Brother of the Chant Makes Lacombe Visit
Expertise Honed As a Student, Teacher

By Sharon Sharpe
March 4, 2007

Brother Martin Fenerty was born and raised on Irish Bayou in New Orleans, but he's become one of the foremost experts on American Indian dance chants, including those of the Bayou Lacombe Choctaw.

Fenerty, a member of the Christian Brothers, a teaching order associated with St. Paul School in Covington and De La Salle High School in New Orleans, was in Lacombe on Monday to present Bayou Lacombe Choctaw dance chants, as well as those of the Mississippi bands of the Choctaw and other American Indian groups.

How he came to learn the chants dates to when he went to Sante Fe, New Mexico, in 1949 to begin his graduate work.

"I fell in love with Indian culture" while a graduate student, he said. "I heard the music but did not think I could get into something so esoteric."

Fenerty taught elementary education and high school until he returned to the College of Santa Fe in 1966 as its music director. The college was asked to find someone to fill in for an American Indian music teacher at the Institute of American Indian Art who was on leave. Fenerty filled the spot, although he didn't see how it would be appropriate. Even though he was a music teacher, he didn't know that form of music.

Basically, "they gave me tapes," he said of his introduction to teaching American Indian chants. "I taught them one Indian chant while I learned the next. That got me started."

While at the University of Mississippi in the late '70s, working on another doctorate, this time in elementary education, Fenerty made a study of "Native American music in Choctaw early Indian education." As part of the study, he conducted a survey of more than 300 Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee Choctaw to determine what they thought about their children learning their own musical heritage as well as music of other American Indian tribes. The study "pinpointed the attitudes of these early childhood developers," he said.

Since his retirement in 2002, Fenerty has devoted his time to the preservation of the chants he has learned and will give demonstrations to interested groups. He was happy to be in Lacombe for what was to be commemoration of the 194th birthday of Adrien Emmanuel Rouquette, a 19th century poet and the first to be ordained a Catholic priest from the area.

He said 'Chahta Ima' was the name given to Roquette by the Bayou Lacombe Choctaw that means "like Choctaw."

"He was the first Creole to be ordained a priest and served the Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans and the tribe," Fenerty said. He feels a kinship with the priest because "I've fallen in love with the Bayou Lacombe Choctaw because of their music."

"I'm fascinated with him (Roquette) because back in his day it wasn't fashionable to be associated with Indians. He didn't do it for any gain but for the love of God," he said. "They fell in love with him and gave him his name Chahta Ima because they saw what he was trying to do for them."

"There are only three dance chants that are extant" that have survived of the Bayou Lacombe Choctaw, he said. There's the tick dance, snake dance and inebriated man dance, he said.

There are five more noted by the Smithsonian researcher who came in to make a record in 1909, he said. Fenerty has come across seven more. The researcher made musical notation of these dances transcribing them note for note onto a musical staff for the record, he said.

Fenerty wanted to hear the chants, but wasn't able to find anyone that did them. Interested in preserving the chants, he learned them from the notation and has been demonstrating them ever since.

Other chants he's learned include the Kiowa Thanksgiving song; Osage Going Home memorial song and the Navajo Blessing song.

"Indians only dance if someone is chanting," he said. The songs are called chants because they use "vocables" or words that have no meaning like "fa la la la la" in "Deck the Halls."

"I talk about the dances and sing the chants as close as I can to the notation," he said.

Since his retirement in 2002, he gives demonstrations on American Indian music and the use of musical instruments such as the tom-toms, hand drums, striking sticks, shakers and rasps. He is also creating adaptations of traditional chants to Christian hymns in English. He has created these adaptations as a way to preserve the music and keep it in use, he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.