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May 26, 2009

Native American School Band Rocks the Oldies–and the Ancients


“What we do is get a flatbed truck,” said Kim Cournoyer, Standing Rock High School band director. “We put a generator on there, we plug in the electric bass, and we play.”

Standing Rock High School visits the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to perform an ancient Lakota warrior song, “The Land You Fear”.

By Kara Briggs
American Indian News Service

New York—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.

On June 5 at 1 p.m., the Standing Rock High School Band will perform a free concert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. For details, visit http://www.americanindian.com/.

The museum appearance is part of a tour on which the band will play an ancient Lakota prayer song called “The Land You Fear.” Cournoyer spent the spring transcribing it from the oral tradition and arranging it for the 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.

Learn more about the Standing Rock High School Band by going to www.myspace.com/standingrockschoolband.

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.

“I was so excited when I first saw them,” Wettlin-Larsen said. “Native kids playing instruments. Like other high school bands, they play high school band music. Now, they are incorporating traditional Lakota music.”

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.”

“The Land You Fear” is a song that Courtney Yellow Fat, lead singer of Grammy-nominated powwow drum group Lakota Thunder, introduced to Cournoyer. Yellow Fat is also the culture and language teacher at Standing Rock Middle School.

The “Land You Fear” is old, probably from before Columbus landed in the Americas. It was recorded in the early 1900s by anthropologist Frances Densmore (1867-1957). But like most indigenous music, it had not been written down before.

“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.”

Those close to the band say they hope the song will become a bridge for understanding between Native people and mainstream America.

New York City composer Maurice Patrick Byers, former composer in residence at LaGuardia Arts High School, the renowned “Fame” school, likens the potential of Cournoyer’s program to what happened in the 1990s when the Soweto String Quartet began transcribing the traditional music of its members’ South African tribe and performing it on stringed instruments.

Hear the Soweto String Quartet at http://www.sowetostringquartet.co.za/

“Imagine apartheid in South Africa, and these four African musicians show up with this (indigenous) music on the string quartet,” Byers said. “Blacks and whites go crazy for it. That is the same kind of bridge-building that is necessary in the United States.”

Once the song is written, it has the potential to be published as sheet music other bands could perform. Standing Rock High School’s rendition of “The Land You Fear” promises to be dramatic. In addition to the student musicians, Cournoyer will play the cedar flute, Yellow Fat will sing, and powwow dancers will perform.

Byers said, “You could create something that sort of sounds like it, and is superficial. But that’s not her at all.”

What most concerns Cournoyer, speaking between classes late in the school year, is her students’ future.

In the 10 years since the band started—with 14 kids—nearly 100 percent of the band’s students have graduated. Some of them have used the discipline they gained in learning to play music to go to two- or four-year colleges. Most are employed, and living productive lives in the community. Yellow Fat said many are involved with their culture.

Cournoyer hopes this tour, into which she has built time to explore New York City, will broaden her students’ horizons. It is the Standing Rock Sioux teacher’s prayer that her students, as the ancient song that she transcribed 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,” Cournoyer said. “And they are capable of so much more than they think they are.”

Hear Lakota Thunder by going to www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwQFmTwbQpE.

Visit the First Nations Composers Initiative at http://www.fnci.org/.


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Fantastic! Bridging cultural divides using the universal language of music. I believe this will penetrate stereotypes where mere talking has failed.

That's a very ingenious way to play other arenas. The generator does not make to much noise?.

Very interesting. I was unaware of the great history and tradition of Native American high school bands. It is a shame that the number of these bands has decreased. Kim Cournoyer, Standing Rock High School, and the Standing Rock Sioux community should be applauded for their determination, hard work, and support to keep this tradition alive. The fact that they incorporate traditional Lakota music into their repertoire is terrific. Maybe some of that gaming money that some Native American tribes are bringing in should be used to sponsor more of these bands.

marching bands is cool then Native School Band Rocks is so load i think...awesome

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