NMAI review


“A THOUSAND ROADS, NOT TAKEN”American Indian Film Music ReviewBy Brent Michael DavidsJuly 16, 2005

“If we don’t frame the issues, someone else will frame the issues for us”- Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee)

This is the first in a series of film music reviews intended to address American Indian composers and musicians in the film industry. The intent here is twofold: to discuss film scoring, but also to provide insights into the process of making a good American Indian film score. With this in mind, a potential starting place is to review the musical score of the “signature” film of the National Museum of the American Indian, A THOUSAND ROADS. While other films might be part Indian or have Indian themes mixed into them, this “signature” film embodies the ideals of the National Museum of the American Indian. According to Founding Director Rick West and the NMAI Board, the American Indian’s own self-determined voice is at the heart of whatever the NMAI sets out to accomplish:

“[The] mission-driven core value of the National Museum of the American Indian…is this: …we will invoke, in a conscious, systematic, and focused way, the insights, perspectives, and voices of Native peoples themselves. In doing so, we depart…from the historically conventional approach of interpreting and representing Native cultures and communities from third-party viewpoints. We do so because we believe the cultural expertise of Native peoples is authentic, authoritative, and real concerning their cosmologies, philosophies, life and cultural experience, past and present…” [W. Richard West, Jr., 2004. National Press Club]

“The National Museum of the American Indian shall recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary cultural achievements of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere by advancing, in consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with Native people, knowledge and understanding of Native cultures, including art, history, and language, and by recognizing the museum’s special responsibility, through innovative public programming, research, and collections, to protect, support, and enhance the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of Native culture and community.” [NMAI Board of Trustees, Mission Statement]

Therefore, it occurred to me, that in a place that prides itself on commissioning genuine Indian works of art, such as the giant woven curtain designed by Romona Sakiestewa (Hopi) for the Rasmuson Theater which regularly exhibits A THOUSAND ROADS, the NMAI might be the best choice to find a clear example of American Indian film scoring for the subject of this review.


Admittedly, looking at American Indian films for their musical scores is not a popular science; just google the phrase “American Indian film score” or “American Indian film music” and see how little you turn up. There are a couple reasons for this, the lack of American Indian film composers and the market-driven climate of popularized film songs. First, the demands of composing for film are varied and intense. A film composer must be an expert in most forms of music from classical to rock, able to write the score into music manuscript, able to identify the proper music genre and its proper dramatic placement within a film scene, and able to compose quickly. While there are many highly creative and talented Indians who are musical performers and even composers, they are more often not versed in all forms of music as demanded by a career in film music. In addition, those Indian composers that can write for orchestra are few and far between. For instance, if a singer-songwriter takes on the task of scoring a film, they most likely will hire a trained composer to ghost write for the orchestra, or simply work collaboratively with a trained composer who can write down and orchestrate the music.

Secondly, in today’s film scene, the marketplace has a near stranglehold over the type of music used for film scores. The desired “ideal” for film music has shifted as a result of the heavy lobbying efforts of the record companies and producers. In the former days, before song placement or “needle-dropping” songs into films, film scores were seen as the comprehensive work of trained composers such as Jerry Goldsmith or Elmer Bernstein. In today’s’ marketplace however, large deals are struck between the recording industry and film producers, the intent of which is to give record companies the chance to have their songs reach a larger “film” audience with the sale of accompanying music CDs, in exchange for providing additional revenue to film makers in search of more funding.

But this deal-making stifles the film scores being produced, creating a tunnel-vision effect on the newer generation of film directors. Today, the recording industry’s lobbying efforts have influenced a new generation of directors who buy into the marketed “ideal” for film scores, as if few other scoring solutions exist; today’s film makers rarely search out expert film composers but immediately search out the music of songsters and bands instead. Many American Indian film makers are not immune from this lobbying effect, almost having been “brought up” or “raised” by the industry to first look for bands and songsters, and not trained film composers. Coupled with the genuine scarcity of Indian film composers in the field, the stifling effect for American Indians is compounded. Checking the composer credit on any Indian film, even if the film features an Indian musician, will reveal a non-Indian composer is listed who did most of the actual film scoring. American Indian film scores are not the most studied or talked about topic — inside or outside of Indian country — which is why in-depth reviews of this type are needed. Taking a cue from Wilma Mankiller, as Indians we should be framing these issues for ourselves.


