ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. -- Reviewers across the country are taking
note of a remarkable new CD that combines Native language restoration with
seasonal pop and maybe even commercial appeal.
The album "American Indian Christmas," sung by pop star Jana, presents 10
of the most familiar Christmas songs -- each in a different tribal tongue.
From "O Holy Night" in Navajo to "Amazing Grace" in Jana's own Lumbee, the
recording is bringing the sounds of Native languages to a wide audience.
The idea is so simple and yet so fresh, it's a wonder it hasn't been tried
before. The National Museum of the American Indian headed in the same
direction last year with the well-received CD "Beautiful Beyond," issued in
conjunction with Smithsonian Folkways Records, of Christian hymns sung by
different tribal groups. A sequel has been under consideration.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, she described the time-consuming
effort of finding translations. "We had to call Germany," she said, to
consult on one cut. The Lumbee version of "Amazing Grace" was a special
labor of love, she said, because the language of that North Carolina
nation, the largest tribe in the country without full federal recognition,
is still in a process of recovery.
The exotic twist on holiday standards has intrigued reviewers at the
country's largest newspapers. In the wrap-up of seasonal releases, USA
Today listed Jana's CD as the main entry in its "World Music" category. New
York Daily News reviewer David Hinckley said the work by "this sweet-voiced
singer" was "strong from the first notes of 'O Holy Night,' which is sung
The release comes at a peak of productivity for Jana, who first broke into
the scene around 2000 with dance-mix singles released by Curb Records. Her
version of "Stairway to Heaven" reached No. 8 on the Billboard dance
charts, the first time a Native performer cracked that category. Jana later
parted company with the major label, objecting to the way her solid rhythm
and blues singing voice was underused and drowned out by the dance beat
Earlier this fall, she released her first full-length CD, "Flash of a
Firefly," on the independent Radikal Records label.
But the Christmas project is not just a shrewd career move. Jana emphasizes
its contribution to the "language retention" movement. "The preservation of
our languages is extremely important to the culture and vitality of our
people," she wrote in the liner notes.
The release, she said, should also bring attention to the original
translators and performers of each song. The credits for "Little Drummer
Boy," for instance, go to Albert Cata, Frances Harney, Esther Martinez and
the Tewa Indian Women's Choir. The Ojibwe "Winter Wonderland" is the work
of well-known music journalist Kim Hall, of the Waadookodaading Ojibwe
Immersion Charter School.
The CD is also noteworthy for being possibly the first commercial CD to be
issued in conjunction with a tribal enterprise. The Standing Stone label is
a division of Four Directions Media, an Oneida Indian Nation company which
also publishes Indian Country Today. Distribution is handled by the SOAR
Corp., founded by Tom Bee, Lakota.