Friday, July 9, 2010

Jim Pepper and ‘Squaw Song’

Jim Pepper with Ponca dancers in Germany

It is possible to be beautiful beyond words.

When an artist uses words in a song all of a sudden you add poetry, emotion, humor and whatever else it is that makes that performer or artist unique in the universe. You get the spark of life igniting the words, especially from someone like Pepper who established his own 'one of a kind' presence in the world of jazz and art.

I mention this only because Jim Pepper reached that rarefied height where the air was thin and other birds could only dream of flying; listen to his Squaw Song and if you close your eyes and let yourself soar, you can sometimes join him. I’m sure that this makes him smile.

But first, a couple of facts about the controversial use of the term 'Squaw.'

  • The term ‘squaw’ is derogatory, plain and simple. Jim used the name ‘Squaw Song’ because it was in use at powwows, kind of like Ndn slang. It is most certainly not for people outside the cultures of the Native Nations to use.
  • Don’t use the term ‘squaw’ unless you want to get seriously hammered by the most powerful force in all of Indian Country: Indigenous Women. This is just a fair warning to those inclined to argue for its use. If you want to live another day, stand up straight and address the women by their proper names. Here in Idaho a number of years ago, certain backwoods ignorant state legislators argued in favor of keeping the name 'Squaw' on certain maps. It caused a rift in the community because the legislators refused to acknowledge that it was a racist term. Their arguments only served to illuminate their willful bigotry; they refused to listen to the facts of why it is a racist term.

Anyway, back to Pepper's exquisite song. To be included in one of our traditional ceremonies it means you have earned a special status for yourself, and the people offer a heartfelt acknowledgement of your deeds. Sometimes it means you have earned a name, or are there to honor a soul going into the forest as they say. The act of naming is what is significant and cherished here, and is a critical part of just about all of our traditional ceremonies. It is critical because the act of naming allows that person or people to live on and be present, no matter what.

Ceremony is everything.

Many ceremonies occur to honor someone, or even a group of people. Honor is everything; it is carried with love, strength and an intellectual beauty that is above all else, because to give is one of the most cherished acts that we can do for one another. To give honor is sometimes all we have left when everything else is stripped away.

Pepper knew all this because he was an indigenous man living in what was often the stark brutality of what the 20th Century had to offer the indigenous people of the Americas. So many of our people did not survive. Did not survive. You can hear this between his lines, sweet and bluesy, because many of us did survive. And play. And assert ourselves when everything else was indeed stripped away.

I am honoring you, Jim Pepper. With your Squaw Song you formally named many Native Nations, honoring them specifically, in a timeless manner of our ancestors. I am writing this because whenever I feel empty and drained from this life, I play your Squaw Song on a loop in the background while I’m trying to fix whatever is was that got messed up. It especially gives me strength when you call Tlingits along with so many other Nations.

Our elders believed that if you say a prayer, it just falls to the ground, like a sorry lump of uselessness, silent and invisible to the cosmos. However, if you sing it with your heart, the creator can hear it.

Sometimes I do find myself singing it right along with him. It is almost ceremonial in itself, like an informal ritual that anyone can perform on the sidewalk while you’re pedaling your bike, outside the brick institutions, on the plane, by the river, on the mountaintop. Everywhere.

As a young man, I was inspired by Pepper's songs and had his albums on cassette tapes, the iPods of the day. While strategizing for new work in 2007 I kept finding myself drawn to how Pepper sang out each Native Nation with his song, and used it for inspiration in my lithograph First Light, Winter Solstice. I wanted to name as many Native Nations as I could and include them on the print, Vis-à-vis Jim's song.

I suspect that many discographies and other sources of information about Jim Pepper have this song in particular edited out of their references because of the controversial nature of the term Squaw. One of the links on YouTube even renamed it Square Song, something I'm sure Pepper would have found completely ridiculous. Get over it, because this is one of his best songs, and we cannot honor his memory by pretending it does not exist. It is one of my own all-time favorites, not only of his, but all songs in the universe, especially the version from his Comin' and Goin' album with Don Cherry and others. As a side note, I think it's very synchronistic that he recorded part of this album on my birthday in 1983; what a gift!

So there.

Upstream Productions Link Sandra Johnson Osawa (Makah Tribe) and Yasu Osawa. They made the film "Pepper's Pow Wow," which was also broadcast on PBS. Sandra and Yasu are an amazing filmmaking team; I just this moment purchased this DVD from their site (I keep giving my previous copies away as a special gift). It's a great deal, check it out.

Gunalsheésh Sandra and Yasu, this video is superb and am so thankful that you made it while he was still alive and captured his voice and personality, along with his music, of course.

Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

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