Native Americans in New England were no strangers to singing. Song and dance had been a part of their culture for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Missionaries to New England used this to their advantage. They taught the Indians about God and Christianity, in part, through the singing of hymns and then documented their astonishing ability to retain these hymns, adapt them to the “Indian meter”, and then sing them back in their own unique manner.
In an 1845 publication, Thomas Commuck made the claim that the Narragansett Indian tune “Old Indian Hymn”, “was heard in the air by them and other tribes bordering on the Atlantic Coast, many years before the arrival of whites in America.” He says that “on their first visiting a church in the Plymouth Colony, after the settlement of that place by the whites , the same tune was sung while performing divine service, and the Indians knew it as well as the whites. “(4)
In her book, American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African American and Native American Literatures, Joanna Brooks says, “Native Americans especially were positioned to make a significant contribution to the development of American hymnody, as they were better-educated and more versatile singers than many of their Anglo-American contemporaries. From the time of colonization, psalmody and hymnody were staples of Native-missionary interaction. In 1661, John Eliot produced an Algonkuin-language Psalter; later Cotton Mather praised Eliot-affiliated Indians as “Notable singers” who excelled over his own “English Assemblies (p64).”
Importantly, Brooks goes on to explain how Native Americans, rather than merely singing tunes exactly as they were taught them, shaped and adapted them and made them their own. Even as far back as 1651, someone visiting John Eliot and the Naticks wrote, “There was a psalme sung in the Indian tongue, and Indian meteer, but to an English tune (p65-66).”
In the 1740’s, Azariah Horton ministered to the Indians of Long Island. Page 124 of The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island: A History by John Strong, reads, “Other Protestant missionaries [in addition to Horton] also used hymn singing as a catalyst to engage the Indians. Even the Calvinists introduced music in their missionary services (Cowing, 1972, 84-85). The Calvinist singing style, notes Kathleen Bragdon, was similar in some ways to traditional Indian music. The psalms were sung in unison, without musical instruments, and had very little inner structure, a style that ‘resembled traditional native music in brevity, simplicity of rhythmic organization’ (Bragdon 1991, 121-22). The emphasis on hymn singing undoubtedly provided a cultural connection, which encouraged Indians to become involved in Christian worship services. “
There are many more examples that show a long continuity of missionaries engaging Indians in the New England area through something they already enjoyed and which they could relate to and adapt; singing. Moor’s Indian Charity School was yet another place where the Algonquin Indians had a chance to practice this long-standing tradition.
……to be continued
(4) Commuck, Thomas. Indian Melodies, p 63.