If you attend Clark County multicultural events and celebrations, you’ve probably heard Sam Robinson, the vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, and Tanna Engdahl, the Spiritual Leader of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, playing drums and singing songs that were local to this area long before white people were.
Their music isn’t really made for show. “Our drummers and singers are not just musical performers to be called forward to events. The music that they play is spiritual, no different than when people sing praise songs” in church, Engdahl said.
Engdahl and Robinson will give a talk on “Native American Music in Southwest Washington,” Thursday night at the Clark County Historical Museum. It’s the latest edition of the museum’s First Thursday Speaker Series. Engdahl and Robinson will discuss music in their tribal histories and their own lives; the widespread silencing of those sounds that took place as “colonialism and Indian schools” worked to repress indigenous cultures, Robinson said; and the resurgence of Indian music underway now.
“I’m going to talk a lot about the loss of songs,” Robinson said, “but also a lot about how we use the songs and dances today. And, I’ll offer a few songs.”
Robinson grew up in La Center and didn’t “regroup with the tribe” until he got out of the military in the 1970s, he said. That’s when he started learning traditional customs and traditional music. Over the last 15 years, Robinson said, he’s gone on many Chinook canoe journeys where songs are shared or even specifically gifted between individuals or tribes.
If You Go
What: Native American Music in Southwest Washington.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday. Doors open at 5 p.m.
Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver.
Cost: $5; $4 for seniors and students; $3 for under age 18. Free for members.
“Some of them might be paddle songs for when you pump the water,” Robinson said. “Somebody might gift you a song, and you need to know the roots: ‘My son was the creator of this song, I gift it to you.’ Somebody might have a song come to them on the breeze and they start sharing.”
Songs have been known to emigrate and even return home, he said. He recalled that one elder of the Skokomish Tribe (based near the Olympic National Forest) gifted a song back to the Chinook, saying it had come north but its roots were on the Columbia River, “and it needed to go back there,” Robinson said.
“A rejuvenation is going on in Indian country today,” Robinson said. “It’s getting stronger and stronger now.”
Future music history
If local music of all sorts interests you, save the date of Jan. 25. That’s when an extensive exhibit about Clark County’s musical history — from Native Americans to contemporary rockers, from our first piano to the Piano Hospital to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra — is set to open at the historical museum. It’ll feature lots of information, lots of artifacts and lots of instruments everyone can play.