Aboriginal Music in Saskatchewan

By: Jessica Generoux, University of Saskatchewan Aboriginal Intern
January, 2015

Song and traditional music is a vehicle of oral tradition and storytelling among the First Nations and Metis people in Saskatchewan. Aboriginal music celebrate life’s greatest moments as well as serving the function of honouring people and healing through ceremony. The songs are about political struggles, prayers to the Creator as well as honouring the animals, natural world and all living creatures. Song and music tell a story through the eyes of a First Nations of Metis people in Saskatchewan; a story of deep meaning about the land and its people, which is presented in a variety of languages. There are a variety of influences on the evolution and adaptation of traditional aboriginal music, such as: socio-political pressures, colliding worlds and the formation of the Canadian nation. The Drum is symbolic of Aboriginal Music genres in Saskatchewan. The emerging voices of contemporary Saskatchewan Aboriginal Music unifies the healing of the past with the strength of the Youth today. The Saskatchewan Music Collection showcases a traditional and contemporary Aboriginal musicians, groups and songs that provide a resource for the teachings of the Drum, historical local references and notable collective materials of cultural significance.

Native America Church and Peyote Music

Peyote music originated from Southwest American Indian tribes of the Apaches. Now, peyote music is a central theme to the Native Church of Canada where the ceremonies, songs, craftsmanship and beliefs are passed on. Peyote music is deeply embedded in ceremonial ritual and guidance. The musical instruments of the water drum and gourd rattles are blessed and purified during assembly and usage. The purification process involves using blessed water, and while the songs are sung, the water’s elements are then blessed and consumed by the group of people. The essential use of peyote music is for healing, as the songs are gifts and prayers, passed through generations within families and communities and through the practice of consuming the peyote plant. It is common held belief that peyote music has the power to heal, energize, protect and teach those that hear it (Marloukis, p. 175).

There is a deep symbolism and meaning in the artwork displayed on the instruments, or ceremonial items, that are essential to the prayer process of the creation and performance of the music. The water drum is the ultimate symbolic item of peyote music; the process in which the drum is created is a ceremony using blessed water and sacred materials as well as the utilization of the drum being a ceremony within itself (Marloukis, p.179). The drum symbolizes the collective values of the nation, as the drumbeat is considered the heart beat of your mother, my mother, of mother earth. The drum itself represents the natural elements, such as the sky (hide), Mother Earth (drum kettle and rope), seven marbles (continents of the earth), water in the drums (oceans, rivers, lakes), charcoal (ancestors), star painting (universe) and the drum beat (life, mother earth) (Maroukis, p.180). Peyote music is performed using a fast tempo on the beating of the drum, from 125-150 beats per minute with shaking of the gourd rattle and fast-paced singing using vocables and phrases (Marloukis, 2010). The songs are shared among a group at meetings/gatherings across North America; at these events the singing goes into the night, with every singer having a chance to share four songs. There are many songs for life’s’ occasions and peyote music is shared across tribes, languages and geographic locations.

Examples of peyote music in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
Cecile Moosomin,Lans Saupitty,Maynard Whitehawk & Lance Crowe,Meewasin Oma, Darwin Daniels,Sheldon Yellowman, Melanie Benson, Elizabeth Hale, Andrea and, Brittany Roan, Ashley Benson (Canadian), Utin Machiskinic, Edmond Poochay, Red Road (Musical Group), Wanita Bird, Waha’canka & Was’utesni, Kelly Daniels.


The traditional flute has been an instrument within many Aboriginal cultures from North and South America and it has been used for healing, storytelling, courting and hunting (Keilor, 2013). Flutes are made from a wide range of sizes and materials such as clay, deer and elk antlers, willow branch, animal bones and wood. Smaller flutes made from eagle bone are used in sacred ceremonies such as the Sundance and cannot be displayed due to protocol. Flute songs are composed by the individual player, either performed a stand-alone song, or accompanied in an ensemble. The songs by the flute serve a variety of historical purposes from hunting, ceremonial to winning a heart of a woman, to healing and cultural expression such as the performances by Metis author David Bouchard.

The flute displayed is crafted by Makwa Flutes, crafted on September of 2011, that has a sister somewhere out there and it is tuned to A#min/Bbmin. It is crafted from western red cedar and has a black walnut inlay down the hole and his late father, who passed away shortly after the flute was made, gave the cedar to the craftsman. Tt is an end-blown block flute with an upper air chamber and the air flow is controlled by a small carved pieced tied over the sound hole with 3 – 6 finger holes. Many traditional flutes are designed specifically for the flute player, this one displayed is a general traditional flute, while many flutes can have carved animals or particular wood used that is spiritually special to the flute player.

