Left to Right: Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla (Adam Dick) and Prof. Dana Lepofsky from SFU’s Department of Archaeology

Journal spotlights traditional songs as repository of biocultural diversity

September 23, 2019

By Shradhha Sharma

The power of traditional music and songs to convey traditional knowledge and practices, is being celebrated in a special issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology, released this month.

Co-edited by Simon Fraser University’s Dana Lepofsky, professor in the Department of Archaeology, and Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, a musician and post-doctoral researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) at the University of Helsinki, Finland, the special issue is entitled, “Ethnobiology Through Song”. It highlights songs as an untapped resource of biocultural memory.

Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla (Adam Dick) leading the Atla’gimma (Spirits of the Forest ceremonial dance), which speaks of the intricate relationships among people and the beings of the forest. Kwakwaka’wakw Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla (Adam Dick) held the rights to this dance. The dance was performed for the participants of the 2010 Annual Society of Ethnobiology Conference (Victoria, BC, Canada) courtesy of Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla. The dance is accompanied by chanting and regular and powerful drumbeats. (Photo: Robert Turner)

The journal’s publication is especially topical in light of the United Nations declaring 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

A U.N. statement issued earlier this year said, “The ongoing loss of Indigenous languages is particularly devastating, as the complex knowledges and cultures they foster are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation and sustainable development. More importantly, such losses have huge negative impacts on Indigenous peoples’ most basic human rights.”

As well, the U.N.’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues expressed concern that 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages are in the danger of disappearing. The majority of these belong to Indigenous peoples.

“Songs embed hugely rich ethnobiological knowledge about how the world works and how you should interact with the world; the history of the world,” says Lepofsky. “We know there is a global crisis in the loss of traditional languages; that’s well known and recognized, but parallel to that is the loss of traditional songs and music; a lot of that occurred during colonization here on the B.C. west coast.”

The special issue draws attention to traditional songs (as a language within themselves) from around the world, but underscores those from coastal B.C. and Yukon in Canada, Western Mongolia, Alaska, northeastern Siberia, Bolivian Amazonia and Central Australian Aboriginal songs.

Fernández-Llamazares spent almost two years in Bolivian Amazonia conducting ethnobiological research among the Tsimane’ hunter-gatherers. During his time in the field, he was profoundly moved by the ancient songs of the Tsimane’ and their central role as traditional repositories of detailed cultural and ecological knowledge.

“The research in the journal breaks new ground, and we can only hope that it will honour the role of music, the keepers of ancient songs across the world, and the knowledge that songs encode,” he says.

Lepofsky’s awareness of this loss was heightened when she met Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla Chief Adam Dick from the Kawadillikalla Clan of the Dzawatainuk Tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in B.C.

“In residential schools, not only were people forbidden from speaking their languages, they were forbidden from singing their songs,” she says. “I wanted to do something on songs because Adam motivated me so deeply…. I have been an ethnobiologist for many decades, but I had completely missed researching this aspect of our ethnobiological world, until I came into contact with Adam.”

The journal’s special issue is dedicated to Dick.

A traditionally trained hereditary Clan Chief of his nation, Dick, 89, who passed away last year, was born to hereditary chiefs, in his maternal grandmother’s house at Tlamataxw (Campbell River), B.C. The residential school system was in full force at the time, removing and isolating children of all ages, so his family took steps to sequester him from the authorities.

His partner, Ogwilowqwa (Kim Recalma-Clutesi) of the Qualicum Nation, says Dick knew thousands of traditional songs and was one of the last knowledge keepers of deep Indigenous knowledge.

“He single-handedly shifted how we look at anthropology on this coast,” says Ogwilowqwa. “He changed the widely held view of us being mere hunter-gatherers to being sophisticated marine culturalists, horticulturalists and knowledge bearers of the natural world.”

Lepofsky reiterates that the special issue of the journal, “is a brief, but hopefully respectful and interesting insight into the breadth and depth of knowledge embedded in traditional songs.”

“We also have a moral imperative to preserve these songs.”

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares (front right) doing fieldwork among the Tsimane' people of Bolivian Amazonia. (Photo: Isabel Virginia Sánchez)