Cheevers Toppah “To me, you get what you put into it. It’s like with any kind of church: If you have faith, then you’ll believe.”

Cheevers Toppah in the studio

Cheevers Toppah is a prolific Native American musician, releasing his albums through the venerable Canyon Records and garnering multiple Grammy nominations (back when there was a Grammy for best Native American music). He tours the pow-wow circuit and comes from a long line of singers, but he’s best known for his beautiful harmonized arrangements of Native American vocal music traditions. Toppah’s singing is remarkably accessible and soothing, drawing from powwow singing, round dance songs, and peyote songs from the Native American church. Although American roots music has burrowed itself deep into the mainstream, Native music, the original American roots music, still struggles to break through. While fusion artists like R. Carlos Nakai or singer-songwriters like Robbie Robertson or Buffy Saint-Marie are well known internationally, many more traditional Native musicians choose to focus on their own markets for music. That’s not Toppah’s choice. You get the feeling he’s full of ambition to move into new markets, but until that time comes, he’s gonna keep singing and creating beautiful music.

Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with Toppah hanging out at in Blanchard, OK, about an hour down the road from where he grew up in Weatherford. He schooled us on the difference between pow-wow and round-dance songs, and the underground peyote practices of the Native American church.

Where were you born?

I was born in Gallup, N.M.

You have two tribal identities?

Yeah. I’m half Kiowa and I’m half Navajo.

Where’s Kiowa from?

Carnegie, Okla. It’s about 30 minutes from where I live.

Do you speak any native languages?

Just Kiowa.

Where does your name come from?

It was my Grandpa’s nickname, that’s who I’m named after.

Did it mean anything, your Grandfather’s nickname?

Nah, nah, it’s just a name.

Can you tell me about your new album, True Melodies? Were you trying to showcase different Native American vocal traditions?

It was pretty much like a mix tape, you know like when people put a bunch of different songs on tape together, like back in the day. I just went in there and started recording. I had some round-dance [songs], and I had some friends who wanted to hear how songs that they had made sounded like with harmonies. So they said, “Go ahead, put this song on there.” So different people would give me songs to put on there, and that’s what I did, pretty much just to show the different styles of songs and what they sound like with harmonies in them.

I’d love to get in the mainstream. Just give me a shot, man; I can sing to anything.

And where did you learn to do all those harmonies? The harmonies are beautiful.

When I was in high school, I had all-stated in choir and to be in choir, you have to learn how to harmonize along with the other people in your choir. When I started getting into pow-wow music, recording it, the harmonies are all free-style harmonies; none of them I wrote down, none of them I practiced. Basically, what I did was, go in there and sing the song the way it’s supposed to be sung and then, just laid the harmonies, right there, on the spot, just laid them on top.

Did you grow up around pow-wow music?

Yeah. I’ve been singing since I was about three years old.

Wow [laughing]. Your family members sang too?

Just my brother and my sister. My mom and dad didn’t really sing at all.

Why did you start singing so young?

We were always going to pow-wows with my mom and dad around Oklahoma, and we got really interested in singing and that’s where I went.

So the different traditions on the album… Could you tell me more which song belongs to which tradition?

The songs that have the Crow Hop, the ones like “Rankin Hops” and “Bear Beats,” those songs are Cree songs and one of my brothers made those songs. They’re contest songs. I just thought that they had a real cool tune to them and I wanted to see what they sounded like with harmonies. So, that’s where those songs come from.

The Native American Church Songs, those are peyote songs. I made those two and then, the round-dance songs are more contemporary with the words and then the straight songs, I don’t have any words on them that are just straightly sung, those are just regular pow-wow songs.

Tell me more about the Native American Church. Is there a strong tradition of music?

The Native American Church goes back to the 1800s. It wasn’t until 1918 when it got chartered through the government and they passed our rights to have our own religion. Those songs go way back. The songs that I put on there are new songs, songs that I composed, so they’re not really songs from way back, they’re just songs that I made.

