We Sing


We Sing

What does it mean to sing at the drum? How does kinship transform losses? How do powwows link families and traditions? Blackfeet and Salish elders and youth integrate past and present through kinship and commemorative performance. Together their voices make a song of innovation and resilience.

AIRED: August 31, 2017 | 0:27:37

- My name is Kenneth Charles Eaglespeaker.

My childhood name was Asane, which means

the dark holy red paint

that we use on our faces when we have ceremonies.

That's what I was named after.

I transferred that name to my grandson.

And I took him when he was just a small little boy.

Nobody wanted him.

He used to throw these fits and he would hit his mother.

She would ignore him.

She drank a lot.

All this little boy wanted was to be loved.

So one day, he was just screaming and screaming.

I just picked him up, held him in my arms.

He was hitting me.

And I put him in my truck and I drove away with him.

His mother thought I took him away to kill him or something.

But I told him, if you keep quiet I'll buy you ice cream.

And if you're a really good boy,

I'll be your grandpa.

And I'll never leave you alone.

I'll always love you.

And from then on I took care of this little boy

like a father and a child.

Used to curl up by me like a little puppy.

And it was just a few years ago

that he quit sleeping by my bed.

He would make a bed on the floor by my bed.

And I told him, what are you gonna do?

You're gonna have a wife,

and you and your wife gonna lay on the bed next to me?

I taught him just about everything I know

about the dancing, the singing.

I told him the ancient history,

the old ways where the dancing came from.

An accomplished dancer should know

how to make the things which he wears,

like the beadwork, the hidework,

the featherwork, the leatherwork.

All these things, it took me years and years

to learn how to do them in a good manner.

So, you know, passing on this type of dancing,

powwow dancing, to another boy.

There's one thing about the Blackfoot culture,

it's not static.

It is constantly changing.

New ideas are being adopted.

Things become very traditional really fast.

- [Narrator] There was a myth at the turn of the century

that Indian people could not cope with modern life,

and were doomed to extinction,

that Indians could not change and still be Indian.

The most well-known promoter of this myth

was photographer Edward Curtis.

From 1899 to 1933, Curtis photographed

Indian people across North America.

If an Indian used technology like an alarm clock,

seen here in a portrait of Blackfeet elder

Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney,

Curtis would erase the technology.

Here's the portrait of Little Plume and Yellow Kidney

that Curtis published.

He has turned the alarm clock into an Indian basket.

During the fur trade,

tribes created family ties across cultures

through intermarriage and adoptions.

Family ties in turn strengthened

diplomatic, economic, and social ties,

between tribes or between nations.

If you've been separated from your culture,

adoptions can connect you to your tribal way of life.

- I was raised in Anaconda, Montana,

and it was a mining town.

The people that raised me, they adopted me.

And they loved me dearly.

But I was the only Indian from first to sixth grade.

And they wanted to know why there was a,

which is not a nice word to ever say,

why was there a nigger in school?

And, you know, I was really offended,

but I kind of put it all together

that I must not have been a very good person.

It became really difficult after a while

to where I didn't wanna have dark hair and brown skin.

I wanted to be blond-haired and blue-eyed,

and I told my mom that one time.

I says I wanna be blond-haired and blue-eyed,

because I had no concept

on what the word Indian meant.

Before, when I had met Mary,

and we became very close,

and she asked me to be part of her family.

She pulled me into the Indian way of life.

- [Mary] Since my family isn't here,

and I got to know Rose,

I was kinda having a hard time,

I just needed a woman to talk to.

Somebody that would understand

what I was going through at that time.

- She took me by the hand

and when I started to dance, she showed me how

to make an outfit, a good outfit.

She showed me how to make moccasins and leggings,

and helped me make them.

My hair, you know, how I was to fix my hair.

When she asked me to be her sister,

that was not something I had thought.

It was not in my mind, and it was a big honor.

- So I said, you know, I could do this,

but I gotta go about it in the right way.

And usually, that's what, you know, tobacco was used.

- And she took this cigarette

and she took the filter off,

and she lit it, and she started talking.

And I can't remember the exact words.

And then, she said, I have something to ask you.

And she handed me the cigarette,

and as she was handing it to me,

she explained what she was doing.

And it was just, I dunno, it was

I was stunned.

- Well you know, when you got somebody there to talk to,

then it makes you feel better.

- All I could do was sit there and cry.

You know, that was

I love her for it.

You know, we spend time together as one big family,

and I know that if any of my children have difficulty,

they could go to her, and they know that.

So yeah, when she took me as a sister,

that was one of the best things

that could have happened to me.

And the turning point in my life

to finally have that puzzle piece fit in,

and to know where I truly belong.