For A THOUSAND ROADS, we must examine the context of the score, as well as the music itself. While working as the Associate Director of the Mall Transition Team for the new NMAI building, James Volker (non-Indian) had the initial idea. “I was the originator of the concept of the film, some three and a half years ago,” Volker explained, “I wanted to develop a film that was identified solely with the Museum, and that’s when it became called a signature film” (May 18, 2005). Volker was then approached by Scott Garen (non-Indian), “Scott was the primary mover in terms of the development of the production. The Smithsonian and myself and Rick West and Elizabeth Duggal were the primary story consultants.” Garen was directed to collaborate with Joy Harjo (Muskogee Creek) to write the script and Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) to direct the film. Including Ulali, these were the only American Indians involved in the film scoring process. Ulali is a trio that sings in many styles including the indigenous-based “pre-blues” singing style. Ulali singers include: Pura Fe (Tuscarora), Soni Moreno (Mayan/Apache/Yaqui), and Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora).

R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo/Ute), stated that his music was added to the film without his direct involvement; the specific request for his music came directly from Chris Eyre to Robert Doyle of Canyon Records. In perhaps an oversight, Douglas Spotted Eagle (non-Indian) was listed in the NMAI press release (April 6, 2005) as a “Native” flutist along with Nakai, while in a reprint of that press release by Indian Country Today (April 19, 2005), the word “Native” was correctly omitted for Spotted Eagle; Spotted Eagle’s own web site indicated: “I was told as a child, right up til [sic] I was an adult, that I had Native blood, and so I set out to learn about it. I could never find any proof that I had it, and so as far as I’m concerned, I’m white.” Similar to Nakai, Spotted Eagle was not involved in creating the film score, though his music was added to it. In addition to Folkway recording samples, the score also included Heitor Pereira (Brazilian) guitar samples.

The composer selected for the film was Whale Rider’s Lisa Gerrard (non-Indian). No exact information has surfaced about the selection criteria, although Volker explained “Specifically in terms of the music, Scott Garen contacted Lisa Gerrard, and Lisa and Jeff are the composers, so that connection came through Scott.” Beyond this fact, little has surfaced about the exact criteria. While the selection criteria is not known, it is factually clear there was no “open bid” process for a composer, as some governmental institutions do if they are publicly funded (for example: the public “Call for Submissions” to create outdoor sculptures for “long-term public display” at the NMAI). Executive Producer W. Richard West, Jr. (Cheyenne/Arapaho) could not be reached for comment. Neither Scott Garen nor Chris Eyre have offered any response to my interview requests, made to them through their PR representative Laura Marks.

According to Joy Harjo, herself a composer and musician, music was central to translating the various characters and places in the script. Central to the script wasa wise and hilarious DJ who held the stories together with music spinning out across the world from the communities of the characters. This was abandoned very late in the project. The story took another turn as it sometimes does. “Some of the DJ narrative was kept in, but the DJ character was cut. I always felt that the music would be crucial and it was important to have contemporary native music sounds mixed with more traditional sounds, to give some sense of the variety and innovation in our lives.” However Harjo had no final say in the musical direction. When Garen ran by his choice of Gerrard for the project he told Harjo, “Can’t you hear her voice all through the movie?” Harjo responded that Indian singers would be more authentic for an Indian film. “I mean, Gerard has a beautiful and haunting voice and I can understand the quality of sound that Garen was after. But I was surprised that a non-Native voice would become the heart of a signature sound on a supposedly Indian film. What if we were making an African American film, would a non-African American voice even be considered? Not at all. It doesn’t make sense, especially after the carefulness of insuring an Indian presence in the scriptwriting and directing.”

But according to Harjo, her music ideas were ignored. “It was made very clear to me that I was a writer for hire and that I was to stay out of the music. I was kept out of the loop of the movie after my comments on the impending hire of non-native composers. I felt that at least one of the composers should be native.” Was it coincidence then that her music was not present on the preview soundtrack DC? According to Harjo, Jeff Rona told herthat the guest tracks had to have a recognizable native sound to be included. “I didn’t have the right native sound, not enough drums and flutes to be considered.”

Lisa Gerrard did not respond to my interview request. Jeff Rona initially agreed to an interview, but has not responded again. Harjo has no knowledge of Chris Eyre’s view on how she was treated on the project. However, it was interesting to hear that Eyre and Garen have formed their own company together. As Volker explained, “As a result of that collaboration between Scott Garen and Chris Eyre, they’ve now formed a production company called ‘Seven Arrows Signature’ looking specifically to work with Native communities on other projects” (Volker, 2005). It is also interesting to note that I was denied a screener copy of the film by Seven Arrows. But, I was graciously given a DVD by Tom Sweeney (non-Indian) of the NMAI Office of Public Affairs.

