Long Live Language, An Interview With Mohawk Musician Dawn Avery
To many in Indian country, Grammy and NAMA-nominated Mohawk musician Dawn Avery is an immutable force. Avery’s life’s purpose is to connect Native individuals with their culture and indigenous identity through music. She has a simple, two-word encouragement for young Native musicians and artists just starting out: ‘Express yourself!’
Dawn Avery believes the death of a language means the death of a people and language revitalization and preservation is essential to our oral traditions. Due to these beliefs, she has used her talents to work with the Mohawk tribe and restore songs about one of our most important cultural pillars, our women.
As a composer, cellist, vocalist, and educator, Dawn Avery has played with music industry heavyweights such as Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, John Cale, John Cage, R. Carlos Nakai, Phillip Glass and even the New York City Opera Company.
Avery’s newest work, titled Love Songs for a Changing World, features Sufi (Muslim ascetic) concepts and is produced by Grammy winning artist Larry Mitchell.
Dawn Avery also runs the World Music program at Montgomery College where she was awarded United States Professor of the Year in 2011. She holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology with an emphasis on Indigenous research techniques.
With such a full body of work, choosing a favorite would be almost impossible. However, among her most important works is the Native Composers Project.
Avery shared the importance of the project and it’s impact on Indian country.
“I began working with several elders, especially Jan Kahehti:io Longboat, who ran an amazing program for 10 years called Idawadadi (Let us speak or share our voices), that was dedicated to re-acculturating women who lost their culture due to residential school abuse.
“This process of decolonization and healing included taking back our language, songs, ceremonies—in short, our culture! I was able to learn what we call women’s songs (basically social songs that everyone can sing) with the Oshweken singers for several months, learning songs from them, from Jan and her community of amazing women, from Mike Jock in Akwesasne, Ty Defoe an Ojibwe/Oneida musician, Sadie Buck of Six Nations, language specialist, Teahòn:te (Frank Miller), and many others.”
In a note from Avery’s September 2013 dissertation Longboat remarked, “The women are healing from residential schools, and one of the things is how the language was taken away from us and the main part of that language was song. We don’t have any word for prayer, but Karennèna means to lay down our song, so the vibration and sound of song is really our communication with Creator.”
“As the women reclaim their identity as Onkwehòn:we and First Nation’s women, it gets them back to their roles and relationships in this beautiful life as part of a matriarchal society. So these songs are women songs. This brings them back to their indigenous way of life.”
Avery elaborated on the intersectionality of music and her identity as a Native Woman.
“I was trained to sing our planting songs and how to plant our traditional garden, so when I plant today – even though it’s a small garden – I can sing those songs, often including other women in the process, and continue our traditional plants and seeds, especially our Indian tobacco, for which I have cultivated seeds and plants that are over 5 generations old from Six Nations Territory.”
Dawn Avery says on of her goals as an indigenous artist is to utilize the power of music to decolonize and heal native people.
“Under amazing mentorship, I developed the program called the Native Composers Project. A workshop experience in which students of all ages first write a song in their language in a traditional style. Some of them we then used as source material and turned them into string quartets and pop tunes.”
“As Native people, I believe that traditional and contemporary are all part of who we are, and are all connected.”
Understanding such a connection means knowing where you’ve come from so that you may understand where you are going. Dawn shared more on her background with ICMN.
“I was given the onkwehòn:we name Ierihó:kwats in the longhouse, which means ‘she digs deeply into her roots to learn.’ Of Mohawk descent, I have been privileged to be trained in my ceremonies and to participate in the longhouse and was given back the turtle clan to wear around my neck. I am fortunate to express myself as an Indigenous performer, teacher and ethnomusicologist. As a performer, I create ceremony and use my language and teachings in my work.
“My father is a jazz drummer which affected me deeply. Once I began studying my language and learning the music, social dances and ceremonial songs, it affected my sonic landscape in terms of sounds that feel like home, vibrational understanding in terms of ancient words and concepts that are conveyed through vibration of those words and old sounds, and how I look at all types of music and instruments.
“To me, my heritage and my music are vibration that connects me with all of creation. I prefer to write, record and perform music that is of service and has a ceremonial or sacred purpose.
“Language and song are vital to our culture and all of creation. We need to actually use our language and sing our songs as much as we can because it puts us in the vibration of who we really are. So many of us lost this and it’s inspiring how many of us are taking immersion classes, learning ceremonies, and living the culture. Even starting with a few words changes our personal vibration connecting us to ourselves. It has been very important to me to include my language in many of the songs I write.”
Dawn Avery’s upcoming music release Crane on earth, in sky a journey, is co-produced with Larry Mitchell and is the soundtrack of the off-Broadway play, Crane: On Earth, In Sky. The play was created by Heather Henson of the Jim Henson family legacy, and Grammy award winning multidisciplinary artist Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida). It is the story of Ajijjack the majestic Crane, who restores language, culture, and balance to the earth with the help of the Native ancestors she meets along her migratory journey.