Much of the written literature has argued that no Indigenous stringed instruments existed in the pre-contact period, but this was not the case. Most cultures used the bow and arrow for hunting and discovered the sound-producing capabilities of this implement. Buffy Ste. Marie has been instrumental in bringing the usage of the mouth bow back into Indigenous music, particularly with her composition, Cripple Creek. Photos and information below.
The Inuit “fiddle,” or tautirut, is similar to a zither found in northern Finland (Diamond 2001: 1275). This instrument possibly is related to the three-string fidla of the Orkney Islands (Arima/Einarson 1976). However, no one has proved a link between these zither-type instruments, so possibly the Inuit invented the sinew-strung tautirut. Hawkes described the one that he collected as follows: “It consists of a rude box, with a square hole in the top, three sinew strings with bridge and tail-piece and a short bow with a whalebone strip for hair. . . . Most Eskimo fiddles have only one string” (Hawkes 1916: 122).
A few decades after Europeans settled in New France, Native musicians were playing viols and violins. In 1640, Mother Marie de Saint-Joseph, an Ursuline nun, declared that 12-year-old Agnes Chabdikouechich was one of her most gifted students on the viol (Gallat-Morin, Pinson 2003: 233). Even today, Métis fiddlers claim their instrument has come down through the generations from the late 1600s. In any case, readers may find many fine Métis violin players at the website, http://www.metismuseum.ca. That site includes videos in which dancers perform to fiddle music and another video that teaches how to make a fiddle. Whatever the means an Indigenous musician uses to express rhythmic beats, the sounds represent a holistic connection with the universe’s pulses and those of human beings. The drums present the heartbeat of Mother Earth, while a rattle is shaken to call up the spirit of life. Together with the voice, the most personal means to make music that living beings possess, people should respect all musical instruments and use them in a proper manner.
About the Mouthbow
Buffy Ste. Marie has been instrumental in bringing the usage of the mouth bow back into Indigenous music, particularly with her composition, Cripple Creek. On her website, cradleboard.org, she describes how to make and play a mouth bow.