|Do Re Mi Meets
Indian Culture At Fort Peck
Every third summer, Missoula hosts the International Choral Festival, attracting singing groups and fans from
around the world. The festival also features some U.S. and Montana choruses, so it would
be appropriate that American Indian tribes be represented. Until summer 2000, however,
they hadnt been.
Two UM faculty members set out to change that for last summers festival, July
Their joint effort began fall semester 1998 when philosophy Professor Dick Walton
attended the All-State Music Festival to hear his daughter perform with the All-State
Orchestra. As he read the program, he noted the total absence of students from
Montanas Indian reservations.
Walton graduated from Harlem High School, which serves the Fort Belknap Indian
Reservation. In those days, a group of six or so Harlem High School musicians, tribal
members and nonmembers including Walton on tuba went to the All-State Music
Festival every year.
That this no longer was the case was distressing to Walton, and a few days later he was
on the phone to Gary Funk, a UM associate professor of music. Walton proposed starting a
summer vocal music camp at UM for tribal youth. The idea ignited Funk, a passionate
musician and UMs choral director for the past five years.
They spent hours brainstorming. They called people on the reservations and at tribal
colleges. Responses werent promising.
With their eyes opened a bit to the challenges ahead, Walton and Funk trimmed their
plans, backed off the summer-camp idea temporarily and settled instead on preparing an
Indian choir to sing at the International Choral Festival. They also jettisoned their
original naive plan to involve participants from all the tribes, Walton says.
The distances are too great, he says. We realized we could do a
better job with one or two tribes.
Walton had old friends at Fort Belknap. But more recently hed had Horace Pipe, a
tribal geologist at Fort Peck, as a philosophy student, and Walton remembered him as
a fine singer. Pipe perked his ears at the proposed project and arranged to
get it on the Tribal Council agenda. Soon after, Walton and Funk made their first of three
weekenders 1,000-mile round trips by car from Missoula to Wolf Point to make
We made a good presentation, Funk says. One woman had tears in her
eyes because she was so moved that we wanted to do this.
But the trips, more than just long, tiring drives, were an emotional roller-coaster,
sending the twosome from the doldrums to the stratosphere and back several times. Culture
shock was unsettling, and the learning curve was steep. They were introduced to the
importance of hand shaking, of cloth and tobacco in certain rituals, of memorial feasts
and more. They also learned about what tribal members jokingly call Indian
time, which operates somewhat independently of the clock.
On the evening of their first visit to Fort Peck, Walton and Funk heard the Dakota Choir
of about 12 women, and Funk conducted them in a few songs. Despite the fact that the choir
didnt read music, it was a good rehearsal, he says. In fact, the members got so
excited that about 9:30 p.m. one asked if the pair would like to hear a drum,
which Walton explains is not just a drum but also the drummers and the songs they sing and
play. The experience overwhelmed them.
We listened from 10:30 to midnight, Funk says. It was a thrilling
experience ... a powerful experience. And we felt we were a little bit accepted.
Still flying high the next day, they returned to Missoula and soon after had rounded up
support from UM President George Dennison, the School of Fine Arts and the College of Arts
and Sciences deans and Lloyd Chesnut, vice president for research. They scheduled their
second trip to Wolf Point.
When they arrived at the agreed time, only a handful of people had gathered for the
meeting and rehearsal.
This deflated our helium balloon, Funk says, so we had a discussion.
We told them we could not have a choir with six people. We needed 25 to 30.
The six singers promptly went out and rounded up 16 more people anyone they
could find and the group rehearsed. When Walton and Funk returned to their hotel,
Funk had a call.
They wanted a meeting at 8 a.m. the next morning (Sunday), he says.
So we had a meeting, and we told them, Heres what needs to happen. This
has to come from your soul. It has to become your idea because Im going to be gone
for three months. They agreed to get it organized, get a choir together, select
music and rehearse.
Relieved and excited, the two talked nonstop about outcomes all the way back to
Missoula, Funk says.
Setting the stage
Between that weekend in February and the next one Walton and Funk arranged in March
just before Funk took a class of UM music students to study for three months in Europe
the group made great progress, Walton says. Calling themselves the Fort Peck Oyate
Singers at that time, they rehearsed every week with one of two local conductors: Wolf
Point High School choral director Doug Trost and Lynn Munson, the choral director at the
tribal college and grade school. Still, the singers had a long way to go, Walton says.
Theyd never heard of the International Choral Festival, he says.
In fact, choral music in the usual forms is alien to their culture. They sing, but
they sing in unison. They dont employ the same scale system, and they do different
things with their voices than we do.
With Funk in Europe until May, Walton worked to raise money from various community
agencies to sustain the momentum of the project, which grew to include some Fort Belknap
singers. And he was predicting it would be a stunning program if the group
pulled it off.
He was right. Funk says their program, which included a drum, wowed their
Hearing and feeling the ecstatic response of the audiences at their individual
performances and at the finale concert convinced all of us involved with the project that
their music was clearly heartfully received, Funk says. Personally, I felt that
their appearance at the festival was a cross-cultural triumph. ... And I must give much of
the credit to Dick Walton, who persevered, encouraged and pressed it on to become a
Since then, Funk has written the first movement of Requiem to Native
America, which was performed Dec. 17 at UM by the Tatanke Oyate Singers, the
University Choir, orchestra and baritone soloist. The piece interweaves the Indian
singers music with the text of the Latin requiem mass and includes the words of
Black Elk, a Sioux Chief.
Now Walton and Funk hope to continue broadening the project with more events that bring
tribal culture to campus. They share an admiration for values that tribes are working to
preserve respect for their elderly, value of family, importance of ceremony and
sense of tradition.
Americans tend to think of this learning as going one way that well
teach the Indians about our culture, Walton says. I happen to believe that we
have a lot to learn from them.