Cle-alls(Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly)
Physics Editors: James Hardy and Gerald Oakham
“What I’ve learned is; you’ve got to be a driver. It’s like owning a car. You’ve got to know how to drive it”.
– Jimmy Dyck, a Nehiyaw/Swampy Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario.
Indigenous people have travelled a long road. Today we use cars, but this hasn’t always been the case. My name is Cle-alls and eons before I was born, my ancestors started their journey on Haida Gwaii (the Islands of the People), located in the Pacific Ocean off British Columbia. Cle-alls is a chief’s name. After I earned my doctorate, our clan’s matriarchs named me at a potlatch. My grandfather, Dr. Peter Kelly, was Cle-alls before me, and the first Dr. Kelly.
We Haida never ceded our lands and we think of ourselves as Pacific islanders, not Indians, but the larger culture calls us Indians anyway. We are proud, however, to be Indigenous North Americans and share many values with other communities here. My uncles say our ancestors used great canoes and travelled the entire Pacific Rim. We journeyed regularly to Hawaii, they say, which uses all of Haida Gwaii’s name except the consecutive letters i, d, a and g. Our culture and even our physical appearance share much in common with the New Zealand Maori as well. Anthropologists do not necessarily agree that we could travel that far, but that is no problem. The Universe – with its infinite possibilities – is big enough to welcome us all.
The point is that cars, ocean-navigating canoes and musical instruments are special vehicles. One must understand the highway and follow its laws to drive a car. One must travel in harmony with the currents and winds and follow their laws to direct an ocean-going canoe. And, one must embrace our cultures and knowingly or intuitively follow the laws of physics to become one soul with a musical instrument.
Before it is a celebration, a religious ritual, a social practice or an art, Indigenous music – all music – is a set of practical skills musicians learn so they can understand their instruments. This knowledge is an important part of respecting Natural Law: a way of living that means so much to Native cultures and communities. To become one with an instrument is to respect it. The honour the listeners pay the instrument radiates through the community. Thus, the skills a musician seeks are both a personal pursuit and a means of connecting with the community. Our cultural rules are precise, but, music crosses cultural lines. Songs, dances and stories embrace the full continent; what the Eastern North American Anishinabe call Turtle Island.
In this essay, Andrew Tracy and I with the help of Carleton University physicists Gerald Oakham and Jim Hardy, will explore the science and spirituality that coexist within the Indigenous musical world. Our thesis is that the art of music and the science of sound are the same song sung with different words. True music begins with the player, the instrument and the community. Likewise, true science begins with space-time, math and physics.
The point is, Indigenous people can make music but we are not the Creator. We must know and follow the laws of the Universe. We do not create the sounds of Nature. Physicists are no more God than we are. The scientific method confirms, but does not create, the nature of the Universe.
This Haida would say that Indigenous lifeways and physics see the same ocean through different eyes.
The Indigenous musician, the song and the community are one. Every aspect of life interacts with and affects the others. The beat of a drum, the birth of a child, the people of our villages, the fish, the birds, the other animals, the plants and the songs of our elders; all these are one spirit. This is true, whether or not an outsider understands it. As author Margaret Craven would say, the moment an outsider sets foot in an In digenous village, he becomes the village. The village is the Universe and we are one whether we know it – or like it – or not. To live in harmony in the Universe is to embrace this truth – and one another.
Physics has travelled the same waters to the same knowledge: In what remain mysterious ways, the Universe constantly interacts in all places at once with everything it contains. The farthest quasar and galaxy connects directly with every grain of sand on Earth. All the Universe’s laws, waves, particles, energy and matter depend on one another – no matter how it might look to a naïve realist. Everything began in the same place and, in real ways, are in the same place still.
In short, nothing can exist alone.
Travelling from place to place and learning the skills of their musical cultures, Indigenous musicians discover their place in the communities, their families and the world.
“It gave us a sense of where we were from and of how other people were in relation to us,” says Jimmy. “We wouldn’t measure it in miles, but in time. That community is a two-hour drive in that direction, this one is four hours that way”.
