The Lakota Music Project

Yesterday the South Dakota Symphony played its Lakota Music Project at Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer, SD in the Black Hills.‘lakota-music-project’-highlights-native-americans’-day-at-crazy-horse/

It was Native American Day in South Dakota (Governor George Mickelson renamed Columbus Day in the 1990, part of his Common Ground initiative). The Lakota Music Project has been over five years in the making, but well worth the effort.

When I became Music Director of the South Dakota Symphony in 2004, I spent much of my first season taking stock of how the orchestra was serving the community, state and region. At a reception during that first season I met a young African-American woman who was in charge of the Martin Luther King Day activities in Sioux Falls. I mentioned that in many communities the orchestra is involved in those activities and expressed interest in pursuing that with her. Her response surprised me. She said that as a black woman in Sioux Falls she had very little problem; if I wished to address racial prejudice in South Dakota I should be talking with Native Americans.

In the spring of 2005 the SDSO hosted a lunch for Native American leaders in Sioux Falls. This was the next in a series of surprises for me. I came into that luncheon with a presentation laying out all of my ideas of how the symphony could collaborate with the Native American community. I was immediately met with suspicion regarding my motives. I found myself backtracking for a good part of that meeting, trying to understand their suspicions and how to address them. Basically, they had had enough of white men throwing programs at them which only benefit white interests and did not trust new ideas when first presented to them. My motives were absolutely pure, but I had to prove it.

Out of that meeting came a pivotal relationship. Barry LeBeau, then with United Sioux Tribes in Pierre, offered his help. We hit the road together later that spring and he shepherded me across the state, introducing me to many influential people and keeping me from stepping in numerous cultural potholes. One of the people we met was Dr. Ronnie Theisz, the chair of the humanities department at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, SD. Ronnie, though an Austrian, had been one of the founding members of the Porcupine Singers, a celebrated traditional Lakota drumming group from Pine Ridge reservation. He now serves as a mentor to those original members’ sons and nephews, the New Porcupine Singers.

The SDSO musicians’ first encounter with the project was an afternoon with Dr. Theisz during our week-long residency in Eagle Butte, SD on the Cheyenne River reservation. Ronnie taught us about Lakota song and tradition, a wonderfully interactive afternoon. Our next meeting was was on Pine Ridge reservation, during which our principal string quartet and woodwind quintet spent a snowy evening together with the Porcupine Singers, playing for each other and talking about what a tour together might look like. One discovery we made that evening was that we viewed ourselves much the same way; they are a traditional drumming group (as opposed to a powwow group) and so consider themselves keepers of the flame, playing traditional songs and passing them along to the next generation; we as orchestra musicians devote ourselves to a similar philosophy.

The structure of our first tour came out of that meeting. The first half of the program would consist of us playing music back and forth for each other, having a public dialogue about the role of music in our respective cultures. We picked four themes: Love, War, Mourning and Celebration. The second half we would play two new pieces written for us to perform together, one by a native composer, one by a white composer. Our principal oboist, Jeffrey Paul, had a piece he had written for the quintet which they played for the Porcupine Singers during that first meeting in Pine Ridge. It dovetailed nicely with a lullaby Melvin Young Bear (Keeper of the Drum for the PS) had composed for his granddaughter, so Jeff recomposed the two pieces , interweaving them with each other. The SDSO obtained a grant from the American Composers Forum/First Nations Composers Initiative in Minneapolis to commission Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids for the other piece. Below is basic outline of the program:

Star Spangled Banner
Lakota Flag Song

PS – Rabbit Song
SDSO – Love theme from Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet; beginning segment of Wagner Siegfried Idyll

PS – Honor Song
SDSO – sword fighting music from Prokofiev Romeo and Julet, “Death of Tybalt;” Khatchaturian Sabre Dance

SDSO – Barber Adagio for Strings
PS – song for those fallen in battle

SDSO – intro from Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks; Copland “Simple Gifts” section from Appalachian Spring
PS – Powwow song


Jeffrey Paul/Melving Young Bear – Desert Wind/Harmony’s Song
Brent Michael Davids – Black Hills Olowan

The initial tour took place in May of 2009, five performance canvassing the southern part of the state. We played on three reservations (Flandreau, Rosebud and Pine Ridge) and in two cities (Sioux Falls and Rapid City). The response was overwhelming in every venue. The audiences in the cities were very diverse; in Sioux Falls we played in the multi-cultural center for an audience including traditional symphony goers young and old, and an equal number of native people with children laughing and crying and running around. Truly wonderful. On the reservations we held a traditional meal of stew and fry bread following each performance, which helped to make it a truly community event.

Following each performance there was effusive praise for the project from all corners. The adjective which came up most (yesterday as well) was “healing.” For those of us participating in the project, that pretty much sums it all up. The Porcupine Singers and our symphony musicians – whether from the U.S., Korea, Poland, Russia, Taiwan – truly became friends as a result of this process of putting the project together. We had a common mission, music as a universal language reaching across what divides us to create a bridge of understanding, respect and even affection.

We played the program for Governor Mike Rounds a the Tourism banquet during legislative session last January for an audience of 800. Yesterday at Crazy Horse, under that incredible monument, was our only installation of the project for this season (it’s all about funding . . .). There are many plans for the future of the project, new artists and composers. Native composer Jerod Tate is writing a song cycle in the Lakota language for a MusicAlive residency with the orchestra next season. We have a lot of interest in this ongoing effort and are hopeful regarding financial support.

More information can be viewed on the South Dakota Public Broadcasting website:

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Delta David Gier

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