- My tribe is Gros Ventre,

and then also Assiniboine which is also Nakota.

I was adopted and so

Jack Barton is my adopted name.

In high school, my best friend was a Finlander.

Got all the women.

I wanted to be like him.

But every time I tried to be like him,

somebody would say, where are you from?

So it kind of puts a mirror up to me,

and realizes that I'm not white

and I don't look like I sing with the Beach Boys.

So I had to, I hid from that for a long time.

Didn't wanna deal with it.

I lived in Butte, lived down on the Flats,

so I didn't have to deal with the drunk Indians

up on the hill, so to speak.

Being in the powwow, since I sobered up,

gave me a better understanding and feeling

of what it is to be Indian.

The challenge that came from it,

of going back to the reservation,

and talking to some of the people that lived there.

I became closer to Johnny Arlee.

I seek his advice.

It's a good feeling to go out there,

and it kinda gives you a serenity.

And I've found people who are also in that circle

are recovering alcoholics too.

They resurface as an Indian, so to speak.

They got their ways back.

- After World War II,

after a lot of Indian people were exposed to other places,

like the Blackfeet worked in Seattle,

the Sioux were in Portland and Denver,

and the Navajo were in Los Angeles

working in the industries that supported the war,

made ships and planes and stuff,

a lot of our cultures started to get meshed together

at these inter-tribal powwows,

they called them, in the cities.

- [Narrator] Sometimes powwowing began

at home with the family drum,

like the Yazzies.

Dave and Mary Yazzie moved to Idaho Falls

to work at the potato processing plants.

- My husband, when he started singing,

he did gather some of the Indian people in this area,

and they'd sing together.

Some would move on, go find another job,

and they were unable to always come.

So he would sit there,

by the stove, by himself,

with his big old drum, pounding away and singing.

- My dad liked to sing.

And we only had one brother.

- And the kids, they were all teenagers.

We had four girls and one boy.

- We were eager to sing.

- [Mary] When the drum was first put together,

I remember I said it was sacred.

It was the men that sat around the drum, not the women.

- So my mom called down to Wyoming

and talked to one of the elders,

and he says, well since you guys life off the reservation,

and you only have one son, it's okay.

- He said, I understand why you're over there,

because of work.

He said, but how is your children gonna learn

if you don't teach them?

He said, go ahead.

- My father's born for the Bitter Water Clan,

and the One Who Walks Around Another, from Arizona.

And my mother is from Wyoming,

and she's born for the Blue Sky people, in Ethete, Wyoming.

We were raised in the Navajo and Arapaho

way of belief,

as well as the, excuse me,

white people way of belief as well.

Or Caucasian.

And so we kinda had combined everything together.

My dad said, okay, we're gonna sing Navajo songs.

And we sat down at the drum,

and I remember, he wrote them all down in words.

All the Navajo words for us.

Okay, I can't speak Navajo, but I surely can sing it.

I don't know if everybody does that,

but we had singing papers, that he'd tell us,

okay, we're gonna sing the grandmother song.

So we'd reach down, okay, got it!

- Sitting there like music

But you know, they all learned.

They all sing.

- My tribe here is Pend d'Oreille.

As long as I know, my mom used to sit at the drum.

Other tribes move in here, and they say, it's not our way.

Then I always argue about that.

I say, this is my tribe.

And if my mom sings at the drum,

let all these girls sing at my drum.

And I'm an elder, whatever I say has to go.

- I have a lot of songs from my grandparents,

my mom and stepdad,

so I divide my songs to my kids.

- Time was when, not everyone would make it to

whatever occasion or powwow,

and we know the songs.

- They're old songs from way back,

before mom's time.

Some of it is really a great honor

to be able to sing them and learn them.

- It's not that we are trying

to take over and do it all.

That's not what it's about.

It's that we're trying our best to help out

in that way that we know how.

- I put all, whatever I know, to these kids.

And I love them, you know.

- Me being a foster parent,

the four kids that me and my friend Dave Yazzie,

'cause we talked them into being foster parents,

so between the two of us we raised four kids,

we both got them into dance.

A lot of times, the kids come to us with a lot of problems.

We manage to work through it.

And our culture, in that way, helped us a lot,

'cause it gave us a lot of support from other people

that did the same thing.

Ramon came to us when he was a baby.

And the mother was about 13.

He didn't know who she was,

and he clinged to Rose so much,

and he started walking and talking,

and we were his world.

And we talked about adopting Ramon too.

Just couldn't let him go,

our heart wouldn't let him go.

And he dances every time he gets a chance.

And now he's singing.

- Hi I'm Ramon Barton, I am Gros Ventre,

and I'm from Fort Belknap, Montana.

