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Remembering Songs and Voices of the Salish, Pend d'Oreille, Navajo, and Zuni

An interview with Julie Cajune, an educator who has executive produced two CDs that share the Native experience through song and spoken words

“In the Salish world, spirits revealed themselves to people through songs. When someone was gifted with a song from the Spirit World they would keep that song and pass it down through the generations. Elders say that a person who has many songs is blessed.”

Those are the words as read by narrator Joanne Bigcrane on the documentary DVD accompanying the CD of the same name called Remembering the Songs, featuring traditional Zuni, Navajo, and Salish flute music. The documentary and CD were executive produced by Montanan and Salish educator Julie Cajune, who has also collaborated with award winning Salish/Chippewa-Cree poet Jennifer Greene to create Heart of the Bitterroot: Voices of Salish & Pend d'Oreille Women, a narrative driven CD outlining the tales of four women.

Both CDs were inspired by one of the last Salish traditional flute makers and players, the late Jerome Vanderburg. Cajune spoke to ICTMN on the importance of carrying on Native tradition and spirituality through music.

Why did you decide to make these two CDs with flutes as the predominant instrument?

An elder once told when they used to be at hunting camp in the mountains, you could always hear somebody playing the flute, and how good it made her feel. It was a tradition practiced by the men, and what they were doing was transposing a vocal song onto the flute. So when you hear a traditional American Indian flute player, they’re playing how a vocal song was sung. And that’s what Jerome Vanderburg did. I was thinking if we produced something about it, it might encourage some young people to think about keeping it going. It’s just not very common anymore.

Why did you choose to focus on Salish women with Heart of the Bitterroot?

Indian women are rarely spoken of in any tribal historical narrative. If you ask someone to name historic tribal figures, they could name a lot of men from different tribes, but probably not a lot of women. Also, the western American media has portrayed Indian woman so poorly. They’re usually connected to a white man, or just a love interest, or were just in the background doing all the work, or they weren’t considered to have a personality. Their stories are so hidden. We’re either a back drop with no speaking parts or portrayed negatively. For me it’s correcting that narrative.

So you feel Native women’s stories are overlooked?

You always for instance hear the term "medicine men," but in my tribe their were also medicine women who were powerful healers. They played important roles, but they’re not talked about so they’re almost neglected. Also, there were Indian women that were warriors—and not just in my tribe. But in my tribe, we have the recorded story of Kwilqs, because a Jesuit Priest was traveling in the northwest and he couldn’t believe a woman would engage in hand to hand fighting with men. So he was fascinated by her courage and strength and drew several pictures of her in battles she was involved in. She was written about also by a [Montana] territorial legislature member. So we have these pieces of her life that were documented. When Kwilqs was fighting, it was encouraging to the people fighting with her, and she was feared by warriors from other tribes. That’s not an image that’s commonly portrayed in Western and American media!

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Tell me a little about how Salish writer Jennifer Greene came up with such spiritual narratives in Heart of the Bitterroot?

After I started collected documentation and oral histories, I sat down with an elder and Jennifer and looked at stories of women that were medicine women. Because people are nervous about spiritual knowledge or traditions being exploited, some people didn’t want us to tell details about these women. Yet we didn’t want to not tell these stories, and so I said to Jennifer, "Can you make this into something people want to listen to?" So she took these stories and wrote about them in a more general way. And spoken-word is tricky because it can sound boring, or monotonous, or even corny. I think she was inspired because she decided to write in the voice of each woman and it was very effective. She’s an award winning poet, has written novels, and written screenplays. You can hear the heart of a poet in her writing and it worked really well.

On the Remembering the Songs CD, how did you end up with Zuni and Navajo songs along with your native Salish flute songs?

I got to know Paul Thompson, who’s Navajo because he’s a flute maker. He’s come up to the Flathead Reservation to talk to kids to help encourage the tradition of playing and making the flute. I think his story is inspiring because a teacher told him he couldn’t do it, and now he’s one of the best flute players in the country and it goes to show you can do things that other people say you can’t do. He’s a very humble man and also one of the very few people bringing the tradition of making flutes back, so we’re not just looking at them in museums. Paul said he‘d do the album, but also said, "I know this Zuni man, Fernando Cellicion, and he’s always played my flutes. Maybe you’d want him involved." And so that’s kind of how things happen.

How did you come across non-Native Gary Stroutsos to play some of Jerome Vanderburg’s songs?

I met him in Seattle when we were doing a staged reading of a play because he did flute music between the scenes. I was so curious that someone who was not Indian was so interested in that music. He was very much a jazz artist prior, but someone gave him a Native flute and he’s devoted himself to learning the songs, traditions, stories, and really took a journey. He’s learned to play that instrument maybe as good as anybody I’ve heard—like how someone would sing it. He did a concert for the community for an elder woman who’s since passed away, and the first time he played for her she cried. She said it made her really lonesome, and that really moved me. It made her lonesome because all the men in her family played, but they’re gone and now so you never hear it.

What do you hope to inspire with these CDs?

For young people, I’m finding that they aren’t reading books as much as they’re listening to music or watching film, so the idea to make something people could listen to was purposeful to access the largest number of people. People will put a cd in the car or put it on their iPad more often than they will sit down and read a book. I think our traditions are so beautiful and important. There might be one boy out there who’s drawn to the flute, but if they never hear it or are aware of it, then they’ll never know about it. If even one young man gets inspired to learn, then that’s one more person carrying on that tradition.

To learn more about Julie Cajune and her work, visit Center for American Indian Policy and Applied Research (CAIPAR) website.