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With “Choctaw Animals” for piano, Charles Shadle honors his Native American heritage

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With “Choctaw Animals” for piano, Charles Shadle honors his Native American heritage

Listen to the recordings: “Chulhkvn” | “Nvni” | “Nashoba” | “Issuba”
Some of the creatures have strong ties to Choctaw heritage — the spider, for example, is credited in folklore with bringing fire to the people — but Shadle says he chose others primarily because it was enjoyable to represent the animals musically. “Maybe the wolf is my favorite,” he says, describing the piece as quiet and mysterious. “It’s almost as if we never see the wolf, we just sort of sense that it’s there.”
In all cases, Shadle says, the compositions draw on elements of Choctaw music-making, notably the tribe’s tradition of social dance. “I focused on using melodic patterns and rhythmic configurations that are inspired by this tradition, without ever quoting any of the actual dance songs,” Shadle says. While reimagining traditional songs can be very successful artistically, he explains, “among the people whose music is used, that can feel like a violation, like something taken from them. I didn’t want to participate in that.”
An identity connected to the land
Shadle says he hopes his work will provide performers and listeners with some insight into Choctaw traditions and perhaps even introduce them to a part of the country they don’t know. “My corner of Oklahoma isn’t a part that most people think about very much,” he says, explaining that his music is deeply rooted in the landscape. “That connection with place, with land, with heritage, are always inextricably linked. … That feels to me to come from a singularly Choctaw part of myself.”
And, while that might seem strange, given that the Choctaws were forced off their ancestral lands, Shadle says he thinks the traumatic move to Oklahoma (which led to the deaths of an estimated 4,000 of the 20,000 Choctaw who were relocated) actually deepened the tribe’s connection to the land. “The Choctaw had mostly owned land communally before the 19th century. When they got to Oklahoma, they had the sense they had to hold onto the land,” he says, noting that members of the tribe now own land as individuals. “Our identity is connected to the land because it was taken from us at one point.”
Building connections
Ultimately, Shadle hopes his work builds connections — between music and his Choctaw heritage, between classical music and traditional music, and between generations of Choctaw. “I want to make sure I’m acting as a conduit for people who may come after me,” he says, noting that he is arguably the most visible living classical composer in the Choctaw tribe, and he does not want to be the last. “I’m interested in the young Choctaw girl or boy in some rural community,” he says. “To some extent, I can say, you could be a composer too. Your voice can be heard.”
Shadle is also happy to have the opportunity to share his heritage with MIT, since he is one of just two Native Americans on the faculty; the other is David Robertson, a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, who is Cherokee. ”David and I are the only two people who have ever taught full time at MIT who are Native American. There has never been a tenured faculty member,” Shadle says. However, there is a Native American Student Association on campus, and Shadle sees efforts to give that group meeting space as a sign of progress for a broad and diverse group of people that includes the Choctaw and hundreds of other tribes.
“If a group gets space at MIT, they count — and I think we’re seeing that happening for Indigenous students.”
Story by SHASS Communications
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand
Senior writer: Kathryn O’Neill

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