It was a young Canadian Cree First Nation folk singer, Buffy Saint Marie, that first introduced me to the plight of indigenous people in the Americas. She was playing the smoke-filled coffee house La Cave in Cleveland, my home folk music club. She sang a song of hers called “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” and I instantly got it. She told me about the Seneca People of New York whose ancestral homeland was being drowned by the building of Kinzua Dam. The story was so sad and real that it ended up in the Brewer and Shipley song “Too Soon Tomorrow.”
By the time I graduated from college I had started making a little money with my guitar. So off I went to sing my way across America. Fortunately, I had my camping gear stashed in my funky old Volvo. Most of the coffee houses provided rooms or crash pads for the singers but that was it. Essentially, between shows, I was homeless. But I had my camping gear and could always find a campsite somewhere.
The First Encounter
The Hopi reservation consists mostly of three mesas surrounded by the Navajo Nation. It was at First Mesa where I first encountered a full community of America’s indigenous people. I had never been to a pueblo village but a Hopi fellow I had met at Keams Canyon invited me to join him as he headed up to the Walpi pueblo. The Kachinas were going to be dancing. It was the most primitive place I had ever been and I was overwhelmed by its look and the feel of the people. I had been under the impression that the dances and ceremonies of the Hopi were a private matter but at that time I was welcomed as long as I didn’t take photographs. As the dance proceeded I felt I was in the presence of something holy. A cultural ceremony that I knew nothing about but understood I was witnessing a celebration.
At the foot of the hill where I lived in LA was the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. Since that first involvement with the Hopi, I was there constantly. I read everything I could about these enchanting people. Who they were, their traditions, and the importance of their dances. I knew the importance of Old Spider Woman or “Kokyangwuti“ among her many names. Their stories and reality, shrouded in mythology, had become part of me.
Michael and I were leaving Hollywood. It was not our kind of place. We had a show in Tulsa a few months in the future but until then we were on our own. Michael was headed for his family home in Oklahoma City. I had fallen in love with the people of the pueblos and the Navaho around Shonto so that is where I decided to spend my time.
I was ahead of Michael by a few weeks and, as usual, I was camped on the Hopi reservation. I called Michael (remember payphones) and told him that the Snake Dance was taking place in Orabi on Third Mesa and that he should join me if he could.
Unlike the visions most Americans have had of “Indian dances,” there were no colorful headdresses or acrobatic moves here. I could feel my breath slow when I heard the distant chant as members of the Snake and Antelope clans approached.
Years later, when playing a concert in Flagstaff, I met a couple of young ladies who had just finished working with the Peace Corp. One lady, Sally Olsen, was now teaching at Keams Canyon. She told me that part of her mission as a teacher was to encourage the Hopi children to learn all they could about their heritage. We exchanged contact information and upon arriving home there was a package containing a calendar from the school. Each month had a picture drawn by the students with their name, village, and clan affiliation. For me she had included one of the original drawings, done by Reed Talayumptew an 11th grader from the village of Baccavi and a member of the Bamboo clan. I consider this picture my personal Rembrandt.
My first conversations with Buffy and my time with the Hopi had started me on a journey I am still on today. To be as helpful as I can on behalf of indigenous people. And whenever an opportunity arises, to spend time with them.
I had been producing video for Missouri University of Science and Technology. Twice I was sent to Bolivia on behalf of their chapter of Engineers Without Borders to cover the work they were doing with indigenous communities. The first was in the Amazon to assist a small indigenous school in the region of Rio Colorado. From there we took a flight back to the Capitol City of La Paz where we boarded a Land Rover to take us to Inca Katurapi, a community of Aymara people living out on the Altiplano, a high desert plain about 13,000 ft in elevation. The people were being taught how to make biodegradable latrines to keep their water from becoming contaminated.
My second and most rewarding trip was to Tacachia, another community of Aymara people in the Andes. Here there were various projects underway. Because I was able to spend more time there I got to know several inhabitants of the community and they are associations I will never forget.
My most recent encounter with someone from an indigenous community in the Americas came about in an entirely different way. A very old and dear friend of Brewer and Shipley named Martyn Syme eventually ended up teaching at a small school in northern Canada and married an indigenous lady. On one of his trips back to the U.S. he brought his beautiful family with him. His children were sweet and found themselves in an environment very far removed from their home.
Martyn is one of our friends who may or may not show up somewhere at any time. At a concert, our house, at a show in Alaska, or wherever. I could do an entire book on Martyn but that will have to wait. I can’t remember exactly when Martyn first told us his daughter, Gracie Dove a Secwepemc First Nations woman, was going into acting. I do remember him telling us about Gracie’s first big break.
It was in a film called “The Revenant.” Gracie played Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife. We were thrilled. A more beautiful and lovingyoung lady would be hard to find. Her most recent film is NETFLIX “How It Ends” with Forest Whittaker. Like Buffy Saint Marie, Gracie embraces her indigenous origins and speaks on behalf of people of First Nation heritage.
Grateful For The Experiences
Michael and I were playing in Colorado Springs and Martyn arrived with Gracie on his arm. Seeing Martyn unexpectedly was pretty standard for Martyn but bringing his beautiful daughter with him was a treat I hadn’t expected. To say she had grown from the little girl who visited our Ozark home would be an understatement. She sweatly seemed to treat Michael and I as long lost uncles, an endearing term we will gladly accept.
Now, as I look back on my good fortune at having been involved with some of the beautiful indigenous people of the Americas, I have to thank Buffy for unknowingly sending me on this incredible journey. To Engineers Without Borders for helping where ever they can. And to Gracie for her fierce dedication and efforts in raising the status and self-awareness of the original people of the Americas.