MUSIC: Native American school band rocks the oldies – and the ancients
Ten years ago Kim Cournoyer answered an ad seeking a music teacher at the high school on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Fort Yates, N.D.
An urban Indian, Cournoyer was raised in the Chicago suburbs, far from the rural reservation of her forbears, which straddles the border of North and South Dakota. But the University of South Dakota-trained clarinetist had a dream of starting an all-Indian high school band.
“I believe the students need to embrace their culture, kind of like I did,” said Cournoyer, 45, who is Standing Rock Sioux, like most of her students.
American Indian marching bands emerged in the boarding-school era, when students were trained in European musical instruments and patriotic marches. From the 1930s through the 1950s, dozens of Indian nations had their own marching bands made up of musicians trained in boarding schools. A few of these bands survive, such as the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Band of Arizona and Nevada, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006.
But today all-Indian high school bands are rare, said Georgia Wettlin-Larsen, director of the First Nations Composer Initiative. Musical education, beyond culturally-based drumming and singing, is almost nonexistent in tribal schools, she said. That makes Cournoyer’s program both distinctive and important.
The high cost of music instruction is a common barrier, but the Standing Rock Sioux community, where unemployment hovers around 70 percent, does not let that stand in the band’s way. The school district buys all the instruments, although the band lacks marching harnesses, equipment to support massive instruments such as tubas.
“We don’t have tubas, so I substitute with bass lines,” Cournoyer explained. “What we do is get a flatbed truck, we put a generator on there, we plug in the electric bass, and we play.”
In the 10 years since the band started—with 14 kids—nearly 100 percent of the band members have graduated. Some of them have used the discipline gained from learning to play music to go to two- or four-year colleges.
This year the band began a collaboration with Courtney Yellow Fat, the lead singer of Grammy-nominated powwow drum group Lakota Thunder and a culture and language teacher at Standing Rock Middle School.
Cournoyer worked with Yellow Fat to as she wrote sheet music for an ancient Lakota song so her student band could play it. The song, “The Land You Fear,” which originated before Columbus landed in the Americas, had not been written down before, like much indigenous music.
“That song was meant for a warrior to go off to war and not have any fear,” Yellow Fat said. “In contemporary times, we put out a warrior who must be a well-rounded person, who must be a warrior for the people.”
The New York debut of the song came at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, with Cournoyer playing the cedar flute, Yellow Fat singing and the band playing.
It is the band teacher’s prayer that her students, as the ancient song says, will learn to walk with victory, instead of fear: “I want them to know that this world is bigger than they think it is, and that they are capable of so much more than they think they are.”