According to Michael McNally in his chapter "The Uses of Ojibwa Hymn-Singing at White Earth: Toward a History of Practice," hymn-singing serves a deeper function than merely paying lip service to the dominant culture's religion. Ironically one of the few remaining cultural vestiges of pre-reservation days, Christian hymns are sung by the Ojibwa in their native tongue, which has all but fallen into disuse. The hymns, though their content expresses a Christian worldview and Christian values, nevertheless also imparts Ojibwa philosophy. Moreover, the hymn represents a creative synthesis of indigenous with colonial culture. An artistic, spiritual, and social manifestation, hymnody embodies the willingness to adapt, survive, and maintain unique cultural identity. Therefore, hymnody for the Ojibwa connotes consensus, community, and unity. However, McNally also points out that at White Earth, hymnody appears closely connected to death and dying. Perhaps most often sung at funeral wakes, Ojibwa hymns link death and song on several symbolic levels. On the surface, the hymn encourages grieving, embodies pain and sorrow and expresses hope and mourning for the dead and for the living. As communal events, wakes bring the Ojibwa together; hymnody is a ritual action with definite social, spiritual, and symbolic functions. Moreover, the link between hymnody and death parallels the narrative of colonialism, oppression, even genocide. Historically, hymns were woven into the fabric of Ojibwa culture concurrent with colonial values and actions such as the missionary imposition of Christianity and the devaluation of Ojibwa custom and language. Using the Ojibwa as a pertinent example, McNally thus illustrates how hymnody therefore expresses cultural continuity as a manifestation of adaptive syncretism.
McNally takes care to show that "the singers of the 1880s did not simply adopt the hymns that missionaries promoted," (147). In other words, the Ojibwa did not passively accept the religion, culture, and value systems hoisted on them but rather used hymn to ritualize Ojibwa experience with colonialism. Because music and song-singing are innate human artistic expressions, the Ojibwa molded Christian hymns into unique spiritual expressions. Ostensibly, missionaries originally permitted translation of hymn into native tongues to counteract resistance and promote a welcome embrace of Christianity. As McNally states on page 137, "hymnody seemed to many Protestants a promising means for disciplining impressionable young minds into the Christian life." In fact, the missionary attitude assumed the Ojibwa were mentally inferior to the Caucasians, and comparatively childlike. In response, conscious or not, the Ojibwa cleverly concocted new ways to communicate cultural solidarity and maintain continuity between the past and the future, and one of the main methods they used was song. Sharing and learning new songs had "long been a currency of Ojibwa social relations with other peoples," (McNally 139). Therefore, for the Ojibwa to adapt the hymns of Protestant missionaries was not proof of their passivity or childishness but rather of their natural tendency toward survival and adaptation.
Following the collapse of the fur trade in that part of North America, Indian-white relations shifted and the power balance tipped in favor of the whites. Political realities permitted a dominant culture to "dismember the communal structures of anishinaabe life and to reengineer a society on the basis of individual responsibility, private property, and agriculture," (McNally139). The Christian hymn, however, communicated messages of shared responsibility, peace, and selflessness, values shared by both the Ojibwa and Protestant missionaries which stood in stark contrast to the overarching economic, political, and cultural realities steeped in materialism. Many Ojibwa "adopted market-oriented values," while others firmly resisted and "affirmed their allegiance to the well-being of the collective," (McNally 142). Therefore, colonialism and the creation of the White Earth reservation severely injured Ojibwa unity and created a permanent factionalism within the community. In the late nineteenth century, hymnody provided a ritual bridge between the factions within White Earth.
Hymnody entailed the retention of Ojibwa identity, a tangible, timeless thread to connect past with present and future. Hymns offered consensus and solidarity where otherwise strife reigned on the reservation. In fact, Hymn also functioned on both abstract and practical levels to provide community consensus, identity, and Ojibwa unity. Symbolically, hymn-singing offered an agreed-upon manifestation of cultural continuity, an expression of Ojibwa identity. Groups of elders employed hymnody to promote traditional values in a changing world, ritualizing their forms and functions. More than any other form of communication or cultural expression, hymn can articulate a "workable agreement on what constitutes the collective past…[continue]
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