The third adventure of my alter-self seems to be the most remote and unfeasible. Native Americans lived isolated on United States imposed reservations that have shrunk from decade to decade. I could visit and even get into a conversation. Perhaps a pow-wow where everyone is open to visitors I would befriend someone. I wanted to “become” a friend and take this concept of music to a people whose musical voice had, in my opinion, been silenced. Not long after 9/11 my golden opportunity came. Waiting in the airport for a last leg to Montgomery, Alabama, I sat next to an attractive woman in an over-crowded room that had only one seat available; the one next to her. She noticed my driver’s license and asked about 9/11.
She had watched the smoke at the Pentagon from her office in United States Probations. Rene Green was a United States probations officer. She was on her way to Montgomery to advise courts and lawyers how to save money in the probational process.
We were on the same plane. When she found out I was faculty at the Fame school she spoke of art she had collected working in what she referred to as “Indian Country”. I asked whether the youth had talent. “Do they!” she said. On the plane between Atlanta and Montgomery we planned a program that later we gave the name, Share the Fame. Rene contacted the various probation and court chiefs in Washington and North Dakota and by November 2002 I was on the road traveling from Spirit Lake, to Turtle Mountain, to Mandan, and finally Standing Rock reservations.
It was Standing Rock that I met Kim Cournoyer, a musician and like me, classically trained with the same dreams and ideals about music. She began her band program at Fort Yates high school from the ground up. I mentioned the idea of a classical music that traveled from South Africa, to Vietnam. Music from traditional music that transcribed to orchestra, band, or other ensembles revealed a culture and inspired others to play the music from other cultures, particularly for the young. She had had the same dream. Lakota drum music had not been transcribed for other ensembles. She was surprised that I felt she would be the musician to transcribe the drum ceremonial songs. She had dreamed of the music but never had thought she would be the vehicle. For two summers Jennifer, my children and I traveled to Kim’s home with her husband, Patrick, and children Chase and Chayla. We set up in their back yard our camping tents and eating tent we named “Martha Stewart”. Very soon we were family and sharing life and humor.
Jennifer found from the American Music Center a grant called Common Ground for Native American composers. I contacted Kim. She was yet getting used to the idea of being the person to create this music. Julie Polito, an inspired New York City educator and visionary, worked with me to apply for Kim. Common Ground was a grant from the Ford Foundation. All of the monies would go to Native Americans. Julie being the woman she had proven to be many times over in education wars in New York City worked on the grant simply because it meant a vision in motion.
The grant was awarded to Kim. When we camped out in Kim and Patrick’s backyard the summer of 2008 I met Virgil “Taken Alive” an elder and Terry “Yellow Fat”, also a tribal elder. I was their age. We talked at length about restoring the Lakota culture once vibrant with ceremony, language, and tradition. I spoke about Kim’s project. Hers meant sharing the culture outside the reservation. I felt that they should be cautious about sharing with the history of United States theft, from the Black Hills to the attempt to erase the language and ceremonies in the name of cultural assimilation. I strongly expressed the feeling that Kim’s transcribing Lakota drum songs for high school band would be both historic and a place of strength rebuilding their culture with the young. The appearance of a white buffalo had signaled the Sioux and other tribes that their lands and culture would be restored. I felt that Kim Cournoyer was a part of the white buffalo’s prophecy.
In a sense, Kim was a Lakota princess. Her great grandfather, Black Elk, was the legendary Lakota medicine man. Black Elk Speaks chronicles Black Elk’s life and contribution to the spiritual life of all the native peoples. I read the book moved by his life.
Rosa Martinez, his granddaughter, and Kim’s aunt, told me many stories about her grandfather. The one that moved me to tears was the fact that he had grown up wearing moccasins which fit and were healthy for his feet. The government (United States) removed him to a school for assimilation and forced him to wear shoes. In his later years his feet were deformed from wearing them. Rosa felt the injustice merited monies the government gave for mistakes made during the assimilation years. In the fall, Kim approached the tribal council about funds to take her high school band on the road with the transcribed drum songs. I contacted Fiona, who Ralph Neiweem had referred me to about arranging a performance at the Chicago Institute of Music. Fiona loved the program and scheduled a performance. Kim had a performance already in Minneapolis from the Common Ground folk. She called the Native American museum in New York City and they offered her a performance.
The tribal council came through and Kim had her Trail Tour 2009. She felt the burden more and more working on the music. I assured her that her fears would only make a stronger work of music. Of my three adventures I was not a composer for the Lakota adventure. I was a mentor a cheer leader. There are no works except Kim Cournoyer’s. My new role was patriarchal. Much like the tribal elders, Virgil "Taken Alive" and Terry 'Yellow Fat", I fell easily into the role of passing the torch. Kim had the talent, the vision, and the pedigree. Like anyone growing into the confidence needed to fulfill a talent and dream, she needed a mentor. I had grown from my own mentors. It was my turn to be one.
I joined Chamber Music America this year looking for grant money. In this month's magazine is an article on Hopi and Navajo youth composing string quartets. The teaching staff is non native which is what makes Kim Cournoyer unique. She is taking time and serious care transcribing Lakota drum songs in order to preserve the "spirit" in the music. She is native, trained as a musician, and dreamed of an all native band. I heard the NYC performance of her work thus far. She introduced "The Lands You Fear" on the native flute. Courtney Yellowfat sang it and played the drum, followed by the band, all Lakota youth, playing the drum song. This separates the work written of in the Chamber Music magazine, not to mention the fact that Kim, Courtney, and the band performed here in NYC, and there is no evidence of this sharing from the Hopi and Navajo reservations or Chamber Music America assisting them to share it.
I learned the differences when I was with the musicians in Soweto. Non-natives can only create superficial transcriptions in the beginnings, a falseness heard by the natives in works everyone else feels are authentic. I remained out of the process with Kim Cournoyer only to make an occassional comment about meter or variation. While these music visits to the Rez are in intent, good, it must be the Rez that shares and we to listen and struggle. It is their treasure, their hope for the young, their healing, our blessing if we so choose to remain humble and contrite, having hurt them in the last century. Kim, like myself, is a musician, and it is on that plateau we meet and fellowship. What a golden valley it is for us!
Ceremonial Drum Song in Honor of Patrick
News Article on NYC Performance