Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mass Media Fail(s): Describing Indian man's singing as "chants" and "yowls" and "wails"

Yowls? Chant? Wail?!! This is a wild guess, but I wonder...

When they were kids, did Dina Capiello of the Associated Press, Andrew Kirell of Mediaite, and the nameless person who posted a video at CNN read children's books like Little House on the Prairie that told them that Native people "yowl" or "chant" or "wail"?!

While any person might do any of those things for one reason or another, those words are not what took place in the Senate Gallery yesterday. Something happened when the Senate voted down the Keystone pipeline bill.

Greg Grey Cloud sang a song.

Grey Cloud is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and co-founder of Wica Agli, an organization dedicated to helping men and boys create communities that value self, family, and community. That work includes protesting the Keystone pipeline, and that is why Greg Grey Cloud was in the Senate gallery yesterday. The bill being voted down marked a victory for the protest work he and Native people have been doing.

So Greg Grey Cloud sang a song, but the three news media I noted at the top of this post didn't call it a song. The first news source I read about the vote was Mediaite. Initially, their headline was "Native American Chant Interrupts Senate as Keystone Vote Fails." The word "chant" bothered me and I set about to create a graphic that corrected the use of "chant." As I did that, a colleague said it was a Victory song, so I added that to the correction I made. This is what I came up with (it needed another correction, as you'll see later):

This morning, I saw that CNN called it wailing:

And, I saw that the AP reporter used "yowls" in the final paragraph of her report:

In getting this blog post ready, I went back to the Mediate article and saw that they had changed the wording in their headline. The new one is on the left. My edited one is on the right. I am glad they changed their headline, and I imagine that those involved in that change will not make that mistake again!

As it turns out, my corrections needed a correction, too! In an interview today, Grey Cloud said he was overcome with joy at the outcome of the vote:

I looked down and thought we need to honor these Senators for having the courage to make the right decision, for not only Indian country but for America as a whole. As a singer, I know only one way to honor someone, and that’s to sing. I didn’t mean to disrupt the Senate, only to honor the conviction shown by the Senators.

Grey Cloud was singing in his language. Here's the Lakota words, and the English translation (provided to Grey Cloud by Pat Bad Hand Sr., of the Sicangu Oyate. Grey Cloud stated that Mr. Bad Hand is a renowned hoka wicasa (keeper of songs):

Lakota language for Unci Maka Olowan song: “Tunkasila wamayanka yo, le miye ca tehiya nawazin yelo. unci maka nawacincina wowahwala wa yuha waun welo”

English translation Grandmother Earth song: “Grandfather look at me, I am standing here struggling, I am defending grandmother earth and I am chasing peace.”
And here's the video of that moment in the Senate:

Though that language and style of singing may be unfamiliar to most people, the words in the song are ones spoken by a people who is Indigenous to this land, and whose culture has been misrepresented and marginalized so much that those three reporters, and perhaps most of the people there, did not recognize it for what it is.

That has to change. That means replacing books that misrepresent Native peoples with books that don't have problems of misrepresentation. Please let go of those classics. They have not served us well. Choose, instead, books that present all peoples as people. Start with the books on AICL's Best Books list.


Gabriele Bianchetti said...

Great article, and great singing!
Only a thing: the Lakota transcript is slightly incorrect. Since I know something of Lakota, can I correct it for you?

Debbie Reese said...

Gabriele, Grey Cloud provided the Lakota translation, given to him by Pat Bad Hand Sr., of the Sicangu Oyate, who suggested that particular song. I'll add that information to the article. It is in the "interview" link and is where I got the words.

Sue Heavenrich said...

It sounded beautiful when I heard it on the radio. It brought joy to my heart. I can't believe he was led away in handcuffs for singing.

Anonymous said...

Since you often talk about replacing books that misrepresent native peoples, I thought you would be interested in this list of 40 books adults should re-read. I was really surprised to see The Indian in the Cupboard and Caddie Woodlawn on the list:

Also, many of those books are tween, not teen books!