Is it predominately Christian or predominately native or a bit of both?

It’s like a twist of both. It goes back before we had got Christianized, but when the missionaries came, they Christianized us then we added it into there. So it’s really both.

Are there actual churches? You can go to a church and there’s a service?

It’s a tee pee. They put up a tee pee. They scrape the ground on the inside for the altar and then they build a little altar out of dirt and they put that peyote on there. We sit in there all night and we pray and we sing songs. We go into the tee pee around 10 o’clock and we won’t get out until that same time the next morning. It’s an all-night prayer service and we sit on the ground.

What language are the songs in?

There’s no language; they’re just vocables.

How do you learn the songs then? You copy them?

All the songs that I’ve learned that are older songs, they’re just passed down. There’s recordings of people, home-made recordings; they give them to us and we learn them, on and on.

Is this something that you find at pow-wows? Or on reservations? Or on both?

Pretty much. Now the Native American Church is getting more out into the mainstream. A lot of people like it now, but it used to be secluded to where you didn’t get a lot of Native American Church recordings. Now they’re kinda everywhere.

Where did the churches meet? Did they meet at every pow-wow or certain times of the week?

They don’t meet at no pow-wows. They have nothing to do with pow-wows. This is a totally separate deal from pow-wows. They call them church meetings. They have it for birthdays, or somebody’s sick, or somebody graduates or something like that. They have a lot of those for those types of deals. They meet at the people’s house where they’re having the meeting. Everybody comes over there and then they have the meeting there and then everybody goes home the next day.

They ask me about those songs and I say, “I put in my songs what I think a woman wants to hear.” What women want to hear, that’s what I try to sing to them. From my side, it’s all woman-based. You go through love and trial and error.

Who leads these? Are there pastors?

They’re not pastors. It’s a handed-down deal. Mainly it’s older men in their fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties; they lead the service. It’s not really even a service; they just lead the meetings. It’s one person and they pray all night, they run everything. They’re not pastors or anything. Once the elders say that you’re ready to run meetings, then you ran meetings. But until they said you can, then you didn’t.

You told me that peyote has a role in this. Does everyone take peyote or just the elders?

No, everybody does. They pass it around at night. It’s not a whole bunch, it’s not like everybody’s gulping it down. It’s just a little bit; everybody takes a little bit.

What’s the purpose of that?

They say it’s a hallucinogenic; it’s supposed to give you a different mind set; it puts your mind in a different place, is what they tell me, and it’s supposed to get you closer to God. You have all these troubles and all these burdens in your mind when you’re just out there in the world, but when you go in these meetings and you take part of that “medicine,” it puts your mind in the right state of frame. You go into a little zone and you think about life and you think about everything, and that’s what it does.

So, what’s the effect for you at one of these meetings? Is it a healing effect? How do you feel when it’s over?

I go every weekend, unless I go to a pow-wow or something. For me, it’s my sanctuary; that’s where I go when I have problems. I go in there for the spirituality of it and people do get healed in there, too. I go there to support people, to help them pray for their problems. I go along and support and try to help them out as much as I can.

Have you taken peyote in the church?

Yeah, yeah.

Did it bring about visions? Are you allowed to talk about the visions?

I never really had any visions but you get a different feeling from it. You think about positive things. To me, you get what you put into it. It’s like with any kind of church, if you have faith, then you’ll believe. If you have faith in that community that it’s gonna show you something, then it will. It might not be right at that point, it might be on down the line, but you’ll see it.

Do people talk during the meetings or is it mainly just singing?

There’s a lot of praying involved. There’s a time at midnight where they stop, and somebody brings in water for everybody to drink to get refreshed. The morning time, the same thing. There’s a lot of praying that goes along, there’s a lot of singing too.

Are Native American Church ceremonies open to the public or is it only Natives?

