, though, many songs incorporate dancing as an important part of their meaning. Central to all First Nations tribes are lengthy ceremonies that incorporate songs, dances, and other events like speeches and prayers. Tribes perform these ceremonies at various important times of year or when a group or person faces an issue like illness. Songs and dances also accompany important life events, like puberty and death, or social gatherings that commemorate the person or event.


Inhabiting the northern bays and tundra across North America, from Alaska to Greenland, the Inuit lived a nomadic life hunting seal in the winter and caribou in the late summer and early autumn. Managing to survive in a less-than-friendly climate, Inuit ate muskox, polar bear, fox, seal, caribou, and fish and used the non-edible animal parts for clothing, heating fuel, and tools. Unlike many of the First Nations cultures, Inuit culture and tradition remains much less affected from European influence.

Like the First Nations, more than one group exists. In the case of the Inuit, historians divided them into three geographical locations.

  • Yukon and Mackenzie Delta
  • Copper, Netsilik, Caribou, and Igulik in the central Arctic
  • Baffinland, northern Quebec, and Labrador

Also like the First Nations, each group of Inuit have different culture but many similarities exist. Traditionally, music plays a role in both formal rituals and informal gatherings, but in both instances relates back to ancient customs. The nature of different rituals and ceremonial topics relate to one another, too, in connecting closely with the earth, seasons, and spirit world. The Inuit have songs for healing illnesses and for expressing strong emotions such as joy, fear, or despair.

Unlike most First Nations, Inuit deliberately compose music. The concept of ownership in Inuit culture also differs from the First Nations. Tradition keeps the song in personal or family repertoire, however other people may sing the song such as a chorus accompaniment to a solo drum dance, but typically involves the composer in some way as acknowledgement of their ownership.

Another similarity between Inuit and First Nations customs is the Drum Dance ceremony. The most important Inuit ceremony, and originally the central ritual in their culture, Inuit communities in the central and western Canadian Arctic take part in the Drum Dance ceremony. It functioned not only to reinforce common religious beliefs, but also as a mass social occasion. Held to welcome visitors, many people would come together and depending on the community, was hosted indoors or outside. Where the ceremony took place indoors, the Inuit community built special houses for that specific use. Always including numerous monophonic songs, dances, and dance competitions, the Drum Dance ceremony generally lasts several hours. Like the First Nations, songs either have words or vocables. In the Caribou Inuit culture, songs have short verses, whereas songs by the Netsilik Inuit feature long stories about topics like hunting.

All of the Inuit drums have a handle, but two types exist, depending on the location. Inuit west of the Mackenzie Delta have small drums made of whale-liver or walrus-stomach membrane over a narrow wooden frame. The Inuit living in central and eastern locations used larger drums with a wider frame and covered with caribou skin.

Many Inuit dance songs represent daily activities — hunting, fishing, or paddling for example — and dancers usually wear either loonskin headdresses, in the case of Copper and Western Inuit, or dance mittens, in the case Alaska and Mackenzie Delta cultures. Inuit dancers of the Alaska Delta mime animal behaviour and other cultures act out the dance’s topic.

A tradition of solo drum dancing exists among central Arctic and Copper Inuit. Depending on the community, these solo dances are done by men only or both men and women. During solo dances, the dancer plays their drum while a chorus, usually consisting of women, chant a narrative written by either the dancer or one of their relatives.

Other songs in Inuit culture include story songs, game songs, affectionate songs written for family members, and singing duels. An interesting custom, singing duels allow individual singers, usually from different communities, to serve as a dispute between the two participants. The singers dance and sing a song that mocks one another, each stating their version of the story while also insulting their opponent. Once finished, the community then decides who made the best argument. Game songs accompany many Inuit games like juggling, hide-and-seek, string-figure, and chasing games. However, perhaps the most unique games are played by women in the eastern Arctic region. Vocal, or throat, games are played by two women facing each other only a few centimetres apart who direct loud rhythmic guttural and breathing sounds at one another very quickly. Occasionally the women use real, but meaningless, words or riddles, but the goal is to continue uninterrupted.

Both First Nations and Inuit have lively musical cultures with traditions that still exist today. Of course, much more exists than I could cover here. For example, the Powwow Ceremony, a tradition that has evolved over the centuries of exposure to European culture. If you’d like to learn more about the music of First Nations and Inuit in Canada, here are some books to check out:

  1. The Music of Canada by Timothy J. McGee
  2. Music of the First Nations: Tradition and Innovation in Native North America by Tara Browner
  3. Music of the First Nations: Canadian Northwest Coast Native Cultures, Art, History by Jakob
  4. When You Sing It Now, Just Like New: First Nations Poetics, Voices, and Representations by Robin Ridington and Jillian Ridington
  5. Visions of Sound: Musical Instruments of First Nations Communities in Northeastern America by Beverley Diamond, M. Sam Cronk, and Franziska von Rosen

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Canada’s 150th with Music (Part 1: Indigenous Music)

  • June 17, 2017 at 10:11 am


    Canada did not start before 150 years ago. Canada started exactly 150 years ago. Canada is a modern state, not an ancient civilization. Indigenous nations have been on Turtle Island long, long, long long, before 150 years ago, in fact since time out of mind. There is a lot wrong with the tone and content of this article. There are many ‘factual’ errors, starting with language references and the big one the Bering Straight theory. And, painfully the article reads like a documentary of flora and fauna. Consult with an Elder and rewrite this article for accuracy and respectful tone or simply take it down.

    • June 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and leave a thoughtful critique. I will definitely look into further sources and edit. I realize Canada as a nation starts 150 years ago, but I tried (and failed apparently) in conveying that I also wanted to explore the music of the people who lived here before Confederation and before European settlers. I strive to continue learning and bettering my understanding of cultures that are not my own, but sometimes my academic background is my own downfall. 🙂


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