“My dad started me off, and then I started talking to different people all across Canada, getting what I needed to better myself,” says Jimmy’s son Gabe, whose mother is Ojibwe. “Different tricks to help with my voice; different skills they have, how they make drums; what wood they use, how big they make the shell; I try to learn as much as I can to improve myself, to make myself a good drummer”.
Intuitively, we sense that music’s world-wide streams converge into one. The key is the word “intuitive,” or inner knowing. Here again, Indigenous musicians and physics meet in the same current. All knowledge starts with intuition. Albert Einstein credited his mathematical theories to inner moments; to insight. At Princeton, an assistant would take over teaching when such moments came. Science, therefore, in some ways is as intuitive as Native spirituality.
Einstein would have made a good Haida. My uncles said the wise see the world with their hearts as well as with their eyes. Another Elder who deeply influenced my life, Lakota grandfather, Sydney Keith told me: “Keep your heart good, no matter what other people do. At the end of your days you will have done a great thing. You will have seen the Great Mystery clearly”.
These insights require balance and experience, and in physics, too, knowledge requires similar qualities. In Indigenous lifeways, our communities differ, but our cultures are empowered through music and oral tradition. Physicists, too, might differ, but their cultures are empowered through mathematics and scientific tradition. Both music and mathematics are equally expressive languages. Also, people who know both physics and Indigenous cultures would certainly say both are equally precise.
In North America, our instruments are the drum, the flute, the rattle, stringed instruments and the human voice – four and a centre. Indigenous traditional music connects our people across communities and time; across continents and oceans. Worldwide, music includes the songs of my elders, but it is also Rachmaninoff and Mozart. Music is humanity’s unifier. It has the power to heal differences; to distill a universal bond. In all its forms, music’s complex interactions often combine to create pure beauty. The haunting movements are simple, but they are not simplistic. They are elegant.
Science seems complex, but not so. Physics honours the beauty of elegant simplicity. Its Unified Field Theory, for example, suggests that the Universe’s four great forces originate at a single source. They are the strong force that glues atomic nuclei together, the weak force responsible for radioactivity, electromagnetic force that includes light and radio waves and gravitational force.
Einstein helped to pioneer the theory’s mathematical language. He also said space and time are interrelated. The research has continued.
These intuitive and mathematical efforts to unite fundamental forces are not so different from Indigenous cultures. We have taught for generations that the Universe is based upon four great forces. Some cultures use five (four and a centre), but the basic teaching is that all forces, phenomena and beings are interconnected. To honour this, some communities, such as the Lakota, Dakota and Nakoda, end each prayer with, “All things are my relations”.
In another way, music also seeks to unite four great forces. Communities become one in the musicians, the instruments, their vibrations and our people across space and time.
In short, music and physics – in important ways – are one.
Mathematics explains our existence, but communal and personal music has done the same thing since the Universe first conceived us. Music is the celebration that marks the four stages of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and our older years. From our grandmother’s lullaby to our death song, music is our ocean, our highway, our seasons and our journey itself.
Of course, anyone who takes the journey also learns the currents and the road. Indigenous music, both traditional and modern, is unique. It has always underlined the tactile bond between the instrument and the musician. All art begins with its materials. Creating a drum, tuning it and caring for it teaches the drummers to recognize the basic physical qualities that they must understand and the skills that they must master.
Just as sharing knowledge binds musicians to their cultural and geographical world, constant practice binds them to the physical world. The drum maker and the drummer might or might not be the same person, but always they are one spirit. They must know the materials’ unique qualities and the sounds they make – in short, they must know the physics with which they work to develop their craft. The modern powwow drum’s sound that Gabe prefers is far deeper than a traditional powwow drum’s higher pitch. Drum makers achieve both sounds because they have manipulated a few basic physical qualities. Yet, those small differences have developed over thousands of years; through many generations of cultural evolution.
Indeed, Indigenous music and physics are kindred spirits. What empowers musicians is intuition, the same faculty that empowers physicists. The finest musicians ingrain their art into the practical. Thus, when we learn about science we can better understand that which Indigenous art intuits. All music shares the same physics. Indeed, the idea of two different worlds can be misleading. On the invisible map, the ways in which Indigenous music and physics relate to the Universe are only a couple of hours apart.