Peyote songs are the prayer music and ceremonial heart of the Native American Church. The songs have traditionally been sung, accompanied by the gourd rattle and water drum, in the various languages and musical styles of the indigenous peoples from which the church drew its membership.
At the same time, the pan-Indian nature of the church made it a powerful vehicle for the diffusion of musical styles and content. Early studies of peyote songs, dating from the 1940s, found Navajo peyote singers using the Ute musical style, and recognizably the same peyote song among the Tarahumara, Navajo, and Cheyenne. Such studies can be helpful in tracing the historical spread of the new religious movement.
An important aspect of peyote songs is their use of non-lexical vocables — sequences of phonemes without conventional semantic content, but meaningful to the singer in the context of the ceremony, and often an indication of the song’s origin as a spiritual gift. Peyote songs often combine the consonants y, w, h, c, k, t, x, and n with vowels, in the sequence CVCVCV… to produce vocables such as the important peyote word heyowicinayo.
Beginning in the 1990s — their first CD was released in 1995 — two singers, Verdell Primeaux, a Sioux, and Johnny Mike, a Navajo, developed a new form of peyote music they called healing songs, characterized by mesmeric and meditative vocal harmonies and frequently without the paradigmatic driving beat of the water drum and gourd rattle.
Their haunting music, however, embodied a partial disconnection from the traditional roots of the peyote song, where the gourd rattle and water drum have traditionally been an integral part of the ceremony, and tying the soaked deerskin drumhead onto the cast-iron drum kettle is an important and symbolically resonant part of the preparation. Indeed, this disconnection in part drove their popularity. One music reviewer — apparently intending to be complimentary — went so far as to say that the new peyote music “transcends the usual ethnographic feel of peyote recordings and becomes true art.”
|Whitehorse and Crowe|
Three of these singers are Brian Stoner, from the Ponca and Cherokee tribes of Oklahoma; and the brothers Maynard Whitehawk and Lance Crowe, of Plains Anishinabe and Saulteaux heritage, who sing together under the name Wikiwam Ahsin, which are Anishinabe words usually translated as tipi rock. I have attached two representative videos below.
The first video features a song set from the album With Love and Faith We Pray, which was named the Best Spiritual Album at the 2007 Indian Summer Music Festival, and which features Whitehawk and Crowe joining Stoner on several songs. The second features a set from Whitehawk and Crowe’s eponymous album Wikiwam Ahsin. Listen for the children’s songs at the end.