The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is as big as Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and it has some of the highest poverty rates in the United States. For the past three years, it has also hosted performances of music written by high school composers for the instruments of a European-style symphony orchestra.
“It’s really a great thing to see these kids, and the pride that the reservation has in having these kids be stars,” says David Gier, the music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra.
The annual music academy is only one arm of the Lakota Music Project, a collaborative program developed with the orchestra and musicians of the tribe. The goal is to create cultural cooperation and break down barriers, enabling audiences to learn more about traditional art — of the Lakota, and of a symphony orchestra.
“Through music, we are able to show a side of us that nobody gets to see,” says Emmanuel Black Bear, a traditional singer and two-time winner of a Native American Music Award. “There is a lot of negative media around the native people . . . [but] we have a rich culture. I wanted to be a part of something where we could show the positive side of our people through music.”
Black Bear, along with the cedar flute player Bryan Akipa and nine members of the South Dakota Symphony, is bringing the Lakota Music Project to Washington in October, when he will perform at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and at Washington National Cathedral — part of a festival conceived and hosted by the PostClassical Ensemble to spotlight Native American influences on American classical music.
“I find the Lakota Music Project a visionary undertaking,” says Joseph Horowitz, the PostClassical Ensemble’s executive director, “and I feel it deserves to be more widely known.”
The project was spawned in 2005, shortly after Gier took up his post in Sioux Falls. “Education” and “community outreach” were not yet buzzwords in the orchestra world, but Gier was eager to develop such programs, and he quickly learned that the main racial tensions in his new community were between Native and non-Native Americans.
He began approaching local leaders and experts, including Ronnie Theisz, a professor emeritus at Black Hills State University and the author of several books on Lakota culture. The two men talked about creating a true joint endeavor, something that would be meaningful to everyone involved and that would exist beyond a mere one-off performance. A eureka moment came on a snowy evening at Pine Ridge when the orchestra’s nine principals and the Porcupine Singers, a drumming circle renowned on the reservation, met to exchange ideas and play music for one another.
“At one point,” says Gier, “the keeper of the drum said, ‘We sing the old songs; we’re not a powwow group. We really want to pass on our tradition to the next generation, because we feel it’s valuable.’ I said, ‘Bingo.’” The musician had named the main thing both groups had in common.
There are plenty of differences as well. A European-style orchestra and a Native American drumming group are unlikely bedfellows. “Native music is more freestyle,” says Black Bear, who has been part of the Lakota Music Project since 2009. “Our count starts when we start. We have timing, but it’s not one-two-three-four. In the beginning, it was kind of difficult to match them together.”
The first Lakota Music Project tour, in 2009, established a template the project’s concerts still follow. Theisz, who became a mentor to the project, suggested grouping the concert around four themes — love and death, joy and sadness — with related pieces of music from each culture. Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” for instance, was contrasted with a Lakota song for a fallen warrior.
The second half featured new works drawing on Lakota themes. Brent Michael Davids’s “Black Hills Olowan,” the first commission, involves a traditional Lakota song embedded in a Western orchestral setting. The D.C. performances will include works by the Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a former composer-in-residence of the South Dakota Symphony, and Jeffrey Paul, the orchestra’s principal oboist.
Somewhat ironically, the Lakota Music Project is coming to Washington as a result of Horowitz’s championing of the Indianist movement, a school that flourished in the early 20th century in which American classical composers based works on putatively Native American themes. Horowitz calls this “a major American cultural event that’s been totally forgotten” — though he concedes that one reason for its neglect is that “Most of the music is kitsch.” Still, he cites three significant figures who incorporated “Indian” themes: Antonin Dvorak, who used supposedly Native as well as African American melodies in his “New World Symphony;” the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni; and the obscure Arthur Farwell, whom Horowitz calls “one of the most amazing people in the history of American music.” In addition to the Lakota Music Project’s contribution, October’s performances will result in a commercial recording of Farwell’s music.
From the Lakota point of view, however, the “Indianist” movement represents cultural appropriation and a fundamental misunderstanding of actual Native traditions.
“Even when they loved to take source music from different Indian tribes,” Theisz says of the Indianist composers, “they didn’t appreciate it, and considered it primitive; they had to supply harmonies and musical qualities to improve it.
“We’re trying to counter that,” he adds. “Hearing the real music is part of the project.”
The Lakota Music Project’s main focus remains on building bridges through music.
“My principal cellist for the first seven years of the project was a Russian guy,” says Gier. “On the first tour [in 2009], we played the program five times. We got to love these drummers, the camaraderie, being on the road. And the cellist said, ‘You know, David, I’ve played a lot of Tchaikovsky in my life; but this may be the most important thing I’ve ever done.’
“It’s just human connection,” Gier adds, “and feeling like we can make a difference.”
Emmanuel Black Bear has performed in Washington a few times before.
“My view on coming to Washington is we’re getting a bigger stage for the project, so now some people are going to see our vision,” he says. “That’s our hope. . . . No matter which cultures it is, we can work together, and that’s how we create a better future. I know it’s a long shot. But if we can help it in any way and show people that we can work together, then we’re doing what we set out to do.”
The Lakota Music Project will appear at the National Museum of the American Indian on Oct. 19 and at Washington National Cathedral on Oct. 16 and 21.