Harjo’s description of being cut “out of the loop” vs. the more affirmative picture offered by James Volker, did not jibe. In response, I called Tom Sweeney to get an official view of the project in two respects: to better understand the “signature” importance of the film and what constituted an acceptable “collaboration” on the project. James Volker had emphasized repeatedly that A THOUSAND ROADS was a genuine and respectful collaboration in all respects. Sweeney followed suit with the same admonition. But, Sweeney added something more; in his view, the “signature” aspect of the film was almost arbitrary, downplaying its meaning. “It’s just a term,” explained Sweeney, “It’s just meant to differentiate from other films, because we do have a Native film and video center… I mean like Safeway has a signature sandwich so [chuckle] it’s a term used in many different ways” (May 2005). Asked why a film would be called a “signature” film to simply separate it from other films, Sweeney had no definitive answer beyond the fact that he was not involved in labeling it that way, and ultimately did not know why. This was an interesting response considering that the term “signature” was not well defined for people actually working on the production either, responded Harjo.

The most interesting and helpful response to my question regarding “signature” and “collaboration” came from a somewhat independent source. James Nason (Comanche) is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Emeritus Curator of Pacific and American Ethnology in a prominent Washington State museum. Nason spent 6 years working on the architectural program design for NMAI, 2 years on exhibits, and is now on the programs committee. According to Nason (May, 2005), in a typical museum’s view:

“‘Signature’ means a product that is a foundation piece, reflecting the mission and values of the organization, i.e. it can stand as a representative of what the organization intends to do for all such products in the future and what the organization stands for.” [James Nason, 2005]

“A ‘collaborator’ is usually somewhat more than someone who provides volunteer consultation, but not necessarily a full-fledged participant who is paid. A collaborator might be paid, but not necessarily so. It implies input and potential agreement to the product’s nature.” [James Nason, 2005]

It was important to note that a “signature” work does not rest simply in how it functions in the present tense, but also how it sets a precedent for all future “signature” works. But is their some NMAI confusion between a “collaborator” vs. a “worker-for-hire”?

As a final interview, I spoke with Jennifer Kreisberg about Ulali’s one recording session for A THOUSAND ROADS. Her response was serious in tone, as Ulali was told by Jeff Rona their music “was too bluesy” for the soundtrack; Jennifer quickly corrected Rona, stating that bluesy quality was a uniquely indigenous feature of Ulali’s music which predates modern blues. “That really is our scale,” Kreisberg affirmed. But their expertise was ignored. Rona altered the light and definitive sound of Ulali, without Ulali permission, into a heavier echo-laden sound smothered in reverb. To boot, Ulali was not given “retakes” nor the opportunity to properly warmup.

In Summary, the Indians involved in the film music score, including Joy Harjo (scripted music) and Ulali (performed music), were treated largely as “works-for-hire” and not as genuine collaborators. The decisions regarding the film score were made almost exclusively by non-Indians on the project. It is unfortunate that a greater transparency could not have been established for contracting both the producers and the composers, especially considering that both, admittedly, had little knowledge of American Indian music at all. According to Rona:

“I met with the director and producers of the film for a spotting sessions [sic] to discuss the style and placement of music for the film. This was also my first real introduction to the vast array of Native American music. While I had a couple of CDs of native flute and powwow recordings, I knew little of the music of specific geographic regions.” [Jeff Rona, web site, 2005]

Also unfortunate is that a professional “Code of Ethics” was not in place that may have offered a better model for collaboration. An established Code might have better served the NMAI’s adopted Mission. For instance, below is an excerpt from the “Statement of Ethical Intent” of the First Nations Composer Initiative (FNCI):

“Those commissioning or creating new works intended to represent, reflect or otherwise include any form of American Indian music should ensure that steps are taken to seek out and invite American Indian composers and musicians for those works. If working together in collaboration with American Indians, all parties should agree to honestly portray and authentically represent the American Indian work. Such relationships must not be misrepresented as Native American collaborations if they were not created with mutual respect for, and sensitivity to, the customary practice or established practices of the American Indian collaborators. The FIRST NATIONS COMPOSER INITIATIVE does not condone the use of Native American “workers-for-hire” under the guise of authentic collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people; such practices are tokenistic. The FIRST NATIONS COMPOSER INITIATIVE does encourage and support collaborations with American Indians that are honest exchanges of knowledge and creativity on equal terms, and where the collaboration is not achieved at the expense of the Indigenous people. Native American collaborations must be mutually respectful and honestly authentic within the collaborating process as well as in the resulting product of the collaboration.” [FNCI.org]


The film A THOUSAND ROADS portrays a number of small vignettes in locations including: Alaska, New Mexico, New York City, Peru, and Puget Sound. Each location employs a short story, including: a girl’s encounter with Alaska villagers, a Navajo boy’s struggle with gang pressure, and a Mohawk woman’s stressful inner-city job. The stories are threaded together with an unseen voice who refers to the film’s characters as if he knows them personally. The vignettes serve to illustrate the many “roads” of Indigenous peoples in a type of visual suite or pastiche. The film is 42 minutes, and the music is 32 minutes (77%). Only ten minutes is without film music.

