As I sit here tonight in Olympia, Washington, I find myself half way through the west coast leg of my ‘Horse Spirit’ U.S. Tour. Along the way, we have shared time with many wonderful, beautiful souls, and have witnessed the healing power of this new ‘Horse Spirit’ music. The concert experience takes the audience on a deeply moving journey, inviting all to ‘ride back into the wounds’ of the past, and rise up out the other side transformed and healed.
The Native flute itself is an instrument that can and does heal. It is a humble vessel, empty inside, with its ego out of the way, that allows spirit to flow freely through it. It was born of love, and of a broken and then mended heart. That power to mend became another of its uses, which continues to this day. It survived terrible cultural upheaval, and is now experiencing a worldwide renaissance. And why? Because the world is hurting and humanity has lost its connection to the earth, to simplicity, humility and wisdom. The essence of all Native music is its earth connection. Whether it is a Native flute, a hand drum or a powwow drum, the songs Native people bring forth from these instruments are about connection, honor and spirit.
With ‘Horse Spirit’, the music is weaved into a braid with the stories of the Chief Bigfoot Memorial Ride, the history of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and reflections about how we all must address our wounds in order to truly heal them, and that when we do, we restore our health, our purpose and our happiness. The response to this musical journey has been deeply moving for me. People are resonating with it, finding inspiration and meaning for their lives. What an incredible, humbling honor!
Wopila (Great Thanks) to all who have come out to attend my ‘Horse Spirit’ concerts, bought the album, and connected with it’s message. Together, we ride into the shadows, that we may claim the light....
Etiquette with Native People
And so we broach what can be a sensitive topic with this blog – etiquette – as it pertains to interacting with American Indian people. Right out of the gate we will address one. You notice I said ‘American Indian’, instead of ‘Native American’? Well my friends, that is on purpose. The term ‘Native American’ is a term that was invented by the U.S. Government, and a majority of First Nations people prefer other identifying terms. Having said that, no First Nations person is going to be upset by the term ‘Native American’! To keep things simple, I will use the term ‘Native people’ for this blog.
So, what does it mean to exercise etiquette toward Native people? Why is it even necessary?
The reason it is necessary is both historical and cultural. Historically, Native people were grossly misunderstood, misrepresented and often characterized in unflattering, inaccurate and even demeaning, insulting ways by the American government, mainstream media and society. A quick peruse through newspaper articles of the past about American Indian issues will plainly illustrate the warped historical view most Americans had of Native people in those times. Those warped views continue today in many ways, some subtle and some more obvious (obvious at least to Native people). The problem with these misconceptions is that they cause injury to Native peoples, injury in the form of racism, teenage suicide (3 times the national average), violence against Native people, alcoholism, epidemic poverty and many other socio-economic issues. This is why it is very necessary to understand and exercise etiquette with Native people.
So, to keep things light and positive, I will focus more on the ‘dos’ than the ‘don’ts’! Here are a few for you:
There are, of course, a lot more ‘dos’ and many ‘don’ts’, but the basic message here boils down to respect. To give someone, anyone, respect, you must see them as an equal. You must see them as human, and not a caricature, a villain, a hero, a mascot or a romanticized fantasy character. To respect a Native person, one must treat them as just that – a person - and not anything more or anything less. We are people. We are human beings; human beings with incredibly diverse human traits, complex cultural traditions and ancient complicated histories. We are not the two dimensional buffalo head nickel, Edward Curtis portrait, sports team mascot cartoon characters much of the mainstream western world has painted us to be. It is necessary to discuss etiquette toward Native people, frankly because it is so often not practiced. So, in summation, etiquette just means to be decent, polite, respectful and gracious. Apply those simple graces to your interactions with Native people as you would any other person, and we may just get to know each other for who we really are!
A Tribute to Grandpa Bob
I am very sad right now. My hunka Grandpa Bob passed away today at 1pm CST. Hunka, meaning he is a relative by way of a making of relatives ceremony. I am so glad we got to spend this last day with him. He was a man with an amazing life story. Born to a Yankton Sioux father and an Irish immigrant mother in Chicago in 1933, he was abandoned the first year of his life. His mother left the hospital after the birth and never returned. His father came to get him after he had been there a year and took him to the Yankton rez in Wagner, SD, where he lived for the next 5 years with his Yankton Sioux family. Then, one day in 1937 or 38 his dad put him in the car and drove him to St. Joseph's Indian School and gave him up. Grandpa Bob can remember when there were only 2 wooden buildings at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Adopted by a white couple (the Austins) from Chicago a year later, Grandpa Bob never saw his biological father again. And yet he never lost his sense of Sioux Indian identity, and thankfully, his adoptive parents fully supported it. Bob kept busy throughout his youth and into adulthood crafting everything from traditional regalia to birch bark canoes to tipis. He danced at powwows and kept active in all things American Indian.
Bob was taken by his parents to visit reservations in South Dakota on several occasions throughout his childhood. He recounted to me many of his memories of those times. On one trip, he was taken to a wacipi (dance) on Pine Ridge Reservation, and he remembered seeing the grass dancers wearing the actual grass on their regalia. He also remembered vividly the uncomfortable stares he got, presumably because of his lighter skin. Bob was Indian through and through, and yet the disconnect was painfully apparent, and I think it bothered him greatly, though he never spoke of it. Being a Native person with mixed ancestry is no easy road, as I can attest, and Bob’s road was incredibly difficult.
Bob served in the Army, survived the Korean War, and worked many different kinds of jobs over the years. He was married once, and his wife died quite young. He never married again. Through it all, Bob maintained his cultural connection by continuing to create traditional regalia, and dancing at powwows, as well as making countless trips to reservations in South Dakota. It was in early adulthood that he learned the ancient art of American Indian finger-weaving, and discovered that he had a real knack for the craft. Bob went on to become arguably the most prolific American Indian finger-weaver in Indian country, achieving true Master status (Grandpa Bob would laugh and downplay that statement for sure!). 50 years of weaving produced countless hundreds of pieces that simply cannot be rivaled by any other finger-weavings you will see anywhere. And now that he is gone, some of his secrets have gone with him.
Grandpa Bob blessed me in more ways than I can express. He was a teacher, a historian, a philosopher, a spiritual man, and a traditionalist. He was so deeply Indian that even total separation from his Sioux family could not suppress his natural identity, nor could it keep him away from being totally immersed in his culture. It was an honor of great measure to sit beside him all these years and learn from him. He knew so many of the subtle details of our old culture. He was full with wisdom, and with a wry sense of humor, always poking at himself for my amusement. I can’t tell you the endless hours I sat quietly listening to his stories and his thoughts, to have him stop now and then to say, “Now there I go blabbering again! Tell me about what you have been doing!” In no time he’d be headlong into another story and I’d be happy to be listening again.
I am going to miss those stories. I am going to miss looking into those old Sioux eyes and seeing that twinkle of mischief. And I am going to miss those awkward hugs he would give Peggy and I when it was clear he never wanted us to leave. I love you Grandpa Bob. I always have. I always will. You taught me so much about what it takes to be true to yourself, even when it seems impossible. You are my hero. May you find your ancestors waiting at the fires on the other side. Until then…. Toksa ake!
John Two-Hawks - Grammy nominated Native American Flute Music Recording Artist, author, activist and speaker. FULL BIO