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The music at the heart of the Indian movement

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/12752267.html The music at the heart of the Indian movement He was a survivor of everything that the government
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 24, 2007

      The music at the heart of the Indian movement

      'He was a survivor of everything that the government has tried to do to
      Native Americans.'


      Last update: December 22, 2007 - 4:22 PM

      The New York Times favorably reviewed the film, "Dances With Wolves" in
      1990 but complained that it was "too long" at 181 minutes. It opined: "A
      historical drama about the relationship between a Civil War soldier and a
      band of Sioux Indians, Kevin Costner's directorial debut was also a
      surprisingly popular hit, considering its length, period setting, and often
      somber tone."

      That description might have sufficed for white audiences, but all across
      America and everywhere in the Western Hemisphere the film was shown,
      American Indians were mesmerized by Floyd Westerman in his role as Ten
      Bears. As much shining authenticity as could be crammed into his role,
      Floyd delivered. There was no doubt he led his people, and there was no
      doubt the child who came to learn was the white man. To Indian people,
      Kevin Costner played a side role to Floyd's magnificent performance.

      But magnificence in life was definitely not the attitude of Floyd Westerman
      the person. Recently he said when commenting on his work: "Our struggle is
      all about our spiritual rights and the Indian point of view ... they're so
      old, they make the Bible look like it was recently written."

      Every Indian's friend Floyd Westerman was set free in the early morning
      hours of Dec. 13, 2007. He began his journey as he wished, disconnected
      from tubes and regulators and breathing apparatuses. His son Richard had
      the honor of bringing Floyd home to Sisseton, S.D. The two were fleetingly
      acquainted when Richard was a young boy. Floyd's concert schedule as a
      musician was demanding and unending. But as men the two found their blood
      and history to be an everlasting bond.

      Walking beside them in spirit are all American Indians: men, women, and
      children. Everyone who has heard Floyd's songs know he taught them to sing
      as no one else did. Whether performing at Wolf Trap or coming to a
      community pow wow, Floyd gave his musical gifts freely. Once in the
      turbulent 1970s he went to an "Indian bar" in Washington, D.C., to play for
      those who requested it. As he began to sing, the jukebox suddenly sprang to
      life and blared out an old country song. A burley Indian marched over and
      pulled the plug, taking a little of the wall with the cord. Everyone
      chuckled, but that night nothing could compare to Floyd, not the jukebox
      nor anything else the bar had to offer.

      Then he played. The size of the crowd never mattered. If Indian people
      wanted to hear him, he came and sang. One song was about his mother:
      "Thirty-five miles and you'll be free. Thirty-five more miles to go.
      Through the wind and driving rain, I'll take you home again. Oh, Mama,
      thirty-five more miles to go."

      No Indian eyes were dry when they heard this. Indians all have mothers to
      worry about. All know they have suffered in this life. Floyd sang for all
      Indians. He gave voice to the love of and dedication to ancestors. His was
      the definitive word on that connection.

      Floyd's own early life was like so many others. He left the reservation to
      attend a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. In keeping with policies
      at the time, the school punished those who expressed their Indian culture.
      "They cut his hair and they wouldn't allow him to speak the language," his
      son Richard said. "He was a survivor of everything that the government has
      tried to do to Native Americans." Floyd graduated from a reservation high
      school, spent two years in the Marines and earned a degree in secondary
      education from Northern State College in South Dakota.

      He made a friend named Vine Deloria. The two journeyed together for the
      rest of Vine's life. "Custer Died for Your Sins" was Vine's j'accuse of
      America. Floyd followed with an album of the same name. He went on to play
      and sing with the greats in Western music, but he kept to his roots home at
      Sisseton and with the American Indian Movement and International Treaty
      Council. He was at the heart of the movement. He was its song.

      He joined the singer Sting to perform in many concerts in support of the
      environment. He wrote a new song, "The Earth Is Your Mother," to spread the
      word on what the land means to Indian people. Good roads, Floyd. You leave
      us your powerful messages in song and image. Pidamiya.

      Laura Waterman Wittstock, Minneapolis, writes on American Indian, political
      and current events.
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