The chart below shows the amount of Source versus Scoring in the film, by percentage, according to musical style. The percentages were figured using a “Cue Sheet” that lists every bit of music appearing in the film (appendix). First, the term “Source” refers to any music placed into a film that is not the original creation of the film’s composer; such Source music includes: (1) on-screen events such as music from a car radio seen in the film, or (2) prerecorded music that is needle-dropped into the film. “Needle-dropped” music, like dropping the needle onto a record, refers to prerecorded music being cut-and-pasted into the film. Second, the term “Score” refers to the music composed for the film footage; the unique feature of music Scoring is its being “tailor-made” to fit the film in perfect synchronization. Film composers create music that shifts in mood or style to exactly match the shifts within the scenes themselves; in this way, the score is more precise than source or needle-dropped music. A good film composer creates music that adapts and supports the scene, mood for mood, shift for shift, no matter what music is called for.


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As one can see from the top rows of the chart, Source music was of lower importance to the overall soundtrack, as indicated by very low percentages. From the bottom rows of the chart, we see that most of the soundtrack was original scoring, predominantly long string tones and Lisa Gerrard’s voice. As indicated in the chart’s middle rows, much of the other music used in the soundtrack was prerecorded “samples” or “loops” that were mixed into the score; in this way, long string tones and Gerrard’s voice were enhanced with added bits (samples) of prerecorded guitar, flutes and drum loops. It is interesting to note the diversity of non-Indian styles used in both Gerrard’s singing as well as in Rona’s prerecorded sample loops, including: generic africanized drum loops, generic rock loops, arab-like melisma singing, Western opera-style singing, and singing with drawn-out long tones.

American Indian composer Barbara Croall has provided her insights about the score. Croall (Odawa) is an award-winning composer and former Composer-In-Residence of the Toronto Symphony, also specializing in multimedia theatrical works. Toronto is widely recognized for its film festival each year, and the Canada Film Board is an incredibly active organization. Below is Croall’s review in its entirety:

“A Thousand Roads isa film of intimatenarrativeswithin ahuge scope: spanning from the heart of urban America, to its arctic and its desert, and then to the mountains of the Andean region of South America. Its purpose is to tell the stories of the indigenous peoples who are linked in spirit, however geographically far apart. The stunning visuals ofsky, land, water, birds, animals and people certainly have a visceral impact upon us.

For a film so sprawling in content – geographically and culturally – the challenge lies in scoring it with the sounds and music of its story line. Although on one level, a seamless score strongly permeated by synthesized symphonic strings aims to achieve continuity from scene to scene, the audible fragmentary moments of actual indigenous music-making are sparse and covered by a heavier veil of orchestral and MIDI foreground. When we hear this predominantly ‘new age’ melding-concept of sounds, replete with string lines and sonority with pseudo-celtic vocals weaving in and out, we can close our eyes and imagine many different kinds of visual scenarios and subject matter which match what we hear.

Throughout the film, there are highly poignant moments when the meaning of a scene peaks in our consciousness and we are craving for the sounds and music which bring that to a culmination – the so-called catharsis in highbrow terms – but we are often left disappointed. Even though the score is beautiful and worth merit on its own, we are reminded of a pervasive trend in American cinematic expression – whereby the true voice of a culture’s spirit is often smothered so much in the gloss of presentation, that its cultural distinctiveness either struggles to be heard or is lost altogether. There is a certain irony, then, with this film in that only fragmentary and disconnected expressions of the representative cultures, from scene to scene, can be heard. This all the more compounds our sadness rather than uplifting our spirits, which we expect the film to do if it is intended to celebrate the resilience of indigenous peoples of the Americas, rather than to further lament its vanishing.

In some instances, the sounds of one traditional style of music – most notably with native flutes which are used in a pan-Indian way – do not correspond with the cultural content of the film. In the Arctic story line scenes, we do not hear the evocative sounds of drumming and song from the north. Instead, we hear the traditional love flute which we associate with the Woodlands and Plains.

