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News | Nov. 17, 2016

Guests share Native American songs, weapons, experiences

By John Bell

Wooden flutes, hunting bows and baby carriers may not seem to have much in common on first glance.

But for Native Americans, they all have been integral features of daily Indian life, made by hand in ways that reflect Native values and beliefs, according to guest speakers at the McNamara Headquarters Complex’s Nov. 16 observance of National American Indian Heritage Month.

Frederick Tsinnie, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant and Navaho, began the event, sponsored by the Equal Employment Opportunity offices of the HQC tenant organizations, including the Defense Logistics Agency. He talked about his struggles growing up in Arizona and then attending school in Utah, where he was punished for using his native language — the only language he spoke at the time (a language that helped the Allies win World War II).

Tsinnie stressed the importance of language in his culture — and yet each North American tribe has its own language, he said. Among the only lingua franca historically shared by Indian tribes is the use of drums and feathers, Tsinnie explained before singing a song in Navaho while playing a handmade drum.

Native American culture is also expressed in the design of traditional Navaho houses, Tsinnie said. Each round, earthen, single-door structure has four support beams, each representing a cardinal direction. One beam also symbolizes the marriage of the man and woman who live there; if this beam is removed, the whole house collapses, just as if one person leaves the marriage, it too collapses.

The one door allows the sun to enter the home, he said — adding that each day of his life, he greets the sun and reflects on who in the previous day he may owe an apology to.

Tsinnie joined the Air Force in 1962 as a refrigeration specialist, served four years and then reenlisted in 1967. He became a graphics specialist and rose through the ranks of the noncommissioned officers before retiring. He now works as a marketing illustrator for the 11th Force Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

He shared how his military service made him a stronger person.

“I’m a firm believer that fighting does settle things,” he said. He recalled that even when he lost a fight with someone, he gained their respect. And yet his mentor, a chief master sergeant, told him he shouldn’t be fighting so much and encouraged him to go back to school to earn his high school diploma.

“Thanks to education, I was able to experience a different way to resolve issues. Now, I have a great deal of respect for just about everybody,” Tsinnie said.

“The drum gives me a sense of who I am and that people can also change,” he said.

Two other guests also shared their appreciation of Native American music. Mitch Thompson, who is half African American and half Native American, played one of several traditional Native American wooden flutes brought by him and fellow flautist and flute maker Jim Morehouse.

Morehouse, who grew up in Montana, said he may have some Native ancestry. At one point, he thought he might be part Blackfoot. But according to his half-brothers, who are Cherokee, he might be part Sioux. 

“I’m probably Irish,” he said with a laugh.

After solo pieces by both flautists, they played a duet using flutes of different sizes and configurations, which, as with other instruments, mean the flutes are in different keys. Some of the sounds the flutes made seemed to mimic the calls of birds or the flapping of their wings.

Morehouse told a Native American fable that explains how the flute came about: A young man was trying to woo a village maiden who kept ignoring him. The suitor set off for the woods in hopes of bringing back an elk, which would surely impress the object of his affection. He didn’t get the elk. But he did have a dream, in which a woodpecker danced on the holes in a fallen branch as the wind blew through it, creating music.

On his second night in the woods, the young man had another dream. This time, the woodpecker led him farther into the woods before turning into a man and showing him how to hollow out a cedar branch — removing its heart, to be replaced with his own heart when he played the branch as a flute.

The flutes are indeed made of both Western and Eastern red cedar, as well as Alaskan yellow cedar, butternut and other woods, Morehouse noted.

Yet Native Americans have also used their woodworking skills to feed and defend themselves and their families, as Tsinnie demonstrated. He brought several wooden bows with traditional arrows, all of which he made using no modern woodworking tools, even sandpaper — only a pocket knife and a steel tomahawk, which was also on display.

Tsinnie explained that those not familiar with such a bow don’t know to turn the weapon at an angle before firing, to compensate for the effect of the bow as the arrow slides across it. Yet these traditional bows are very effective, he said; the recurve bow in particular, made of white ash from Maine, can shoot an arrow 200 yards.

Finally, Tsinnie showed a Navaho baby carrier he brought, which his daughter and granddaughter used as infants. The two flat boards that make up the bulk of the carrier represent the physical and the spiritual, he said. The piece of wood that joins them represents the unification of these elements by the conscious mind, which makes us human. The hoop at the top represents the rainbow and protects the baby if the carrier falls over, he said — adding that Navaho women often lean the baby upright in the device while weaving blankets. The wooden piece at the foot of the carrier represents mother Earth.

Tsinnie emphasized his appreciation for veterans and that honoring them is important to him — especially those who fought in Vietnam. He told the audience he wanted to fight in the war, but because he was an only surviving son, the Air Force, after consulting his mother, declined to send him into combat.

“I’m very grateful to the veterans who came back from Vietnam,” he said. “They saved my life.”

Tsinnie left the audience with two requests: He asked everyone to do 22 pushups per day, to remember the 22 military veterans who commit suicide each day on average (according to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report).

And he urged anyone with any American Indian heritage to celebrate it. 

“If you have 1 ounce of blood somewhere, you’re a Native person,” he said. “So share that with someone.”

After all, he said, “We survived. We’re still here.”

For more perspective on National American Indian Heritage Month, here is a video interview with DLA Aviation’s Tim Abdella, a Dakota Indian.