According to Library and Archives Canada , during the colonization period of Canadian history, like many traditional song and dance, the flute players disappear, and since the 1970’s have recently been revived through artists from Turtle Island (North America) such as David Maracle, John Rainer (Taos Pueblo/Creek), Stan Snake (Ponca), Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche), Carl Running Bear (Sioux), Richard Fool Bull ( Lakota), Kevin Locke (Lakota/Anishinaabe) and Jes Wapp (Sauk/Fox), Carlos Nakai (Ute/Navajo), Bryan Akipa (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) and well as women such as Lillian Rainer, Mary Youngblood, Jani Lauzon, and Hovia Edwards (Keillor, p. 297).

Examples of peyote music in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
Jason Chamakese , Ed Peekeekoot as well as emerging Dakota/Saulteaux Flutist Jacob Pratt.

Métis Music

Métis people of Saskatchewan are an incredibly unique and vibrant nation. The music of Métis nation consist of a variety of instruments such as harmonica, hand drums, guitar and the spoons but the most significant instrument is the Métis fiddle, which accompanies Métis jigging, a dance with its styles. The fiddle was introduced to the First Peoples from Europe and became a vehicle of oral tradition as a new nation was formed during the development of the West (Cass-Beggs, 5). The fiddle symbolizes the musical story of the Métis people in Saskatchewan, from the evolution along the Red River to community square dances and gatherings in the Qu’Appelle Valley. The songs such as Whiskey before Breakfast and Big John MacNeil (The Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture, 2003) represent the Métis fiddles distinct features of marking the beats with the tapping feet, the shorter bow usage and shorter note sets with brief pauses at the end of phrases, all of which give the fiddle the distinctive Métis rhythm (ibid, 2003).

Contained with the Métis fiddle songs is a story of a nations formation and perseverance, which can be found in the early songs of Battle of the Seven Oaks, Métis National Anthem, Between Forks and the Carleton (Battle of Batoche) and Riels Farewell, on the trials and tribulations of the Métis leader, Louis Riel (GDI, 2003). Just as Louis Riel, the historical and prominent leader of the Métis people in Saskatchewan, was poetic and determined through the trials and tribulations, his ability to describe his experiences through song has a lasting legacy through the rhythms of the fiddle (Cass-Beggs, 7). The most prominent Saskatchewan Métis fiddler is John Arcand of Big River, Saskatchewan. He has become the ‘Master of the Métis Fiddle’ with many other fiddlers from communities across the North American plains with his work contained in the Saskatchewan Music Collection. For a deeper understanding, check out Drops of Brandy: An Anthology of Métis Music that details stories, sheet music, photography and artist biographies and the importance of the fiddle.

Examples of Métis music in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
John Arcand, Hap Boyer, Barbara Cass-Beggs, Corn Michel & Boots McCallum, Northern Cree Métis Fiddle and Drops of Brandy: An Anthology of Métis Music

Pow Wow Music

The Pow Wow is a gathering of many nations that has evolved over the course of its brief history on the Plains. It is a time for song, dancing and giving thanks through traditions that is both a ceremony through the sacred and healing dances and sacred realm of the song and drum. Saskatchewan Indian Culture Centre has defined the pow wow as one of the main expressions of First Nations identity. The ancient tradition of the pow wow brings many tribes together across North America during the summer and fall seasons. It has evolved over the centuries and it is the symbol of strength and creativity of the First Nations people. Saskatchewan hosts the most pow wow gatherings across Turtle Island (North America).

In order to understand Pow Wow Music, one must understand the historical and cultural aspects of the Pow Wow gathering as a whole. Pow Wow music of Saskatchewan is rooted in the Omaha and Pawnee tribes in United States and brought into Saskatchewan through the Dakota people, where the Cree majority refer to the this Dakota dance as Pwatsimowin (SICC). The drum and song is central to the process of the a pow wow, where songs are acquired through visions and passed down, and the drum is Pow wows have evolved through assimilation policies through the church and government, with the 1876 Indian Act, and between 1884 to 1951, the government of Canada set forth the process of eliminating the cultural components, where ceremonies across Canada were prohibited (Potlatch in the West Coast) such as Sundance’s and gift giving gatherings as the pow wow and round dance because of the disapproval of the church leaders in the Indian Residential School era, and First Nations communities had to petition for their own cultural values to be respect from settlers. This was a time of shame for the formation of Canada, as First Peoples of the land were locked behind political bars and these ceremonies where culture, language, family teachings, cultural survival and identity were reinforced and passed down, these gatherings were the root of the identity of First Nations people, but were challenged with the new settlers on the land. It was during the ban time where the songs and dances evolved, and the pow wow dances and songs were showcased as Buffalo Bills ‘Wild West’ shows for settler spectators to watch for entertainment (Keilor, 373). Many components and dances involved in the currently pow wow ensemble contributes to the evolution during the Wild West shows, where First Nations culture were put on display for a variety of shows.

