Lakota Music Project builds cultural bridges

Dakota Digest - 03/21/2012

By Jim Kent
The Lakota Music Project began the second phase of its statewide performances with a concert at the Sturgis Community Center. Today, we're front row-center, visiting with musicians and audience members to examine how well the project's mission to build cultural bridges is being accomplished.

The city of Sturgis is, arguably, best known for the sounds of motorcycles thundering down its streets for several months each year. But on a quiet, unusually warm afternoon in March, the symphonic tones of Tchaikovsky fill the air instead.

The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra performs all around South Dakota But what's different is the group performing with them.

The Creekside Singers with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra make up the Lakota Music Project. The collaboration of cultures and music is the brainchild of Maestro Delta David Gier and dates back to 2005. New to his position, Gier explains that he wanted to create a community outreach project for the orchestra.

"During that first year I was at a reception," recalls Gier, speaking to the audience. "I met this woman...African American woman, who was in charge of the Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Sioux Falls. And I said to her, you know, maybe we should do something together. A lot of orchestras...they have Martin Luther King Day concerts. She said, 'I gotta tell ya', I'm a black woman, I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and I don't have a problem. What she said was...if you wanna talk about racial prejudice in South Dakota, you gotta talk about Native Americans."

With the assistance of Barry Lebeau, a Lakota who works with Native American artists across the state and Ronnie Theisz, professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University. Gier created the Lakota Music Project. The goal is to combine aspects of classical and traditional Lakota music in order to educate their audience, as well as to build cultural bridges. Gier says he is pleased with how well the project has been received.

"Cultural bridge-building happens every time we perform it," says Gier. "The thing I find, I guess not surprising, but gratifying, is that I hear about it wherever I go. Whether it's in Pierre or out West River or whatever it is...that the South Dakota Symphony statewide is being associated with doing this project. And there's a really good vibe behind all of that...people know it's a very important thing to be doing. They seem ot understand what we're after. And that's...that's what we're all about. It's great."

Jeanne Ekholm plays harp with the orchestra. The South Dakota native has been part of the Lakota Music Project since its inception and says she's learned a lot from the experience. 11 / 195

"The Lakota culture is a very caring culture." observes Ekholm. "Just really warm and welcoming. The culture is more laid back. Time isn't as important to them. The music is more laid back."

Something Ekholm and other orchestra members had to get used to was that Lakota music isn't written down on music sheets.

Cellist Kathryn Hufnagle is impressed by the Creekside Singers as well as the reaction of Native audiences when the Lakota Music Project performs on reservations.

"Native peoples' reaction to their music is just to go for it," says Hufnagle. "They sing along and there's so much respect. And I think that the non-Native audience members find that as inspirational as we do."

The first half of the program offers individual selections by both groups on the human conditions of love, war, death and joy. In the second portion of the concert, the Creekside Singers become a part of the orchestra for two selections, including "Black Hills Olowan", by Native American composer Brent Michael Davids.

The Lakota Music Project has inspired non-Native Patricia Ball to learn more about the Lakota culture....particularly its music. As for today's performance...

"It was just amazing," says Ball. "And very moving. Especially the climax to the last piece. I was a historic moment, and I was there."

Phase Two of the Lakota Music Project sees the musicians touring the state, with visits to 6 reservations. As Creekside Singer Charles Eagle Hawk notes, if music is the universal language, the Lakota Music Project is speaking to everyone in their audience.

Photo 1 Maestro Gier leads the Lakota Music Project

Photo 2 Ronnie Thiesz (center) with Creekside Singers

Photo 3 SD Symphony Orchestra & Creekside Singers

Photo 4 Creekside Singers with Lakota Music Project
All photos by Jim Kent


Maestro Gier leads the Lakota Music Project Ronnie Thiesz (center) with Creekside Singers SD Symphony Orchestra & Creekside Singers Creekside Singers with Lakota Music Project

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