The Origin of the Ani Couni Native American Song

Monique Palomares wrote about the meaning and history of the Native American song “Ani Couni”…

i_052Ani Couni is a Native American song that’s well known in many countries. Yet no one seems to know for certain its true origin.

There are many variations of how the title and lyrics are spelled, sometimes Ani Couni, sometimes Ani Kuni. The lyrics are usually given without any translation and different meanings have been attributed to it without any reliable source.

Here is the translation we were given:

When evening descended upon the Indian village*,
When evening descended upon the Indian village
The Medicine-man disappeared into the forest,
The Medicine-man disappeared into the forest,
Touching the ground with his hands
Touching the ground with his hands.

*Someone else sent us an alternate translation to the first line, “‘When evening descended upon the black village’.  In this version ‘black’ must be understood as ‘dark as the night is falling’.”

After receiving the first translation, I came across a site (that no longer exists) with a note by Line Romain Descombes from Andicha n’de Wendat, who explained that all the American Indian nations claimed the song.  I emailed the site and here’s part of the answer I received from Diane Picard:

“…We all learned this chant from our old ones and all the children learned it at school.  Indians go back to long ago, thousands of years, so we might deduce from it that the words we pronounce now are not the very same as they would be.  As Ms Line Descombes said, this ancient chant of lament has become a folklore chant over time and it’s what we teach in our shows across the world…” (Translated from the French.) 

Later, a French lady wrote to us about Ani Couni.  Here is what she wrote (translated into English):

“Here is the translation to the Iroquois song ‘Ani couni chaouani’…”

Father, have pity on me,

Father, have pity on me

I’m thirsty

I’m thirsty

And there is nothing left to eat

And there is nothing left to eat.

-From J. Mooney – Arapahoe Ghost Dance Song


This piece of information comes from an old book I love called ‘Les Indiens des plaines’ by Daniel Dubois and Yves Berger.

A few days ago, we received an email from Marie in Montreal asking about the song and saying she found a French Wikipedia entry about it with lyrics, a translation, score and midi.  According to the entry, the song is a prayer and it means: 

Father, have pity on me,

Father, have pity on me

I’m dying of thirst

I’m dying of thirst

All is gone, I have nothing to eat

All is gone, I have nothing to eat. 

What is puzzling is that some sources say the song is Iroquois while other sources say it’s Arapaho.  Now, according to the book at the link given on Wikipedia, the song belongs to the Arapaho. (Source J. W. Powel, Fourteenth annual report of the Bureau of ethnology to the secretary of the Smithsonian institution, Vol. 2, Washington, Government printing office, 1896, page 977.)

Now the question is…

How did this Arapaho Ghost Dance prayer come to be spread as an Iroquois song, and even lullaby, while the languages belong to different linguistic families, Algonquian for the Arapaho and Iroquoian for the Iroquois?


That would be interesting to find out!

If anyone knows more about this song, please share any info in the comments below.

Many thanks to Monique Palomares for writing about “Ani Couni”.  Monique works with us on the French and Spanish versions of Mama Lisa’s World.

*****

We recently received the following email from François Lavigne in regards to that last question (translated from French):

Madame,

You asked the question of how an Arapaho song could have “migrated” from the Iroquois people to become a well-known folk song. I think I can answer that question.

As you may know, the First Nations traded a lot. The big lakes were a meeting place. From as far as Canada’s north, the First Nations came from everywhere, bringing with them local food and produce. In this environment many people met and exchanged ideas, stories, songs, dances.

Interestingly enough, there are indications that even the Vikings would have participated in these meetings. They would have come to the Boston area more than five thousand years ago, looking for copper in particular. That’s why some Vikings myths can be found now – adapted and modified – in southern parts of the United States.

François Lavigne
Ottawa

This article was posted on Saturday, April 11th, 2015 at 9:29 pm and is filed under Arapaho, Arapaho, Children's Songs, Countries & Cultures, Folk Songs, Iroquois, Iroquois, Languages, Lullabies, Native American Indian, Native American Indian Songs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

25 Responses to “The Origin of the Ani Couni Native American Song”

  1. Melanie Says:

    My daughter’s teacher (non Indigenous) taught this to the kids as an Iroquois lullaby. I, as a Mohawk, had never heard this song in my life, having been raised with my mother as a fluent language speaker. The words are not vaguely Iroquois from what I can tell. You should probably remove the 5 nations flag from the website in reference to this song.

