Musicologist Barrett Martin Unveils ‘Songs & Stories of the Arctic Village Gwich’in: A Message to the World’

It has been far too long since my last share/review for Glide. As we continue to weather the many storms currently happening across the globe, and morn the live music experience we all miss so much, I have another issue to share with you. But that issue is supported with a beautiful collection of songs and stories from the Neets’aii Gwich’in of Arctic Village, Alaska, and you can download or stream the album today via iTunes, Spotify, or Amazon.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge) is a semi-protected area located in the far northeastern corner of Alaska that is roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. Known by many as “the last great wilderness,” this land is home to more than 200 migratory species of birds that travel from all 50 states and from six continents to breed there. In the areas’ far northern reaches you’ll find whales offshore, and polar bears cohabitating with local Indigenous Inupiats. Heading south you’ll find Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, and the mighty Porcupine Caribou herd along with the Indigenous Neets’aii Gwich’in who call Arctic Village home. This area holds some of the most vibrant biocultural diversity on the planet, but it has been under threat from the oil and gas industry for decades. With the current administration in command, they have taken steps to open this area up for oil and gas exploration and extraction, fostering the biggest threat the residents of this area have seen since colonization.  

Barrett Martin and Elder Giddeon James talk through the recording process

Why am I sharing this with you today? In 2013, I received a call from Gwich’in Elder Sarah James. Sarah has invited me to her home in Arctic Village, to learn from her and her people about the ways of the Neets’aii Gwich’in, and why protecting the Arctic Refuge is so important. She knew I was an educator at Sierra Nevada University, and a freelance writer/photographer, and as I would quickly learn from Sarah and others, the more people who hear about the Arctic Refuge, see its beauty, understand its rooted people and thriving biodiversity, the better the chance the place will get the lasting protection it deserves. Fast forward seven years later and Sarah has become a cherished friend, mentor, and I have been fortunate to work in solidarity with her, her allies and co-conspirators, and meet some incredible people along the way to support permeant protection for the Arctic Refuge. 

Friend, Mentor, Leader, Elder Sarah James shares stories with Kela Killam. Without the invitation from Sarah to learn from the Neets’aii Gwich’in this album, along with many years of action in solidarity to protect the Arctic Refuge, would not be possible.

In 2016, one of the extraordinary people I met at the Gwich’in Gathering was Barrett Martin. I had no idea he was the drummer from the Screaming Trees and Mad Season, a Grammy award-winning artist, or a standout musicologist. Barrett is an adjunct professor of ethnomusicology at Antioch University in Seattle. He has worked on advocacy albums for over 20 years in the Peruvian Amazon, the Mississippi Delta, and of course Alaska.  I knew he was an Earth Defender and was friends with Sarah, so over the course of the week, we spent quality time getting to know each other. We stayed in touch after the event vowing to unite resources whenever possible and eventually came together last summer back in Arctic Village where Barrett recorded and later produced the album I hope you get inspired from today. 

If you have read along this far you might be curious about the mix of traditional Native music, mixed with stories, and adopted fiddle music that seamlessly links together on his album. Maybe you’re aware of the decades-long fight to protect the Arctic Refuge, or you are a supporter of climate justice, Indigenous rights, human rights, keep-it-in-the-ground campaigns, and ecosystem health. Either way, if you listen to this album, you will be inspired. We all need a sense of active hope today, and this offering is but one example of the regenerative energy that exists in a world that might be feel scary, unsafe, and downright inhospitable to you right now. 

Please read below the brief Q and A I did with Barrett. 100% of the royalties generated from sales go directly to the people who need it most to win this fight. Besides, making-a-plan to vote this November (I bet you’ve already done that if not-https://protectourwinters.org/plan/), learning about this issue, these people, this land, is as important as anything you can do right now. Enjoy the stories, enjoy the music, and share your experiences with others. From the opening offer, “We Live in the World Together”, to the end piece, “Don’t Give Up” this spirited piece of story and song will stick with you as we keep surviving the bumps along the road on our way to the promised land. 

Elder Giddeon James answers a question in his home from Jim Sogi while recording the album

When did you get the inspiration for this project?

I have been to Alaska numerous times, starting in about 2006, when I went there as a graduate student to see the Quyana Nights drumming and dancing performances at the Alaska Federation Of Nations in Anchorage. It was incredible to hear that kind of traditional singing, drumming, and dancing – it was totally fierce! So when I heard about an opportunity to record an album for the Gwich’in people in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I immediately threw my hat in the ring. And it was fortuitous that my old graduate advisor, Dr. Maria Williams, happened to be the new chair of Native Studies at the University Of Alaska, Anchorage, so everything just kind of lined up for me to go with her blessings. Then Brennan Lagasse, who I had met in Arctic Village on a previous trip in 2016, invited me to join him on an expedition that he was leading up to the Arctic Refuge in 2019. He arranged for me to join the group, and I was able to fly with all my recording equipment in a large duffle bag. Once I was in Arctic Village, it was just a matter of setting up the gear and waiting for the storytellers and musicians to show up when they were ready to speak or perform. It was all pretty seamless, and everything just kind of flowed into a musical storytelling soundscape. So that’s how I produced the album, like a soundscape of words and music, wisdom stories with traditional dance music. 

