Live By The Drum: Exploring Linguistic Expressions of Pan-Indian Ethnic Identity in Contemporary Indigenous Music

Courtney-Sophia Henry

Wayne State University


In the past, most writings on indigenous American music have been aimed at a non-Indian audience and much of the research regarding Native American identity in the modern era has not been written by Native Americans.  Such external perspectives can never be as helpful in analyzing the target culture of a particular identity as self-identifying sources are.  Many issues and elements—including ethnic nomenclature, racial attitudes, and the legal and political status of American Indian nations and the First Nations tribes of Canada —influence the identity of indigenous peoples in contemporary society.  As a Native American woman, I believe I have a unique voice to lend to this topic.  My research begins to close the gap in scholarship regarding the use of ancestral languages as a means of propagating pan-Indian issues and establishing one’s indigenous identity.

 Specifically, my research examines the use of “code-calling,” which is the label I have chosen to describe the phenomena in which contemporary indigenous artists (who perform predominantly in English) use specific words or phrases spoken in their ancestral indigenous languages as a source of identity, particularly pan-Indian identity.  It is useful to view code-calling in parallel with the idea of code-switching, used to describe the alternating use of two or more languages by bilingual speakers.  I propose that indigenous artists “code-call” to their listeners through the inclusion of ancestral Native American/First Nations languages in what would otherwise be an English or French only performance piece.  The assumption is that the listener will in all likelihood not speak or understand the indigenous language, but the act of using the ancestral language in place of one of Eurocentric origin is a powerful form of resistance against assimilation of indigenous peoples into the mainstream culture. 

Code-calling also acts as an affirmation of Pan-Indian identity.  I look at Pan-Indian identity as it encompasses the languages and cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America, commonly referred to as Native Americans in the United States and as First Nations in Canada.  As modern indigenous communities are attempting to revitalize their ancestral languages, it is important to look at these revitalization efforts in context.  I propose that code-calling derives its meaning from phonological, pragmatic and syntactical structure, as well as the relationships between speaker and listener.  Knowledge of an ancestral language and cultural traditions are being increasingly combined as a force in indigenous ethic identity struggles, as well as how this reality informs the challenges of building solidarity within broader indigenous socio-political movements.  This paper explores these complex relationships, as well as the construction of Pan-Indian identity through the use of code-calling in contemporary indigenous music.