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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Teacher Tuesday: Native American music in elementary music

Although I use music from a variety of cultures and traditions regularly in all grade levels throughout the school year, I spend about a month focusing on the music from a particular culture in each grade. Today's focus: Native America! I'm including a list of all of the countries / cultures I will be writing about in this series at the end of this post. As I publish the posts, I will add the link so that you can find each post quickly from that list- you may want to bookmark this page so you can find all of the posts to reference later. You'll find links to my previous posts on Brazil, Mozambique, and China already linked at the end of this post.

I study Native American music with my kindergarten students. I always choose which cultures to focus on for each grade based on the content I can reinforce through the study, and in this case I am able to use Native American music to focus on steady beat, same and different phrases, and basic movement such as left and right and circle formations.

The first song I like to teach is Wee Hee Nah. You can find an audio recording and game directions for the song here. I love this song because there is so much you can do with it! First I have students march in a circle on the steady beat while I play the song on the recorder. Then I have a small group of students play the beat on hand drums (I break out the bigger ones for this for extra cool factor!) while the rest of us continue to walk while I play the melody. This is a great way to get them to practice moving with the beat and listening to the music, since they aren't singing along yet! Once they can all keep the steady beat and keep a circle formation while walking, we sit down and I teach them the words to the song. At this point they have already heard the melody many times, so it's pretty easy for them to learn. Then I ask them if they notice any patterns in the song. This is a great way to talk about same and different phrases, because the first two measures are different and the last two measures are the same as the middle two measures. Then we repeat the circle formation, walking on the beat, while singing. If students are doing well with the steady beat, I will break out a few shakers, and I have a couple of students play the shaker on steady eighth notes while continuing to walk in the circle and sing. This provides an extra challenge for the more advanced students! Once they can do all of that, I teach them the game. It is very similar to London Bridge, so we usually play that game the class before and I make the connection to that game when we learn Wee Hee Nah. The students love it and everyone gets lots of practice with steady beat and instruments!

The second song I teach students is Epanay. You can find a notated version and directions for the song here. This song is great because it is repeated while gradually speeding up, and it has one phrase that repeats over and over again with a different phrase at the end. I start by teaching the song, then we sing it while walking in a circle, gradually speeding up each time. This provides a bit more of a challenge because students always want to speed up to their fastest possible speed immediately, and they have to keep controlling themselves to stay on the beat! As I do with Wee Hee Nah, I add a few students on hand drums, keeping the beat as well. Once they can all do that, we identify the same and different phrases, then I introduce them to playing a melody on boomwhackers! I like to use this song because it only has 3 notes, so it makes it easier for students to keep track of their part. I am lucky enough to have 4 sets of boomwhackers, so I can have 12 students play together and have several students on each note together. This takes quite a bit of practice for them to learn the melody, but they are so proud of themselves when they get it! As I do with the previous song, I will add shakers on eighth notes if some advanced students need more of a challenge.

After they have learned both songs, I talk with the students a little bit about the different tribes within Native American culture. I talk to them about the Sioux, since Epanay comes from their tradition, and I also discuss the tribes that were/are native to our area. I would encourage you, if you are considering incorporating this in your own classroom, to look into the native traditions in your area (or whatever is closet to you) if you are in the States. It is a wonderful way for students to connect something that can seem to foreign to their own lives.

I like to show students a little bit of what a pow wow looks like. You can find tons of examples on YouTube- you might want to try to find an example of one from your area- but here is one example:

That's everything I teach for Native American music. Do you teach Native American music in your class? I'd love to see any additional ideas and resources you have in the comments below! And don't forget that I will be posting more ideas, focusing on different cultures around the world, over the next several weeks. Check out the posts below and be sure to keep checking back for more ideas. Here's the schedule of countries/cultures I will be writing about over the next several weeks (country names will link to posts once they are published):

1. Brazil


  1. Yes. In the district I was in, we taught Native American music in the 2nd grade. My kids loved the Navajo Puppy Song ( and Land of the Silver Birch (, which I had an Orff Orchestration to go with.

    1. Thanks for sharing- that puppy song is so cute and I'd never heard it before! I love Land of the Silver Birch- I always understood it was from Native tribes in Canada, not the United States though.

    2. It is, but since Native American literally means people who originally inhabited the Americas, and not just the US, I go ahead and include it. I do, however, acknowledge that that would be a judgement call.

  2. Hi,
    I'm so happy I found your blog! Few bloggers share anything meaningful about teaching kindergarteners about Native Americans. I wish I'd found the wee hee nah song earlier...anyway, perhaps you'd like to read what I have figured out about teaching this subject in my 40 years as a teacher. See November 16, 2017. thanks!

    1. I love the honesty of your post and you have some wonderful ideas and resources! Thank you so much for sharing- these lesson activities would be great to add to a music unit to further immerse students in Native American culture!