Notes from the Composer

There are deep wounds in this country and in this hemisphere that will only heal when the causes are acknowledged. I was once in the Dominican Republic and visited the cave walls on which Taino people had drawn images. They were images of loud protest and complaint.

I learned that when Columbus originally landed in Hispanola, it was these people that helped him when his ship foundered on the rocks. He wrote kindly about them, praising their honesty. When he arrived, as many as 8 million Taino people were living on the island. In 1514, the Spanish census showed barely 22,000 Indigenous people left alive. The second voyage of Columbus was sponsored by investors seeking a return on their investment. The images on the cave wall were children crying out in distress.

The Journey

We live in a time when through elaborate DNA research a new story is told of the origins of human beings. It is an important story as it dispels the myth that we are very different races and puts the lie to any thinking that would encourage an attitude of racial superiority. The emergence of all the human inhabitants of the world walking out of Africa some period from 130,000 to 70,000 years ago is a profound tale of the human diaspora. The courageous migrations of the people who crossed the Beringian land bridge at different intervals, the last being 11,500 years ago to the new world hemisphere, are a subject of intense interest which originally inspired this song.

I have since become aware that some Native American people are justifiably tired of western science making declarations about Indigenous origins. It is felt that creation stories of various tribes are also to be respected and valued. In this spirit, the opening movement also marks all the journeys of Native American people as they have travelled throughout this land for many thousands of years. One can hear in the music each entrance of diverse instruments signals a new band of people traveling across the land and sea. The spirit is of adventure and being united in spirit.

The Wind

“The Wind” is inspired by the poems of Tom Sharp, one of our baritones who is of Aleut heritage. Tom’s poem is based on the Aleut saying that the wind is not a river, that is, that difficulties subside. Tom’s writings also include a beautiful summary of the principle of sharing.

White Shells of Peace

When my daughter was in the fifth grade, I had the joy to teach music to her class. One of the books I discovered in the school library was called The Great Peacemakers. This set forth the epic story of Hiawatha and Dekanawida, which happened before European contact. Their determination to create a peaceful alliance among the warring Iroquois tribes is one of the great lessons of the world and shows the same profound insight into human nature that we learn from Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is a mantra to me. “Heal your enemies’ wounds, then your own wounds will heal.” Hiawatha and Dekanawida healed the crippled arm of the war leader Atotarho, who had opposed their peacemaking efforts and caused the death of Hiawatha’s entire family. The Iroquois league was so successful that it became a model for our government. We owe more than you might imagine to the first peoples of this continent. I urge you to read the whole story.

Wakantanka Taku Nitawa

“Wakantanka” is based on a song by the same name written by Joseph Renville, born in 1779 to a French fur trader father and Dakota mother. Renville grew up among the Dakota and was considered a member of the tribe. He probably used a popular tune, but he changed it to a more Dakota-sounding melody. The song appeared in the first collection of music written in the Dakota language in 1841 and has been widely sung ever since by Dakota and non-Dakota alike.

In People of the Drum, I have composed a new song, setting the same scriptural verses as Renville. In just a few bars I call upon the Dakota tune of Joseph Renville. This is sung by the basses to honor Renville and played by the bass clarinet representing his Dakota Mother, and then the French Horn to give note to the French fur trader father of Renville. These verses are particularly meaningful as they celebrate the miracle and the beauty of the world which needs our stewardship.

We Walk in Beauty

As more and more settlers arrived in the Southwest, the Navajo and Mescalero Apaches fought back to preserve their way of life. In 1860 under the leadership of Barboncito and Manuelito, some 1000 Navajo warriors brought the army to a standstill. The U.S. army began a concerted effort to remove the Navajo from their lands. Although Kit Carson had been respected by many tribes, the army drafted him to march captured Navajo to the Basque Redondo reservation through two months of harsh winter conditions, which killed 200 people. They were then told to plant crops. The water was so brackish that horses would not drink it and a plague of pests eradicated the crops. In a rare moment of revelation, General Sherman who arrived at the reservation in 1868, decided to return much of the traditional Navajo lands to the people. The U.S. government admitted that the reservation had been a complete failure.

These words came from their 400-mile trek back to their sacred lands. “Beauty before us, beauty behind us, beauty around us, we walk in beauty, it is finished in beauty.” The double bass leads the walk, slow but steady and ultimately celebrating their return. The Navajo today are the largest of all the tribes. I recently heard a young Navajo woman, Y. Gorman from Bellingham, sing these words in her native language. If we are lucky, she might show up tonight!

Know That Yourself are Essential to this World

So often we look back through time to sift out the words of great thinkers and philosophers to help guide our lives. These words spoken in our time, by the 19th generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf pipe call for us all to be involved in the care of this living planet.