There are many moments when there is opportunity to heighten the film’s positive messages sonically – especially when the narrator John Trudell says: “We have songs for everything – songs for healing, for grieving…” , which is then immediately followed by a celtic kind of melody which expands into a sort of Vaughn Williams conception of English choral writing. Where are our songs – where is our music in this film? Where is the voice of our people ?

Again, the aims of this film are admirable – and achievable – by involving a collaboration of representative First Nations musical artists across the Americas who can sing for themselves and only strengthen what the theme of A Thousand Roads really is.” [Barbara Croall, 2005]

Croall’s insights reveal that A THOUSAND ROADS may be suffering from a “gloss of presentation” that hurts rather helps the film’s “cultural distinctiveness.” In this instance, it may be helpful to illustrate how an Indian composer may have handled the score differently. Though many examples exist in the film, below are 2 that illustrate the difference an Indian viewpoint makes, in the New York and Alaska vignettes.

NEW YORK. This example illustrates one of the first rules of film scoring: “Music cannot save a film.” If something’s not in the film already, music cannot put it there. The score for the NY segment consists largely of long tones layered with looped rock rhythms. Looking at the scenes without an Indian eye, most of what we see is a cityscape with a couple of Indian characters. With this non-Indian view, it might be plausible to use long dark washes of sound and a city-like beat for the music. But with an Indian eye, many things are missing; several important questions were not answered in the score.

Q – How does she feel about her own history?

A – The music might have revealed her feeling “at home” in the same skyscrapers her people had built. Working as steel workers in New York, Mohawks were known as the “skywalkers,” building the Empire State building among many other City landmarks.

Q – How can the music show her connection to Mohawk life?

A – Mohawks are a culture of extended kinship ties. Many Mohawk songs embrace the solid community of extended family ties. Instead, the film itself merely implied an extended family by her quick glance at a small photo and her moving stones into a “new age” circle on her desk. The music’s inadequacy may owe partly to the film’s inadequacy. A film can be enhanced by music, but music cannot fix something that is missing.

ALASKA. This second example is more clear-cut. Whales are more than food for Alaska Natives, they are part of a nearly symbiotic relationship with the Indigenous people, as the heart of their entire way of life. Whale hunts were prohibited in the past because of low whale populations and laws protecting whales, which the Indigenous people have always supported. When the laws again permitted the taking of whales in traditional hunts, the Alaska Natives revived their time-honored tradition. Whale harvesting is a life-affirming and happy time for the Indigenous people.

Q – How was the life-affirming quality illustrated in the music score?

A – It was not. While whales were harvested, the music became dark and ominous. This dark music created a mood of isolation and despair for the girl who spit out her first taste of whale meat.

Q – How might Indian eyes have scored this scene differently?

A – Instead of scoring the whale harvesting scene with a wash of dark tones, an Indigenous eye would see a festive spirit, creating a life-affirming music that is not dark nor ominous. Such music would empower the Indigenous images and champion the deep connection they maintain with the whales. A life-affirming music might have created a more positive mood for the girl’s experiences on-screen. Because an Indian eye was not employed for the score, the music suffers from an artificial and unnecessary mood of darkness.


In the final analysis, it is clear from all the explorations and considerations above, that the film score for A THOUSAND ROADS has largely failed in its attempt to accurately and honorably portray the Indigenous voices of the hemispheres. This overall failure resulted partly from a non-Indian decision-making process that guided the making of the score, as well as from the non-Indian composers hired to create it. To be sure, creating a ‘signature’ music score that inspires viewers to further explore our many and varied Indigenous voices is a lofty impetus. Disappointingly, the score for A THOUSAND ROADS offers little more than a mono-thematic and stereotyped vision.

Rather than affirming the uniqueness of Indians, the score for A THOUSAND ROADS travels down the long-established — and heavily traversed — road of Hollywood stereotypes. After hearing the film music, one comes away with an overarching sense of melancholy and isolation, almost as if Indians need saving from their lonely lives. Neither the film nor the music established feelings of a vibrant community of extended kinship ties, which is fundamental to Indigenous life.

As a helpful resource — for the benefit of any Indigenous Tribe or Nation creating your own signature film — this review demonstrates the need to choose your production team and collaborators wisely. In a point well taken, please consider an excerpt from poet Robert Frost, slightly reworked for the title of this review:

Somewhere STEREOTYPES and INDIANS hence:A THOUSAND roads diverged in HOLLYWOOD, and I– I took the RED one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

_____________________________Copyrighte2005, Brent Michael Davids. Available to freely distribute and re-print without obtaining further the permission of the copyright holder, as assigned by Brent Michael Davids, July 17, 2005.