Subsistence Hunter Charlie Swaney shares stories and knowledge during the recording process

How does this relate to the arc of your work as a musician and musicologist?

Well, I studied ethnomusicology as a graduate student to better understand what was happening in the world of music, as in, like, literally world music. It was also an academic parallel to my studies as a jazz composer, and it also moved me profoundly at the human level, because this is really the realm of anthropological fieldwork, where we are working to help people preserve their musical and cultural traditions. This is especially true for Indigenous cultures, which are often at risk from various predatory forms of capitalism, which force people into a kind of “consumer conformity” that has nothing to do with real human interaction or preservation of cultural traditions. I saw this trend when I worked on albums in the Peruvian Amazon and in the Mississippi Delta, and Alaska was no different. I wanted to do something to counter the cancer of capitalism and to help preserve things that have real value, like people, music, wisdom stories, and clean environments. Recording this kind of music and producing albums for Indigenous people is my way of giving back to the world, which has given me so much. 

What makes this project unique? Is it the combination of traditional Indigenous music and the adopted fiddle music? The spoken word? Or a combination of things?

I was really intrigued by the introduction of the western violin, or fiddle, in the Gwich’in musical repertoire. I was not familiar with their dance music until I arrived in Arctic Village the first time in 2016, and then again in 2019 when this album was recorded. The Gwich’in’s adaption of the fiddle into dance music utilizes 19th-century musical techniques and is really unique in North American Indigenous music. This album also has a few traditional songs, which are sung by a single vocalist while striking a hand-held frame drum, and those songs sound very traditional and beautiful. And then of course when you add in the short stories from the Elders, you really get a picture of the Gwich’in people, through their songs and stories, and that was the goal of this album – to present the Gwich’in to the world, in a manner in which they wished to be seen and heard. 

L-R Barrett Martin, Bekah Ashley, Jillian Raymond with Mika Raymond Lagasse, Kela Killam, Brennan Lagasse

What makes this work so timely?

Well, considering the incredibly damaging effects of the oil industry in the Arctic, and the alarming rise in temperatures due to global warming, we are seeing things exacerbated to the degree that we are literally destroying the last few places of pristine wilderness on the planet. This only benefits the oil company stockholders and their corporate officers, who just want to milk a few more billion dollars of oil out of our public lands, destroying these lands in the process. It’s absolutely abominable what these companies are willing to do in the Arctic and elsewhere, and the only way to stop them is to raise the alarm as high as possible and take all the legal steps that can be taken. Hopefully, this album will help in that fight, as a way of showing the real voices of the people who live in the Arctic, and who will suffer terribly if the oil companies continue their swath of pollution and destruction.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is often referred to as “the last great wilderness” for its abundant biocultural diversity, and the reality that it is one of the last places like this left across the global Arctic bioregion.

Why should people care about protecting the Arctic Refuge, and why should they buy this album?

Buying the album helps the Gwich’in people directly because 100% of the royalties go to the Gwich’in people to help them in this legal battle against the oil companies. But everyone on Earth should care about the Arctic because the Arctic is the air conditioner of the planet! It’s also a massive bird migration-center, and a sanctuary for the largest animals, like bears, wolves, and enormous caribou herds. There are also numerous rivers and lakes where salmon spawn, and it’s just a magnificent, wild place. To destroy that, would be a mirror of how we’re are destroying ourselves and each other. The other very practical side of it is, if the ice cap melts, as it currently is, then that’s it for the cooling system of the planet. We’ll see a radical change in the global climate in just a few years, and it won’t be for the better. It will radically affect the weather patterns, the ocean level rise, and temperatures that might not be survivable in certain parts of the planet. This is what burning fossil fuels does to the Earth, and that’s why drilling for more of it in the Arctic is about a stupid as it gets. But oil executives have proven that they will do very stupid things to make a few more billions, so we have to fight this with everything we have. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, I would like everyone, especially young people, to please get involved in your corner of the world, and do everything you can to make it a better, cleaner, safer, more open-minded, and more progressive place for the next generations to come. Also, you must get involved in your political sphere, so register to vote, show up to vote in every election, and vote for candidates who believe in preserving the Earth, its wildlife, and keeping the world clean, healthy, and sustainable for future generations. That is the wise and ancient way of seeing the world – thinking seven generations ahead instead of just want you can personally get out of it. Think about what you can give to the Earth, rather than what you can take from it. 

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