  2. Lisa Says:

    Thanks for writing Melanie. We added a note before the song on our Iroquois song page as follows which helps explain why some Iroquois sing/sang it:

    The original song is the Arapaho Ghost Dance song called “Ani’qu ne’chawu’nani'”. Line Romain Descombes from the Andicha n’de Wendat site, once wrote that all of the American Indian Nations claimed this song.

  3. ftg Says:

    ani kuni chaouani
    ani kuni chaouani

    a wa wa bikana caina
    a wa wa bikana caina

    e auni bissini
    e auni bissini

  4. JoAnne Says:

    I was told by a Mohawk elder who did a lot of research and co-wrote a history book on Mohawk and algonquin migration that it was a “Micmac” song that was related to the migration when they were banished from there lands and sent West and later on were able to return. Not sure how accurate that is, but I learned the song in school as a French Canadian living near Montreal.

  5. Stella torosyan Says:

    Ani qu ne’ chawu’nani
    ani qu ne ‘ chawu’nani
    A wa wa bikana’ kayena
    a wa wa biqana’ kayena
    Iyahuhthi’ bisiti
    Iyahuhthi’ bisiti

  6. Johanna Says:

    Hi,
    I’m glad I found your site. I learnt this song in kindergarden in Holland from a foreign girl.
    I sang this song to my children when they were little and couldn’t sleep.
    I never forgot the song and have been looking for a long time for its origin and meaning, so tanks a lot for sharing!
    Johanna

  7. Bonnie Says:

    So happy I found this site! I too learned this song as a child in Ontario and have used it as a lullaby ever since. My own daughter loves it now but I have always wanted to know more about the song’s origins. Thank you for sharing.

  8. dacian Says:

    This song is full of history of great Indian!

  9. Mario Says:

    Indians live in India

  10. Nancy Says:

    I too have learned that song as a child when I was in the Brownies (younger Girl Guides) and treasured it ever since. I’m now over 50 yrs old and still enjoy it. I was then told the version of the “Father of the skies, please have pity on me, I am thirsty and there is nothing left to eat.” I was born in Abitibi (Northwest of the province of Quebec in Canada) where Anishinabe and Cree Nations cohabit. I too was told it was an old Iroquois song.

  11. Alicia Moonbeam Says:

    I dont know if you can help me but I am curious to know how these words would translate in Cherokee, I dont anything about my dads side of my family were there is Native American blood.

    I am creating a non-profit program through my studio to work with young girls after school. I have being working in Spain putting the program together inspired by story telling, drums, needle felting and more. i have been reinterpreting some stories for the program. One being the lo loba story retold by Clarrissa Pinklola Etses then me, I want to share a chant using these words but in a ancient language but I dont want to offend or cross the line. Its meant to inspire these young girls not harm them or turn them into witches. I want them to feel the vibration in there chest as they sing over their bones. these are the words: soul in my bones hear my song as i sing you back into me. I tried to cut n paste my story but it wont have any of it;) if you want more info I am happy to share and communicate. i am not sure if anyone is going to get this so I dont want to invest to much in case.
    Warmly
    Moonbeam

  12. Zvi Says:

    Just heard a fascinating follow up to this question on CBC Montréal :
    http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/montreal/programs/allinaweekend/the-story-behind-ani-kuni-1.4051844

  13. Lisa Says:

    Thanks for sharing that Zvi! Very interesting. -Mama Lisa

  14. About the Arapaho Song “Ani Kuni” Says:

    […] You can read more about the song on Mama Lisa’s Blog in the article The Origin of the Ani Couni Native American Song […]

  15. Abe Says:

    Zvi that link was extremely helpful. It was driving me crazy trying to find out what the words mean! Thank you!

  16. Nia Says:

    I AM A GOLDEN AGER IN HER 60S. I ALSO PARTOOK
    IN MY LATE 20S WHEN I VISITED A POW-WOW FOR MY FIRST TIME (BEING CDN. ITALA). I WAS INSPIRED TO PLAY-COMPOSE A SCORE TO THIS ”FATHER OF THE SKIES” LULLABY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR CULTURES FELLOW DENIZENS.

  17. Alain Tremblay Says:

    I grew up in Louvicourt qc. I did half my elementary school in Lac Simon and in my teens I worked at La residence pavillon notre dame de la route.

    I learned Ani Kuni in kindergarten. Our french speaking teacher attempted to teach fluent Anishnabe speakers how to sing it. I learned the song from my schoolmates.

    The words of the song are not that important. The song/chant is likely more than a 1400 years old so no one nation can claim ownership and no one really knows the original words. We have NO 1000 years old American dictionary.

    In Anishnabe forever or the beginning of time has been estimated at more than 1400 years.

