Music Indigenous Musics of the Arctic
Heidi Aklaseaq Senungetuk
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0206


Circumpolar Indigenous peoples share a common cultural thread that may at times seem disparate because of multiple colonial and Native languages, political systems, and distances between communities. Due to their extensive relationships with the northern climate, Indigenous peoples share commonalities that can be appreciated in many facets of contemporary and traditional life. Traditional musical cultures arising from Indigenous peoples of the Arctic share a recognizable characteristic of skin-covered frame drums and vocals, often inseparable from dance. A myriad of regional and local variations not only demonstrate high levels of creativity, but also act as diverse forms of identity and solidarity, and they show a variety of spiritual ideologies expressed through music. Indigenous peoples of the Arctic also use music and dance as a form of cultural sovereignty in the current era of Indigenous rights, frequently adapting or adopting nontraditional musical forms and infusing them with Indigenous cultural elements. As Arctic peoples experienced and navigated colonial and neocolonial appropriations and tensions, they maintained and rejuvenated their cultural performance arts as symbols of identity and existence. In the current era of potential Arctic resource development, Indigenous peoples use music to accentuate their connections to their homelands and emphasize the importance of their lifeways through public performance. This Oxford Bibliographies article includes introductory works as well as focused research materials, presents recent works alongside valuable research from past generations, and highlights the small but growing body of works from Indigenous points of view. Authors write from a variety of disciplines, including musicology/ethnomusicology, anthropology, ethnography, oral history, and cultural education, but they focus on Indigenous performing arts in the Arctic. This article is organized on the basis of geographical regions of the Arctic, with five major Arctic areas including the United States (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Sápmi (the Indigenous name for northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and northwestern Russia), and Russia. Each region is home to multiple Indigenous peoples and their cultural performing arts.

Circumpolar Reference Works

Few works address the musical arts of the entire circumpolar north, but these important contributions introduce the variety of Indigenous musical styles of the Arctic. Kingston 2005 and Johnston 1976 give introductory overviews of traditional music and dance practices, noting similarities among Arctic cultures. Johnston’s more substantial work also gives the reader a link to a different era, providing photos and interviews with past elders and ancestors. An encyclopedia, Wright-McLeod 2005 contains a chapter on recordings of music of the Arctic/circumpolar region, including a wide variety of musical styles and eras from archival recordings to popular contemporary music.

  • Johnston, Thomas F. Eskimo Music by Region: A Comparative Circumpolar Study. Ottawa, ON: National Museums of Canada, 1976.

    A study showing the relationships between all the traditional Indigenous performing arts of the Arctic with similar characteristics, including the use of shallow frame drums, unison singing, and mimetic dance. Provides summaries of regional styles across the Arctic, with extra attention to Northwest Alaska Native styles of music.

  • Kingston, Deanna. “Music (Traditional Indigenous).” In Encyclopedia of the Arctic. Vol. 2. Edited by Mark Nuttall, 1339–1341. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Brief introductory article addressing performative, religious, and social aspects of traditional musics of the Arctic, from Russia to Greenland. Mentions various festivals such as the Messenger Feast and the Bladder Festival.

  • Wright-McLeod, Brian. The Encyclopedia of Native Music: More Than a Century of Recordings from Wax Cylinder to the Internet. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005.

    Section 1 is a list of recordings from the “Arctic/Circumpolar Region,” defined in this work as ranging from Greenland across northern Canada to Alaska and Russia. Shows the variety of Indigenous musical contributions to contemporary music styles, compilations, soundtracks, traditional/archival recordings, and spoken word recordings.

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