Because it is a hallucinogenic, they make it for Native Americans only. Sometimes they make exceptions, like if people are married in or family members are adopted, then they will make exceptions, but most of the time it’s just Native Americans.

Do you ever get any hippies trying to crash it to get the peyote?

They have meetings in California where it’s all hippies.

All the songs that I’ve learned that are older songs, they’re just passed down. There’s recordings of people, home-made recordings; they give them to us and we learn them, on and on.

Really? [laughing]

Yeah, yeah.

Like there’s no Natives at the meeting, it’s just hippies and peyote?

Yeah, pretty much.

Is it all over the U.S.? The Native American Church?

Pretty much now, except you don’t really see it on the East Coast but mainly, all the way in the Middle and Western Plains, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oklahoma. New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, all the way into Idaho, Montana. It’s more Western, Mid Western type. There’s not really any in Texas. That’s where the peyote gardens are located though, is in Texas.

Have you been to the peyote gardens in Texas?

Yeah, yeah.

Are they Native owned?

No, they’re owned by Mexicans. This peyote that we got, it came from the Mexican Indians, the Incans and the Mayans, that’s where it came from.

What do you think of the New Age connection to Native American music? Your album is so accessible. Did you want to connect with the New Age aspect?

I would love to get the opportunity to do something contemporary. I already have some things lined up with Steven [Butler] from Canyon and it’s just a matter of getting in the studio and doing it, by trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’d love to get in the mainstream. Just give me a shot, man; I can sing to anything.

Are most of the people you sing to, in the Native community or is it outside too?

It’s mainly in the Native community…

Is the Native community really passionate about the vocal music and the church music? Do they buy a lot of CDs?

Yeah, yeah. They definitely buy a lot of CDs.

Now, what’s the difference between pow-wow and round-dance songs?

The pow-wow songs are nowadays contest songs. They have a song for certain categories. Those songs that we are seeing on the album, those pow-wow songs are just straight songs, usually with a straight beat, but the round-dance songs have a different beat. The round dance is more about love. A lot of the songs and the lyrics you put in the round-dance songs are made to be love songs.

Which songs are round dance songs on the album?

All the ones that have the English words in them.

Are round dance songs really common in pow-wows?

Yeah. Round dance has really shot up within the last 5 years. A lot of people are getting into round dances because of the English lyrics in them.

I always tell people when they ask me, “Where do you get your inspiration for the round-dance songs, the ones with the English lyrics,” and they ask me about those songs and I say, “I put in my songs what I think a woman wants to hear.” What women want to hear, that’s what I try to sing to them. From my side, it’s all woman-based. You go through love and trial and error. That’s pretty much what it is.

NOTE: It’s pretty hard to find good information on the Native American Church and the peyote ceremonies, so here’s an excerpt from the liner notes to Cheever’s album of peyote songs. The album features Cheevers and Kevin Yazzie singing harmonized peyote songs from the Diné (Navajo) and Kiowa traditions.

The Native American Church, or Peyote Church, has its origins in pre-Columbian Mexico. The peyote cactuc (Aztec ‘peyotl’) grows in north central Mexico and Texas. Since the mid-19th century an intertribal religion, philosophy and ritual has developed around ‘Father Peyote’ among many Native Americans in the United States. The sober ceremony includes long prayers, exhortations on right living by Church leaders, and quiet meditative songs in sets of four, accompanied by a special rattle and water-drum. A large, perfect peyote plant representing Father Peyote is placed at the apex of a crscent shaped altar in the tipi where the ceremony takes place. Small portions of other peyote plants are passed periodically to the celebrants and eaten as a sacrament. The cactus provides a sense of well-being and, in many instances, private visions in brilliant colors. Some participants hear Father Peyote answering their prayers, giving advice and teaching them songs. There are four special songs, known intertribally, which are sung by the leader at the beginning, midnight, dawn and close of the ceremony. Hundreds of other peyote songs are constantly being created and passed from one community to another as they are learned at meetings, informal gatherings or from recordings.

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