    The meaning of the chant changes depending of the occasion.

    At a funeral we sang it slowly with a lot of sorrow. And for the births or for other happy celebrations we chanted faster and brighter

    Chief Papatie explained to me that most of the east coast tribes were 1 nation before the European came.

    There used to be only 3 nations in all of America. And they communicated across time and space.

    For example if a new Anishnabe king was born the news would be transmitted across the world in a few days. Gifts would arrive for months or years.

    Their communication network was the glue of nations and the source of peace.

    The first internet

    Security and secrecy was achieved by using emotions/tone/rythm or pre shared messages while singing/speaking “meaningless” words .

    Ani Kuni predates ALL current first nations.

  18. Doreen-Ann Says:

    I heard the radio broadcast of Zvi. Not sure I would totally agree with Stephen in the radio broadcast with his Iroquois interview. People with Iroquois descent have not heard about the song or much of it. It would make sense that it would be Arapaho. If you google up Arapaho the definition is. :1-a member of a North American Indian people living chiefly on the Great Plains, especially in Wyoming.
    2. the Algonquian language of the Arapaho, now almost extinct.
    adjective.

    Now I grew up in Aylmer, Qc across The Outaouais river in the Ottawa Valley. I am from the Algonquins on my mother side, we also learned Ani Kuni. I found a very old book once at the library with an old map where all the old tribes were in their original names in Canada. The Algonquins were living in the Ottawa area a long time ago. I agree with Alain Tremblay we do not have 1,000 year old dictionary. So the Algonquin language was already here a long time ago. If you are going back a thousand year ago the tribes used to move around a lot. Finding food for the people was necessary. But around the Ottawa Valley was the last settlement in the old days for the Algonquins. I welcome anyone with more information.

  19. Murielle Says:

    Woow. this is deeply touching. I learned the song in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1983. I was 5 years old and was in Kindergarten. I remember my teacher telling me that this is a song from north american native people. Today, I live in Canada and I am impressed to see the lyrics I had are very close to the real lyrics. What a treasure!

  20. Antoinette Says:

    Regarding Nia’s comment, I heard this chant in a Québecois 2014 film: Le Camping Sauvage with Guy
    Lepage and Sylive Moreau

  21. Sigrún Says:

    Thanks for great information. I live in Iceland and learned this song in the scouts around 1970. It always lived in my head and nowadays I hear: “Grandma, will you please Ani Kuni me so that I can sleep” Ani Kuni is now a lullaby for my grandchildren and we all treasure the soothing rhythm of it.

  22. Jan Says:

    Hi guys,
    thank you for informations about that song. Found the Alain Tremblay’s explanation very nice.
    I have learned this song in age of 5 in Czechoslovakia by my dad’s french friends. I love it since than.

    Love a beauty for all beings

  23. Angel Villanueva Says:

    No podría aportar ante tanta cantidad de estudiosos. de esta hermosa y triste canción. Solo denotar que cuando la escucho llega al sentimiento más profundo. Gracias por tanta información respecto de esta canción eterna.

  24. Fiona Says:

    Thank you for putting this song here. I have been looking for the lyrics/phonetics for a little while now. Having learned it as a child I was mispronouncing it as hani kuni, but it has significance for me as I started singing it one day just to myself while living in Quebec ( I am from Southern Ontario) to find that my landlady, from Quebec knew the same song.

  25. Nathalie Gagnon Says:

    I learnt this song at school in the sixties in Rosemont-Montreal. I always liked it. When my children were young they each had their lullaby before falling asleep: my daughter had a song from India and I sang “Hani couni” to my son. While working at Montreal Botanical Garden I had to sing the song in a Halloween play for children. The pedagogic play “Pepo Citrouille” aimed to trace and explain the origin and uses of the squash/pumpkin belonging to the “Cucurbitaceae” botanic family. The squashes together with the corn and the beans are knows to the First Nations in America as the “Three sisters”.
    Now nearly twenty years later I sing “Hani couni” to my five grand-sons. It’s the bedtime and comfort song for them all. :-) Few weeks ago I was asked to perform a little song on a birthday party in Holland. I sang the “Québécois” “Hani couni” saying that the origins and meanings were not so clear. Then a ten year-old said he new this Canadian song and that he learnt it at school in Amsterdam! So it seems that this song is meant to travel through nations, time and space and carry peace, love and comfort. When I sing it low and slow, it’s like a mantra. Although I’m not sure yet of how I will translate “Hani couni” to my grand-children, I appreciated reading this post and always feel good when learning about the First Nations. Thanks to all of you. Migwetch!

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