Pow Wow songs are understood to have come from ancient sources, through visions, dreams and from ceremonies, also through contemporary song writing ideas as well. Many of the songs that are sung now have been passed down through many generations and stay alive and strong with many hours of family practices with the little ones. Songs can be sung in English, vocables and in First Nations languages and consist of 4 or more men, with women back up singers that tell a story and accompany the various dances. The unique songs and dance styles shared are a celebration of life within humanity and Mother Earth. It symbolizes people coming together to share, trade, teach, learn, heal, give and honour. Many styles of dance are showcased with men and woman of all ages as they dance to the heartbeat of the Nations, which is the drum. The Pow Wow Drum is a large wooden base covered with circle hide where men strike the drum in unison, with a moderate tempo of 120 to 130 beats per minute, with drumsticks for a variety of songs needed during the duration of the pow wow. Pow wow songs are passed down through generations, shared amongst families, and also could be contemporary groups as well. The teachings of the pow wow drumming and songs is that the pow wow drum is considered the heart beat of the nation and of Mother Earth, it is a sacred item and it holds a spirit that can help many people find balance and healing.

Examples of Pow Wow Groups in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
Bear Spirit, Blacklodge Singers,Big River Cree, Buffalo Spirit, Crooked Lake Agency, Drums of Poundmaker – Tootoosis Family,Elk Whistle, Eya Hey Nakoda, Fly-in Eagle , High Noon Singers,Iron Swing, Little Island Cree, Little Pine Singers, North Buffalo, Northern Cree, Northern Wind Singers,Omaha Whitetail,Pipestone Creek,Poundmaker Singers,Pipestone Singers,Porcupine Singers,Red Bull Singers,Rockhill, Seekaskootch, Starblanket Jr’s,Stoney Park, Sweetgrass Singers,Stoney Park, Walking Buffalo, Wildhorse , Wandering Spirit,Whitefish Jr’s,Young Thunder and Young Spirit.

Round Dance Songs and Drum

The Round Dance is an event that happens during the winter months for memorials, honouring and celebrating. It is a way to deal with new endeavors, grieving, and sickness, giving thanks, honouring people and making friends. The Round Dance is a time when people travel all over to show support for one another. It is held during the winter months after hunting season is over, and it is sponsored by the family, community for a gathering or memorial within the hosting community or organization, which consists of a ceremony, giveaway, feast and songs. It is a social dance practiced widely amongst the Plains Cree. Dancers moved to the beat of the hand drum, a small drum made from circular hide and used for the purpose to songs specifically needed for ceremonies as well as celebrations. A hand drum can be held in one hand, with the drumstick held in the other hand. It can be used with a lone song, or with a group of people. Usually a large group of singers hit the drum in unison, with a lead singer. The dancers join hands to form a large circle and side-shuffle left step to the drum beat. This symbolizes equality of all people in the circle. Elders have stated there is great power of unification in the Round Dance songs and drumming. The songs and drumming are healing, the pipe, songs, drums and elders present call on spirits of our ancestors for healing (Late Elder Isadore Pelletier, Regina Public Library Round Dance, 2009). There are many knowledge keepers with a variety of teachings across the nations and geographic spaces that hold different teachings of the round dance, stories but many of the common understandings is the teachings of the drum, a central aspect of the round dance itself and symbolic of the First Nations people, is of sharing one voice for peace, harmony and respect.

According to Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, the round dance is called piciciwin, The Moving Slowly dance. Its origins are from the Assiniboine tribe, and now widely adopted by Plains Cree in Saskatchewan, with its origins in stories of a Cree mother grieving the loss of her child, and needing the drum and song to heal the heart. The story behind the The Moving Slowly Dance came from the south. The Round Dance is a healing ceremony as well as a social celebration; the focus is determined with the host and knowledge keeper(s). The Round Dance begins with a pipe ceremony followed by a feast and giveaway. The music is of double beat of the drum, dancers form a circle, holding hands and step side by side in a clockwise shuffle. Everyone is invited to participate, from all nations, which is why this is often referred to the Friendship dance. There are protocols involved in the dance, which are to explain by the knowledge keeper leading the ceremonial event.

