Indigenous Composers and Choral Music

April 15, 2021

Indigenous Composers 

National Indigenous History Month is in June, and if you wish to focus on Indigenous hymns and compositions by Indigenous song-makers or song-creators in June and throughout the year, here are some resources below.

Recently, in sessions she led for the newly formed Bridge Choral Collective, Sherryl Sewepagaham spoke about many things relating to creating and sharing Indigenous song. While she can’t speak for all Indigenous cultures, she did address some of the customs of her Cree and Dene background. 

Many of us in the United Church are keen to learn more, and we can do this by inviting an Indigenous guest to share their wisdom and teachings. Whenever you do this, ask the guest about the appropriate protocol. Part of the protocol is gift-giving to honour the person and their sharing. The gift might be sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, fungus, or cloth (blanket). Ask what the appropriate gift might be, and also offer an honorarium. 

When an Indigenous person has shared music, always ask permission each time you would like to use it again or before you share with any others. If the music has been gifted to you, it should not be regifted in another setting without permission (e.g., if Sherryl were to come and teach my church choir a piece of music, I should not share it with other choirs without her permission). Never use something without asking, as this perpetuates the theft of culture that was begun by Settlers long ago. 

Sherryl also spoke about the use of percussion, especially the drum and the rattle. In some First Nations, drums may only be played by males, and in other First Nations, drums may be played by any gender. An authentic Indigenous drum head is made of animal hide, and the drum can be made with or gifted by an elder. Other drums can be used instead, like a frame drum with a Remo head, and maracas can be substituted for rattles. 

Many Indigenous songs use vocables. These are sung syllables used to evoke a mood, tell a story, and give overall meaning to the music. The story of the piece—the meaning and the text—is very important, and you always need to share this story. Credit the song-creator, explain what the song is about, give some background information, and discuss the inspiration for the song. This is the medium through which the story is told. In many Indigenous cultures, song-sharing and storytelling have primarily been an oral tradition. It is only recently that music is being notated, shared in print, and published.  

Some of the sacred music in Indigenous circles is not shared but may be learned by specific people. Once something is written down and shared with a wider group, it becomes contemporary. Traditional Indigenous music is usually led by voice and drum. When harmonies or other instruments are added, like a piano or a stringed or woodwind instrument, it is considered a contemporary setting.  

If you can, create a relationship with the Indigenous song-creator and have them teach you how to pronounce the text or vocables and demonstrate how to create the sound and timbre of the piece, so that you try to perform it with authenticity.  

In the Lent-Easter 2021 edition of Gathering (p. 8), Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd mentions that “the United Church now recognizes that Traditional Teachings of the First Nations reveal the Creator in ways that complement Christian teachings.” So, finally, any use of Indigenous music has to be from your heart, in the genuine spirit of learning and caring. 

Choral Music by Indigenous Composers 

As soon as you start making lists, someone gets left out. My apologies to those unknown to me who are absent from the list and those missing because I could not obtain enough information in time for printing of Gathering, Pentecost 1, 2021.


Some of the composers listed in the attached chart also write instrumental music that would be useful in worship settings. Other places to find Indigenous composers and song-creators of every genre include: 

Manitoba Music

Indigenous Music 

Canadian Art Song Project – Indigenous and Metis Canadian composers 

Indigenous Singers of Canada 
This is a great resource for children for church or school and has wonderful arrangements of songs by Leela Gilday, Tom Jackson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and several others.