“It is more important than ever to pray for and protect the sacred that is Mother Earth. Each of us is put here, in this time and place, to personally decide the future of Humankind. Did you think that the Creator, would create unnecessary people in this time of such terrible danger? Know that you yourself are essential to this world.” — Chief Arvol Looking Horse. These profound words have guided our journey as we seek to raise our voices for peace and justice in a very troubled world.

Lift Up the Sky

When I first spoke to Johnny Moses asking if he could join us this evening, I had just read the “Lift Up the Sky” story and composed music for it. He said, &rlquo;ah that is my Grandfather’s story.” We are now fortunate to have a living treasure from the Native American story telling tradition with us tonight!

Lummi Dive Beneath the Sea (Big Beach – Little Beach)

Last Summer, my Aleut friend, Tom Sharp, and I went to visit the Lummi center just north of Bellingham. The Seattle Peace Chorus had been honored that year by singing for the Totem pole blessing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, and at another event raising awareness of the Lummi struggle to hold back oil and coal trains from coming through and impacting their traditional fishing grounds, as well as the environmental health of the whole region.

Kurt Russo, one of their main organizers, met us and we soon were being regaled with stories by Marcos James about his deep-sea diving business of harvesting manilla clams. He described how he would have to make sure the sea lions saw his bubbles otherwise they would grab him by the foot and drag him around. The double bass is the deep-sea diver. Doug James is a fabulous singer in the Shaker style and I asked if he could teach me one of his songs, as they were especially beautiful to my ear. He said, “if I ever run into you again, I will think about it.”

“Lummi Dive Beneath the Sea,” was a tune originally composed as I watched my daughter and her friend play in the surf. As with so much of what I write it is with her generation in mind, as I gather my community together to make our best decisions based on the welfare of our children and grandchildren. We sing this now tonight to remember those precious moments with the Lummi Tribe, and pictures of children at play by the water’s edge.


I spoke with Doug James on the phone a few months ago and he recounted the incredible story of how his tribe is trying to free Tokitae from her 48 years of captivity as a Seaquarium performer in a very small pool with two dolphin companions. The pool is 35 ft. wide by 45 ft. by 20 ft. at the deepest. Within hours I composed this song and I heard the voice of our fabulous tenor, Justin Ferris, soaring out over the sea. Just recently I had a chance to share this song with Doug as they came through with their Orca totem pole.

Orcas are thought to be among the most intelligent beings on the planet. They are our elders having evolved over millions of years with complex language and a matrilineal pod structure. To put a 21 ft. long, highly intelligent being in a small pool enclosure whose natural habitat is the entire Salish sea is like putting Mandela in jail for 28 years. Tokitae’s pod would still be able to communicate with her today. We sing this song for another species, older and perhaps far wiser than our own, and in solidarity with the Lummi Totem pole journey, and all the Coast Salish tribes who have had a deep kinship with the Orca whales.

These are the Tears of My People

Many years ago, in the early 90s, I had befriended Andy de Los Angeles of the Snoqualmie tribe. He used to pick me up in his red jeep and take me to the other side of Snoqualmie Falls and show me the forest there. He came in his button blanket and sang one of his traditional songs for a concert I put together called the Chapel and the Drum. Soon after that, I had the great fortune to perform with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the City Cantabile Choir. Many of us went to visit the grave of Chief Sealth and Chief Kitsap. Dave Brubeck and I had both set some of Chief Sealth’s famous speech to music. This was particularly meaningful for the legendary jazz performer.

After the sold-out performance, where Brubeck mixed his virtuosic jazz expression with a tribute to Chief Sealth, Andy came up on stage with gifts of eagle feathers for the two composers of the evening, Dave Brubeck and myself. That very week his tribe had at long last achieved federal recognition which opened many opportunities for them. He declared that these feathers were the tears of his people. I now in turn dedicate this song to my friend Andy de Los Angeles-chief of the Snoqualmie.

Talking Story

I have read everything I could about the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Two women really were responsible for that expedition's success. Watkuwies of the Nez Perce tribe who spoke up for the expedition and of course Sacagawea whose very presence signaled a peaceful intent by the explorers. Sacagawea joined the party with captor-husband Toussaint Charbonneau. When the expedition desperately needed horses from the Shoshone people, it was the joyful reunion between Sacagawea and her brother the Shoshone chief that opened the gates for a peaceful trade.

Now if it were not for the winter hospitality of the Mandan people, the expedition would certainly have gotten stalled and the history of the Northwest may have been very different. The Mandan were famous for being a trading center and all enmity was put aside to accomplish mutually beneficial trade. Of all the things that make up peace on Earth, trade is maybe the most important practical enterprise in keeping violence at bay, when it is fair to all parties and all laborers. I say, let's have a hand for the Mandans. This is a wonderful creation story from these people.