Examples of Round Dance and Hand Drum Artist/Groups in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
Archie Moccasin, Art Moosomin, Big River Cree , Blackstone Singers, Cree Confederation, Donna Kay, Ed Peekeekoot, Edmund Bull, Eyababy, Four Winds Women Singers, Harvey Dreaver ,Little Island Cree, Painted Horse Group, Pipestone Creek, Midnight Express, Mosquito Singers, Round Dance Songs by Cree Women, Robert Gladue, Saulteaux First Nation group, Spirit Whistle, Walking Buffalo, Wanuskewin Singers, Winston Wuttunee, Whitefish Jr’s and Young Confederation.

Contemporary Evolutions

The culture is coming back with double force, both the revival of the ancient ancestral ceremonies that display the diversity and sacredness of song and drum, but the foundations are being brought back to life after genocide, and the natural human nature for innovation and change is also impacting the Aboriginal music scene. But through it all, the Drum is the most important factor to that has remained constant and will continue to carry the songs and heart beat of Turtle Island’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit Nations into the new era (Linklater, 2007). Contemporary Indigenous artists are arising across Canada, and most notably from Saskatchewan, hip hop artist Lindsay ‘Eekwol’ Knight from Muskody First Nation is providing her liberating rhymes on freedom from oppression, which is a strong voice for the fastest growing population in Saskatchewan – Aboriginal youth (MacKay, 2010). At the heart of the current, contemporary artists are emerging with strong voices, healing and empowering words for the Aboriginal youth and a peaceful and uniting vision of the future with Lindsay ‘Eekwol’ Knight leading a new path for the next generation of musicians. The Saskatchewan Music Collection’s Aboriginal music selections hosts a variety of songs and music that tell a story of a nation’s past and motivations for the future from such groups a Red Bull Singers and Buffy Saint Marie (Doi, 17). The landscape for contemporary Aboriginal musicians displayed intercultural collaboration that blends in both traditional teachings, songs and the Drum as well as voices, ideas and visions of the future (Hoefangels, 374). The timeless legacy of the elders teachings through the gifts of song and Drum are showcased through the Saskatchewan Music Collection.

Examples of contemporary music in the Saskatchewan Music Collection:
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Lindsay 'Eekwol' Knightas well as music for children with cultural teachings such as Don Freed and the Kids, Winston Wuttunee and Brian MacDonald.

Reference List

Aboriginal Sound Recordings. Library and Archives Canada. Accessed Decenmber 17, 2014.

Cass-Beggs, B. “Introduction: The Historical Background of the Métis Songs.” In Seven Métis Songs of Saskatchewan, 5-7. Don Mills, Ont.:BMI Canada Limited, 1967.

Dorion-Paquin, L. & Smith, L. “The History of Métis Fiddling.” In Drops of Brandy: An Anthology of Métis Music, 6 – 29. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2002.

Doi, Carolyn “The Saskatchewan Music Collection: Presenting the Past, Present and Future of our Regional Music History” CAML Review/ Revue De L’ACBM 41.No. 1(2013): 15-21 http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/caml/article/viewFile/36611/33323

Hoefangels, A. “Bits and Pieces of Truth: Storytelling, Identity and Hip Hop in Saskatchewan.” In Aboriginal Music in Contemporary Canada:Echoes and Exchanges, 361-371.Kingston:McGill-Queens University Press, 2010.

Keilor, E, Archambault, T. & Kelly, J. “Pow Wow Songs of the Northern Style”.” In Encyclopedia of Native American Music of North America, 372-378. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2013.

Linklater, Duane. First Stories - His Guidance (Okiskinotahewewin). National Film Board: Documentaries, 2007. DVD. https://www.nfb.ca/film/first_stories_his_guidance_okiskinotahewewin

Mackay, Gail “A Reading of Eekwol’s “Apprentice to the Mystery” as an Expression of Cree Youth’s Cultural Role and Responsibility.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 34 (2010): 47-65. http://aisc.metapress.com/content/y02775k6713t0573/

Maroukis, T.C. “Peyote Art and Music.” In Civilization in the American Indian: Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and Native American Church, 152-182. Texas: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre. “Overview of Pow Wow Tradition.” Gift of Song and Dance. Accessed February 7th, 2015. http://www.sicc.sk.ca/overview-of-pow-wow-tradition.html

Saskatchewan Indian Pow Wow Issue 1999, 29(2)- Pat Deiter, from Dancer of the Northern Plains, Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, 1987.

Volrath, Calvin. “Fiddle About 1-5.” The Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture. Gabriel Dumont Institute, May 30, 2003. Accessed on March 9, 2015.

Whidden, L. “Music Introduction.” In Métis Songs: Visiting was the Metis way, 5 – 9, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 1993.

Wuttunee, W. “A brief history of North American Indian Music.” In Aboriginal Headstart Music. Accessed January 19, 2015. http://www.winstonwuttunee.ca/musiccourse.html