Mohawk Traditional Honors Ancestors with MusicTweet
Jordan Smith is a Mohawk singer, dancer, storyteller and educator. He recently released a CD of Iroquois traditional songs called “Iroquois Style: Sounds of the Eastern Woodlands”
Interview by Ken Cosentino
Ken: Tell me about the CD.
Jordan: All the songs on the CD are traditional Eastern Woodland or Haudenosaunee social dance songs. There’s about 20 minutes worth of music on the CD, about 9 or 10 tracks but there are more than one song per track. Like we sing a fish dance song and there’s about 5 or 6 songs to that. The rabbit dance that’s on there, there’s a short story that goes along with that and there’s 3 or 4 songs that accompany it.
Ken: Who else besides yourself is on this album?
Jordan: Actually it’s just myself. How it came together was I had a friend contact me who was in contact with a company and he said “hey dude, if you want to do this CD you can do it tomorrow or Wednesday,” and this was on a Monday we were talking. So I took the day off of work and cruised out to the Oneida Four Directions Productions recording studio. Pretty much showed up and sang and we edited everything through email correspondence.
Ken: What’s the reaction so far?
Jordan: A lot of people are liking it, I haven’t had any complaints. I actually just sold another copy yesterday; we had a show at the Seneca casino at Buffalo Creek and we were asked to bring some there. We have CD’s in a few gift shops: Fort Niagara in Youngstown, NY; there’s a few at Ganondagan Seneca Arts Village outside of Canandaigua and Victor, NY (outside of Rochester); and there’s a vendor in Virginia who has quite a few.
Ken: Is this CD the only way to hear these songs or are they available on itunes, YouTube, etc.?
Jordan: These songs you can probably go on YouTube and type in the various dances (Iroquois social dances), a lot of this stuff because it’s passed down verbally through oral tradition – a lot of the songs are very similar. So you can find just about anything on the internet nowadays.
Ken: Who is your market for this album? Would you say mostly Native or a mix of people?
Jordan: It’s more geared towards traditional Native people. The way I labeled the songs, it’s not geared towards one specific individual or gender or race. I feel that I know a lot of people throughout the country who just appreciate good music, especially Native music, because it all crosses over and it can all be used in so many different formats. I’ve actually sold quite a few to non-Natives as well. Good people like good music and it’s definitely good music!
Ken: Please tell me about yourself. I know you’re Mohawk and I know you’re a storyteller and dancer, please elaborate.
Jordan: Yeah well I’m an educator as well, I also help the coming generations and anybody who is willing to learn to understand and feel comfortable around Natives and the music and dance of it all. These types of songs are social dance songs so this is what we use to get together and feel comfortable socially. Not only do I educate but I also perform all over the world to the masses, non-Natives and Natives alike. That way we can all feel comfortable with each other. Because the things that we don’t know, that’s usually what makes people afraid of timid to ask questions, because they don’t know the right way to go about asking questions. So to give people the basis to feel comfortable is really what I like to do. Especially with the younger kids on the reservation out here on Tuscarora; they don’t hear these types of songs all the time. Many of the kids that we teach in our culture program out here after school – this might be the only time they hear these songs is at the class that we teach. As you said I’m a storyteller, we sing the songs and do the dances. It’s really about getting comfortable with it. Things you don’t know, that’s what make people think a certain way. So to the non-Native population I have to get them comfortable with asking questions in a non-ignorant way even though they don’t know how to go about asking in the proper way.
Ken: I definitely understand what you mean. Yesterday I met Winona LaDuke at one of her lectures. She was inspirational. It seems like the times that we’re living in right now, there’s more awareness than ever since colonization about Indigenous rights and how we can all work together. How do you feel releasing an album of traditional songs, which probably haven’t been heard except at a show or demonstration for non-Natives, is helping to ease people into the movement?
Jordan: I think it’s helping because music is so universal. You don’t even have to understand the same language to appreciate the artistic ability and the different style of music that comes from, you know, wherever. I think with Native music particularly, people are more interested because it’s not something you hear on the radio every day. You can find stations on satellite radio, XM and all that but too often you will not find this world music that’s playing the music of the Indigenous population. I think people are under the assumption that it doesn’t exist. Throughout my travels and my teachings, I run into people who are still under the impression that there’s no more Indigenous people here in North America. They think that we’re extinct. We’re pretty much an endangered species but that’s why I do what I do. To emphasize the fact that if we don’t keep this strong then maybe one of these days we are going to be extinct and we are going to be absorbed into the rest of the population that too often happens here in North America. So to stay strong and true to my roots, and the teachings that my parents and their parents and my parents have taught me this good way to live, that’s why I do what I do – that’s why I sing and dance and travel. With this basic knowledge of who I am and where my ancestors come from, it’s allowed me to travel all over the world and see things that I never would have seen if I did things differently.
Ken: To add onto that – One thing that Winona said that stuck with me is that the study of Native American history is called “anthropology” which makes it seem as though Natives are extinct.
Jordan: I just want to emphasize the fact that without our parents, grandparents and those who went through those harder times throughout history – that’s why I’m able to do the things I do. I’m able to educate, sing and share my songs and dances because of all of those hardships of all those people before me. They really had the tough time of really surviving and keeping with the tradition of being Indigenous persons. In this day and age we really have it simple. All we have to do is get out here and express how our good mind and our good intentions are what we’ve always been practicing and teaching. We need to present ourselves and approach every aspect of life with the best intentions because that’s how we are to live as human beings. Not just Native people but human beings altogether. That common love, courtesy and respect that we should be showing one another is really the best way to survive and to stay positive is where we sometimes fall short of the stick there. So we have to keep positive so that way positive things come back to us. If we’re thinking negative all the time, we can’t expect anything but negativity. You know what I mean? So a lot of the ways I present myself to this day, when I wake up I give a great thanks that I get to breathe the air I give a great thanks that I can hear those birds singing outside. The day we wake up is a gift. We’re out here and our bodies are only our’s temporarily. When the Creator wants to call us home he’s going to call us home and we have no control over that. So every day that we wake up is a gift and not a lot of people are gifted another day. Daily there’s people in every society and every culture all through history we go back to the Earth from once we came. And that’s one thing that we all have in common in this circle of life is that we will eventually have to make that journey. So to be loving, respectful and have a good mind is a very, very powerful thing and if we all think upon these aspects and think with one mind, the sky’s the limit…. really.
Jordan’s CD “Iroquois Style: Sounds of the Eastern Woodlands” can be purchased directly through his PayPal. The CD is $20 plus $6 shipping within the United States (shipping is free on Fridays). Please make sure to include your shipping address when ordering!