Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Author Interview: Chad S. Hamill


Chad S. Hamill is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Northern Arizona University, where he serves as co-chair for the Commission for Native Americans. Of Spokane and non-Indian descent, he has also served as associate director of the Plateau Center of American Indian Studies at Washington State University. He has published and presented his work nationally and internationally, bridging the fields of Music and Native/Indigenous Studies in his research and scholarship.

Hamill's new book, Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer, was recently published by OSU Press.


How did you come to write Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau?

When I was doing some genealogical research on my great uncle, Gibson Eli, I was given a cassette on which he was singing songs and answering some questions about his life as a medicine man. In answer to a question about his medicine dance (the oldest ceremony we have in the Columbia Plateau), he tells the interviewers, "Go ask Fr. Connolly, he can tell you anything [about the dance]." Needless to say, I was a bit stunned to hear that a Jesuit priest would know something about Gib's dance. This seemed to be at odds with the narrative I was familiar with -- of the divide between traditional Indians and missionaries -- between Christianity and indigenous ceremony. I looked Fr. Connolly up and gave him a call. After visiting with him for a short time, it became clear that their relationship went much deeper than I could have imagined, involving a reciprocal exchange that crossed religious and spiritual boundaries that had been long established. I knew right then that I had to tell this story.

Can you tell us a little bit about the encounter between a Jesuit priest, a medicine man, and a Native American hymn singer lead to cultural change?

The three of them went where no one had ventured before, bringing elements of traditional Native American ceremony and songs into the Catholic mass. The Jesuit became a student of his two "Indian grandfathers," learning about and participating in traditions his Jesuit predecessors sought to stifle. In the book I suggest that rather than being about religious conversion, theirs was an evenhanded conversation, one that hadn't taken place before. I think of them as spiritual rebels.

How did you research the cultural information and detail found in your book? Did you have primary sources? People to interview? Interpreters?

Fr. Connolly and I crisscrossed the Columbia Plateau interviewing people for the book. He has had longstanding relationships with many of those who contributed (often spanning 50 years or more). After the initial interview, I was free to follow up. Given the long trail of broken promises in Indian Country, trust is very important to Native people. Being introduced by Fr. Connolly served as a validation, enabling me to work from a foundation of trust he had established over many years. I also relied on members of my own family who are related to Gib Eli for important insights. Beyond real world interactions with people, I consulted a number of written sources by anthropologists, historians, etc.

What is “ethnomusicology”? As a professor of ethnomusicology, how do you spend your day?

Ethnomusicology is the study people making music in the context of culture. The field borrows heavily from anthropology, with fieldwork at the center of what we do. While a majority of ethnomusicologists travel far and wide to conduct fieldwork, we are free to study music of any place or time. Ethnomusicologists usually have one or two specializations (as you might imagine, I focus on Native American music of the Columbia Plateau region). In general we embrace an egalitarian view, accepting that all music has a role to play in society. A majority of ethnomusicologists teach in schools of music at the university level. We quite often teach a world music survey course and just about anything else that falls outside of the parameters of Western music. So in terms of what a typical day looks like for me, I prepare for my classes, teach, serve on university committees and with whatever time I have left over, I do research.

Your book inspires further reading. Can you recommend any other books related to Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau, the relationship between Indians and Catholics, indigenous songs, or other subjects you examine in your book?

Here is a cross section of books. Some are focused on Columbia Plateau history and culture while others deal with musical and spiritual phenomena I explore in the book.

Berliner, Paul. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Carriker, Robert C. Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1995.

Friedson, Steven M. Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Frey, Rodney. Landscape Traveled by Coyote and Crane: The World of the Schitsuʼumsh: Coeur d'Alene Indians. Seattle, Wash: University of Washington Press, 2001. Print.

Irwin, Lee. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Jankowsky, Richard C. Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

Mengarini, Gregory, and Gloria Ricci Lothrop. Recollections of the Flathead Mission: Containing Brief Observations, Both Ancient and Contemporary, Concerning This Particular Nation. Glendale, Calif: A.H. Clark Co, 1977.

Miller, Christopher L. Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

Niezen, Ronald. The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Olsen, Loran. Qilloowawya: Hitting the Rawhide: Serenade Songs from the Nez Perce Music Archive. Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, 2001.

Peterson, Jacqueline, and Laura L. Peers. Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Point, Nicolas, and Joseph P. Donnelly. Wilderness Kingdom, Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847; The Journals & Paintings of Nicolas Point. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Samuels, David W. Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Walker, Deward E. Conflict & Schism in Nez Percé Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics. Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1985.

What do you do to promote your book? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?

We are in the process of completing a website that will give readers access to the recorded Indian hymns in the book as well as many others: Songs of Power & Prayer.

Also, my book is part of the First People's Initiative, an indigenous studies series managed through a partnership between four university presses. You can find updates and info on my book as well as many others that may be of interest to your readers.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

I hope to be giving a talk on the book at the Nez Perce Historical Park in Lapwai, ID this summer. I can let you know when I have a date.

What are you reading now?

Rez Life by David Treuer. Treuer weaves together his experience and that of friends and family growing up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation with a concise history of Indian policy in the US. It is a compelling read that is at times disheartening but often inspiring.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

I'm mulling over a few different projects at the moment, both of which have real potential. I hope to decide on something soon . . . .

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