Indigenous Artists Gather to Welcome All to Indian Country | Entertainment

Fourth Avenue North is one of the busiest streets in Billings. The thoroughfare, which connects downtown to the heights, sees an average of 12,000 cars passing through each day, according to estimates by the East Billings Urban Revitalization District.

This player is a little different this week. On 406 Events Lawn at 323 N. 14th St. is a solitary teepee, in the style of the Crow people.

The teepee is made of canvas with 16 twisted poles stripped of their bark. It is anchored in the ground with roughly trimmed chokecherry branches. The pins that hold the sashes together are either choke cherry or cedar.

“We try to use as much naturalness as possible,” said William Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and president of the Pretty Shield Foundation, the organization that raised this teepee, and similar facilities in the past. , like the tepees that lit up the Rims at the end of 2020.

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This natural teepee doesn’t belong among all the bricks and mortar, but it would have been a common sight on these plains 200 years ago.

The teepee is part of “Welcome to Indian Country,” a show the Billings Symphony performs at 406 Events Lawn on Saturday, August 13.

“Welcome to Indian Country” is a multimedia performance, where music and speech come together to tell a story about Native American culture.

Delbert Anderson, a renowned jazz trumpeter who is the musical director of the show, puts it simply, “It’s a celebration of being Indigenous.”

The show is the brainchild of André Bouchard, who is of Kootenai/Ojibwe/Pend d’Oreille/Salish descent.

André Bouchard is the producer and artistic director of “Welcome to Indian Country”.

Photo courtesy Loewyn Young

Bouchard was born on the Flathead Reservation and attended the University of Montana. It was there that he had a revelation.

“I did my market research,” Bouchard explained, “and there really wasn’t anybody else in North America who was doing touring production for Native American artists, who was doing concept to production scenic in this area.”

With that in mind, he started Indigenous Performance Productions, a company specializing in touring and original productions that aim to elevate and celebrate Native American culture. Bouchard is right. There is nothing else like it.

“There is an incredibly large and diverse body of emerging Native American artists,” he said. “I saw the need for someone to open those doors for Indigenous artists in venues across the country.”

“Welcome to Indian Country” brings together some of these emerging native artists. The show is directed and hosted by Washington Poet Laureate Rena Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. In addition to Anderson, who is Navajo, or Diné, the ensemble is made up of Osage Nokosee Fields violinist, Christine Bartyzal, a member of the Crow Creek tribe on percussion. Lyz Jaakola of the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is the lead vocalist and provides piano, drums and guitar. Mali Obomsawin, who is from the Odanak W8banaki First Nation, also sings and plays bass guitar.

“Each of them is an absolute gem,” Bouchard said. “I was just lucky enough to put them all in one room.”

Bouchard might try to play down his role, but the show is “his baby,” according to Priest. He was the one who brought them all together last May, and let the whole thing mix and freeze until they worked together and created “Welcome to Indian Country”. He also takes them on the road. Billings’ show will be the sixth performance of “Welcome to Indian Country.” After Montana, they will go to Poughkeepsie, New York, Amherst, Massachusetts, Mesa, Arizona and many other places.

“There is a critical mass of exceptional and talented Indigenous musicians and storytellers,” Bouchard said. “I had this idea, what if I put them all together in a group?

This band is tight, an intimate intertwining of song and story.

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Rena Priest, Washington’s Poet Laureate, is the storyteller of “Welcome to Indian Country.”

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hunt

Priest wrote all the words. She introduces the songs, and sometimes re-reads them, as her verses blend into the music and become something else altogether.

“Welcome to Indian Country” is new, but it’s familiar. Priest sees the show as an extension of the many generations of storytelling and oral history that have been passed down

When Priest became Poet Laureate, she went to some of her tribe’s teachers and asked them for a “poem” in her language. There are not any. But they gave him some options. There is a word for story, or prayer, or song.

“They’re all in the tradition of storytelling,” she said. “They are deeply connected.”

The music the ensemble plays while Priest speaks is jazz, a genre not often associated with Indigenous peoples, even though they have been involved with it for a long time. Bouchard used the example of Mildred Bailey, a Couer d’Alene woman who was the first woman to sing in front of a big band.

“There has been a tremendous impact of Native culture on American life,” Bouchard said. “We don’t always recognize it, but it’s the genesis of all these quintessentially American forms of music.”

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Delbert Anderson plays trumpet in “Welcome to Indian Country”. He is also the musical director of the show.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hunt

Jazz is generally associated with African-American communities. Anderson sees a relationship there.

“Our stories are pretty much the same,” he said. “The trauma in every culture was great and significant.”

Jazz, as Anderson sees it, is an act of resistance.

“Jazz really formed out of the pressure African Americans were under at the time,” Anderson said.

He got into jazz music because he liked to improvise. He draws a direct line between what he does on stage and what his Diné ancestors did. They were given flour and told to eat it. Instead, they improvised, mixing flour with water and frying it, creating fried bread, which became a staple.

“Because of the pressure we were starting to get, it almost evoked a creativity of it all, which was so down to earth and genuine,” Anderson said. “Everybody knows fried bread and everybody knows jazz.”

He also wants to oppose preconceived ideas.

Being an Indigenous artist, Anderson said, “comes with these stereotypes that Indigenous people can’t do much, that their abilities might be limited. You know, we only play the drums or the flute. But this show is going to have so many different instruments, so many different styles. And they play it perfectly.

There is rebellion and unrest here, but there is also peace.

Bouchard said he wanted viewers to leave with “a sense of hope. A sense of connection.

“It’s contemporary,” Priest said, “it’s joyful, it’s real. Maybe [audience members] will have a better understanding of the history and perhaps responsibility of the Indigenous community on whose lands they reside. The show is called “Welcome to Indian Country…” the Western Hemisphere is really Indian Country, all of it.

“That area was called Elk River,” Snell said, standing next to the teepee he had just erected on 406 Events Lawn. “It was a good place for Native Americans to come and hunt, and there are a number of herbs in this country that are beneficial to people.”

That changed when the colonizers arrived, but Snell acknowledged that Billings has always been a gathering place.

“Now Billings is one of the places to go, because it’s Indian country,” Snell said. “Coming together like this, for us, serves many purposes. Not just welcome to Indian Country, but welcome everyone to Indian Country. And that includes everyone.

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