Musical Tradition Comes Alive at the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration

Photo by Luke Usry

Beyond the projectile points, pottery shards and marks on the land left behind by the residents of the area now encompassed by the Ocmulgee National Monument, there is scant trace of what the space might’ve looked like, felt like or sounded like nearly 20,000 years ago. Devoid of the types of artifacts left behind by modern, recorded history, only assumptions and educated conjecture can be made from the tangible remnants, turning it into a setting that exists somewhere between history and myth. Visiting the Monument, though, one gets a sense of movement, of activity, perhaps just below the surface.

Luckily for Middle Georgia residents, each year during the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration, the place comes alive with sights and sounds. Visitors are able to shop native crafts, interact with storytellers, observe living history actors and most importantly, listen to and take part in music and dance presented by individuals representing tribes with ties to Ocmulgee.

It’s a style of music that’s unfortunately not prevalent in mainstream America, but despite being “tragically unknown,” Native American music has been passed down from generation to generation, slowly undergoing changes while incorporating bits and pieces of outside influences.

Speaking to one of this year’s featured musicians, flutist Ryan Little Eagle, it’s clear that cultural melding, gentle shaping of tradition and respectful – yet liberal – reading of the myths of the past is a reason why the festival, now in its 25th year, is so successful.

Very deliberately, Ryan Little Eagle’s sound goes beyond the New Age/Natural Wonders assumptions that one might form when thinking of Native American music. He first formed his own musical tastes while teaching himself to play the flute and later came to more traditional forms after observing musicians like William Harjo, another performer at the festival. As such, his music encompasses jazz and Latin sounds, influenced by his travels and a desire to put more “movement” into the music.

To Little Eagle, making music in that fashion is a chance to showcase preceding musical forms but also present a “new, modern take on [native music].” By going beyond the sometimes slow, meditative chanting qualities he hopes to communicate that “we’ve progressed… we’re not in the history books, we’re still here.”

In doing so, Ryan Little Eagle helps to ensure that the tradition of native music – and events like the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration that showcase the music – survives and provides a useful context to makers and listeners. The very reason that traditions are able to survive is the fact that they are able to adapt, able to provide a useful presence in the current lives of the user. Traditions, in the words of folklorist Charles Joyner, provide links to the “basic poetic impulse” of a people. They aren’t remembrances of dead or dying artifacts, they’re living products of complex interactions between groups of people.

At the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration, individuals representing cultures and tribes from across the country are represented, turning the festival into a cultural melting pot that’s useful for participants and attendees alike, ensuring a vehicle for the survival of native music.

Or, as Ryan Little Eagle explains, perhaps there’s a more practical reason for the survival of native music. “You still have a lot of men out there trying to get a girl,” he explains. In the past, the flute would be used as a wooing instrument, played by men at the close of the day outside the lodge of a love interest in hopes of winning her favor. Useful indeed.