A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’


Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]


Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.


I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.


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