For many Americans, the first association with the year 1862 is the Civil War. But for Native Americans, there is also a vivid association with the Dakota War of 1862, a conflict between the Dakota people and the United States that ended in the mass execution of 38 Dakota members on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. It’s an event that still registers large in local memory. This year, the Mankato Symphony Orchestra launched the Dakota Music Tour in Minnesota, a musical response to the events of 1862. The four-concert tour opened on May 22 in Mankato and continued with performances on reservations in Morton and Granite Falls. It concludes on June 4 in Winona at the Eighth Annual Great Dakota Gathering and Homecoming in Unity Park, a remarkable annual event supported by the Winona community that brings together Dakota members from a wide diaspora for a day of music and other festivities.
Joining the Mankato Symphony for the Dakota Music Tour are the Santee Dakota Maza Kute Drummers; Chickasaw/Choctaw actor and musician Cochise Anderson; and Manny Laureano, principal trumpet of the Minnesota Orchestra. The featured composer for the Dakota Music Tour is Brent Michael Davids, a Saint Paul resident and a member of the Mohican nation whose works fuse Western and Native music traditions. The program includes Davids’s works bridging Western classical and Native American traditions; all concerts include informal chats as an opportunity to open up dialogue in the community.
Davids and Mankato Symphony Music Director Kenneth Freed—who is also a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra—had been working behind the scenes to find a way to present concerts in Minnesota featuring these events in Dakota history, and when the Arts Tour Minnesota grant from Legacy Funds came through in 2010, they finally got their chance. A documentary about the tour is in the works, to be produced by Flandreau Santee Dakota filmmaker Syd Beane.
This spring, I spoke with Brent Michael Davids about what he hopes to achieve with the Dakota Music Tour, as well as his experience of Western and Native American music.
Jennifer Melick: How did you first conceive the idea for the Dakota Music Tour?
Brent Michael Davids: I’m Mohican—a Native person. Since moving to Minnesota, I learned a lot about the history here, the formation of the state, the start of the Civil War, and the treatment of the Dakotas here. At an American Composers Forum function a while back I met Ken Freed, a violist with Minnesota Orchestra, who is also conductor of the Mankato Symphony. We got to talking about this Dakota conflict. I visited all the Dakota reservations, talking with the tribal councils and the community about it, trying to figure out a way to get the orchestra to the Dakota reservations and other non-Indian towns—to bring the Maza Kute, one of the better-known drum groups, to perform onstage with the Mankato Symphony.
Melick: What are drum groups like the Maza Kute Singers?
Davids: We call them drum groups, but of course they sing, too. It’s several men sitting around a big drum and singing. In my music, the entire song that the Maza Kute drummers sing is written out and developed the same way that classical music is developed. They’re onstage functioning as another section of the orchestra, like the string section or the oboe section.
Melick: Could you talk about your music’s blend of Native and Western music traditions?
Davids: All my works have Native themes and sensibilities. Most Native languages don’t have any word for “music.” Because that category of “music”—like sonic creation and written music and music for entertainment in a concert hall—doesn’t really exist the same way for Native people. I mean, it does, because obviously Natives can come to a concert hall and compose classical music and all. But in Native communities, traditional ceremonial music and such have wider meaning. There is a tradition of describing things in terms of songs. Or “songing” almost like a verb. It’s the teaching and the learning of songs and it’s what’s going on in the context of the songs. Certain songs, like funeral dirges, are not allowed to be sung except maybe at a funeral. You have to learn these orally, because they’re not written down.
Melick: What is the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance, the organization that is hosting the concert on June 4 in Winona?
Davids: There was a thing here in 2003 called the Grand Excursion, with four states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri—all bordering the Mississippi River. They wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of 1853 by sending paddle boats and flotillas up the Mississippi River again. They wanted to develop the waterfront, to raise money and beautify the riverfront. Choosing the 150th anniversary of 1853—when flotillas came up the Mississippi River with land developers and non-Indians looking to divide up and develop newly acquired Dakota lands—wasn’t the best political move to make as far as these tribes were concerned.
All Indians were excluded from the big events, celebrations, and ceremonies in 2003, except for the town of Winona. The mayor, Jerry Miller, and some townsfolk decided to place Native scholars, storytellers, and historians on the flotilla when it passed Winona. Not only that, but they decided to form a nonprofit organization, the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance. They designated a park on a really beautiful area under the bluffs in Winona, called Unity Park, and they dedicated it to the Dakota people. They invited all the Dakotas to come back, because the Dakotas had their own diaspora out of the state. Every year since then they have had this huge homecoming of Dakota. Even now it’s still illegal to be a Dakota in Minnesota; the law is still in the books. It never got removed. At one time you could shoot Dakotas on sight and get away with it.
Melick: Can you elaborate on the differences between a powwow and a concert?
Davids: At a powwow, you have drum groups singing, and people dancing, and people eating food and walking around. Everyone is dressed in bright colors. The communication flies every which way, musically and in every other respect. Sometimes you can’t even tell who’s a performer and who isn’t. But in the Western concert hall, the music is going from the stage to the audience, a sort of one-way communication. All the performers are dressed in black, because you’re not supposed to see the individual players, you’re only supposed to listen to the whole orchestra. Philosophically, we’re almost supposed to close our eyes in the concert hall and listen to the sound coming to us from the stage. Whereas in a powwow it’s not about the sound, it’s about the event, the ceremony, and the dancing. Music is integrated with all these other things, you can’t really pull it out and have a “pow-wow concert.” It’s a pow-wow event.
Melick: What role do you think music can play in the present day between Minnesotans and the Dakota peoples?
Davids: During the Dakota Tour people will see the Mankato Symphony onstage with a well-known Dakota singing-and-drumming group, all making music in harmony together, then having a chance to open up some dialogue if people want to have a discussion.
Melick: What do you think can be gained from the community chats being held in connection with the Dakota Music Tour?
Davids: The intent of those is to invite people in the community, in each location, to talk about whatever it is they want to talk about. It could be musical, it could be about the history of the Dakota, or it could be about the community now. We wanted to open it up so people can actually start having a conversation. The one thing that I have been careful to do is not use the word “reconciliation.” Because that would be like me or Ken Freed or the Mankato Symphony sort of forcing an opinion that you must reconcile or you must do it this way. We’ve been careful to only be presenting ourselves onstage, so people see non-Indian musicians and the Mankato Symphony and the Dakota drum group onstage making music together. And maybe that will be the impetus for starting conversations. If there’s any reconciliation taking place, that has to be decided upon and guided by the Dakota people themselves.
Below, listen to an audio sample of Brent Michael Davids’s Powwow Symphony, a fifteen-movement orchestral work that also includes emcee, American Indian dancers, and drum group.