How Great Thou Art

I first met Sondra Segundo at the Daybreak Star Pow Wow last summer. I happened to be talking with my friends Carol King and Judy Hightower who are both fabulous gospel singers. Upon hearing this, Sondra sang for the three of us a portion of the Gospel classic “How Great Thou Art.” Her story of how she came to sing this in her grandmother's language is so compelling that I later reached out to her to do the solo work in our concert here tonight. We are truly blessed to be collaborating with her tonight as she shares some of her heritage. Here she will be accompanied by Gospel great Kent Stevenson on piano.

Seven Generations

These words of the Great Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, (1842 - 1877), were retold by Chief Joe Chasing Horse, his relative. They were translated from the grandmother who was sitting there while Crazy Horse sat smoking the sacred pipe with Sitting Bull for the last time. This was 4 days before he was treacherously bayonetted to death and lay for 5 hours dying, after he had surrendered to the U.S. troops.

After writing this choral work I spoke to Germain Garnier, the current executive Director of the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge reservation. I told her how inspired I was by these words. To show respect for the descendants of Crazy Horse, I offered to make a contribution to one of the programs that they were offering. She said that would be fine and they would welcome financial contributions. I had just read a fascinating account of Red Cloud who had uniquely closed down the Bozeman trail following his many victories. I also had read of the visions of Crazy Horse. We talked for a long time. She is a direct descendant of Chief Red Cloud, and I was honored to hear directly from her about his life and that of Crazy Horse. She told me that her tribe had very little resources now and suffered greatly over the years from alcohol problems. But many of her people persevered and became skilled and highly educated. I said that we wanted to make this contribution and walk with her in our hearts and song. I would send her a copy of tonight’s recording. “Wolpila Ha,” she replied. “Thank you.” And I said “Thank you”— I know that we can all do much more.

We are the Future and the Past

“We are the Future and the Past” is a song of motion, walking in the streets, walking with strangers who share a common love of peace and justice, and a determination to be good stewards of the planet. It celebrates the Great Oglala Sioux leader, Red Cloud, and the Nisqually fishing rights champion, Billy Frank Jr., alongside Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.

Our Native American brothers and sisters are not waiting around to change the balance in the U.S. Senate. They have had very few friends in the White House over these past two centuries and they are not waiting for the next election cycle to act and lift their voices. They are determined and imaginative and open to alliances. “We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.” The words of this song are my own and are inspired by the Haudenosaunee teachings and the rise of First Nations people today.

The soloists sing “ look to the sky and see Orion.” This is a reference to the universality of the stars as guides for the traveler and for the imagination of our collective stories. The Chinook people saw the constellation Orion as a canoe race. One canoe is the belt, the other, the dagger. They are both racing toward a fish (the bright star Sirius) in the Milky way.

A year ago, SPC Action Ensemble went to Olympia to join a march and rally organized by a coalition of Native American groups. Two Lakota sisters began by distributing tobacco for people to offer to the lake and a group of drummers and singers started a powerful song that I think was called Eagle Soaring. There was an absolute torrent of rain and I admired the woven hats of the drummers and singers that shed the water better than anything I had.

In the last several years people in the environmental movement (I hope that includes all of us), have been energized and inspired by Native American groups from Standing Rock to the opposition of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

I have read a lot about Native American people in order to have some understanding of their lives and history and what I could learn. I have been fortunate to develop some very meaningful friendships and connections in this world. Among the most incredible books are two written by Native American authors. I want to give you a glimpse from “Living in Two Worlds,” by Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), given to me by my friend, Bill Cote. “We were taught generosity to the poor and reverence for the ‘Great Mystery.’” Religion was the basis of all Indian training. My Grandmother would say, “be strong of heart – be patient!” She told me of a young chief who was noted for his uncontrollable temper. While in one of his rages he attempted to kill a woman, for which he was slain by his own band and left unburied as a mark of disgrace; his body was simply covered with grass. If I ever lost my temper she would say, “Hakadah, control yourself, or you will be like that young man I told you of and lie under a green blanket.”

“Old age was in some respects the happiest period of life. Advancing years brought with them much freedom, not only from the burden of laborious and dangerous tasks, but from those restrictions of custom . . . which were religiously observed by all others.” “Men may slay one another, but they can never overcome the woman, for in the quiet of her lap lies the child! You may destroy him once and again, but he issues as often from that same gentle lap—a gift of the Great Good, in which man is only an accomplice.”

And from the beautifully written “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is speaking of the Three Sisters garden: corn, beans, and squash. "Polycultures are less susceptible to pest outbreaks than monocultures. In agribusiness, a dose of ammonium nitrate substitutes for the partnership of the bean. Tractors return with herbicides to suppress weeds in lieu of the squash. There were certainly bugs and weeds in the Three Sisters gardens but they flourished without insecticides.

Of all the wise teachers who have come into my life, none are more eloquent than these, who wordlessly in leaf and vine embody the knowledge of relationship. “The gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together than alone. In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship. This is how the world keeps going." Let us reach out to each other and find how we create the rich and beautiful partnerships of diverse people on this planet, to keep this world going for all of our children and grandchildren.

– Frederick N. West