- Today, other drums will say,

hey, go get Ramon, have him come help us.

So he's starting to get that reputation

of being a good singer.

- We're all singing at the same time,

singing these songs that we

gotta keep singing or else we're gonna lose them.

So me singing and learning all the stuff

is a big, big responsibility that I have to take on.

Feels good doing it.

- [Narrator] In the late 19th Century,

federal authorities banned Indian ceremonies,

dances and songs on reservations.

The first early powwow took place in 1898.

It was, on paper, a Fourth of July celebration.

- Last night, Johnny Arlee was speaking,

saying, we wanted to have a powwow

but the agency or the government would not let us.

So let's do it on the Fourth of July

and just pretend that we wanna celebrate Independence Day.

- [Narrator] But among the stars and stripes,

speeches and parades,

Salish people held their snake dance,

war dances, canvas dance and coffee dance.

And sang these songs in the open.

- The powwow, as we know it today,

is a modern invention

based upon Norther and Southern Plains.

In the warrior societies, they used to do their dances,

done in imitation of horse stealing, hunting buffaloes.

- [Narrator] The 19th Century warrior role

became military service in the 20th.

American Indians enlisted at least three times

the rate of other populations in the United States.

Over 12 thousand Indians served in World War I

and some 25 thousand during World War II.

90 percent of Indians who served

in Southeast Asia volunteered.

Military service revitalized men's warrior societies.

Blackfeet and Salish communities

gathered to big farewell to their soldiers,

and to welcome them home.

They danced and sang for victories and safe return.

Today's modern day warriors

are people that go out and get educated.

When my daughter earns her degree from Stanford,

or even my sons,

I'm gonna stand up, I don't tell anybody nothing.

I just stand up in the audience and I begin to sing.

And I start singing my praise song.

And that's the way they did it years ago.

This Blackfeet warrior song is used

for honoring veterans when they come back.

In the early 1900s, enterprising Blackfeet

partnered with Glacier National Park to promote tourism.

They welcomed visitors from the train,

guided pack troops, posed for artists,

drove tour buses and set up teepee camps

near landmarks like Two Medicine Lake and Gunsight Lake.

I remember older people from where I stayed

going up in the park in the 70s,

sitting in their full regalia,

and charging from a dollar to five bucks a photo,

to take a picture with Chief so-and-so.

But to me it was,

although I know they were trying to make a living,

because of the economy back then,

it was also, to me, degrading.

The Blackfeet used their role as Glacier National Park hosts

to remind visitors that they lived here first.

The places like Chief Mountain, Nínaiistáko,

the Two Medicine River, Natokiokasitxtai,

and Running Eagle Falls

held their history, their stories.

- One of my relatives was a woman warrior.

Her name was Running Eagle.

This girl was not like other girls.

She did not play with dolls.

She would do things that were

not considered right for a woman.

She would sneak away and she would

make her own bows and arrows.

And she would hunt rabbits

and hunt deer.

- I was like one of the boys in middle school

and I used to get teased.

So one day I went in and I told my dad,

I wanna join wrestling,

just to try it.

I just thought it'd be something challenging.

'Cause I didn't wanna join cheerleading.

- Every time a war party goes out, she would follow them.

And they would catch her and they would say,

go home, you're a woman, you can't do this.

This is for men only.

- [Amorette] And I went into wrestling.

And again, those boys would tease me.

Regular typical Indian boys,

they all tried me out.

They slammed me so many times,

they just let me know that I was,

tried to let me know that I was a girl,

you know, I didn't belong there.

- One time, they were gone out on a war trail,

about three or four days out,

and they found her behind.

She was getting good at hiding.

It was too far from home for her,

there was many enemies around.

So they said, alright you can come,

but you gotta take care of the horses.

During her first big war party,

she got to count coup upon the enemy.

Enemy warrior was attacking this other boy

that was taking care of the horses.

She whacked him with her club.

- Well yeah, I have a bad attitude,

and yes, I have a high temper,

but when I joined boxing,

I joined boxing because everybody said I couldn't do it.

Everybody laughed at me.

And then it got me mad, so I was just like,

well I'll show you guys then.

I'll show you that I can do it.

- She gained so much war honors

that she was allowed to wear a war bonnet.

She became a really well-known warrior.

- Everybody teases me, oh you're just in boxing,

you just do it just to beat up people.

As I got older, I got control of that.

I ignore people who tease me.

I notice that I can hold my head

higher than other people who try to put me down.

- [Kenny] In my family, we own her name.

So that name belongs to us.

Belongs to me now.

At a powwow, I will have a naming ceremony,

and there will be a dance,

I will dance out with her, with that name.

See there's always a dance involved.

Honor dance.