When I arrived at the Institute of American Indian Arts for high school as a teenager from northeastern Oklahoma, Ballard was one of the first faculty members to whom I was introduced. He’d been assigned as my advisor. We were both from Oklahoma; that was our starting place. When I needed a place of refuge from my many battles, I would wander up the sidewalk, past Academics to his music studio. We didn’t talk music. I had given it up a few years before, had walked out of a band room because the band teacher refused to allow me to play sax, because I was a girl. And I had stopped singing because I was forbidden to sing. I was drawn to Louis Ballard by his immense kindness; he was someone who knew how to listen, even when words weren’t necessarily spoken. On his walls were large, beautiful images of Indian ballerinas, including Maria Tallchief, who was also from Oklahoma, he told me. He had composed music for her. I saw that he was a man of achievement. And, like many others, I was inspired by the music that came from his studio, by the native choir he fostered for which he arranged traditional music. I still know those songs.
It was only years later that I became aware of his immense contributions to the world of music, of his many orchestral compositions that always referred back with great dignity to the roots of our indigenous music. He managed to carry a great respect and always dignity for the gifts of our nations, though he came up through a time of shame of identity, like many in my parent’s generation.
In my late thirties I turned back toward a music that had been denied me. And this restarted my relationship with Louis Ballard. He was always helpful. His knowledge was coherent and wide-ranging. And he shared. He was a fierce proponent of what our cultures have to offer.
I called Louis before Christmas, a few months ago. We talked for over an hour, about family, about our music endeavors, about the organization we were founding members of: First Nation Composers Initiative, about what matters. He encouraged me. As we talked I realized how lonely I was for these mothers, fathers, grandparents of our old ways. For though Ballard lived in New Mexico, his spirit was rooted in those old ways, from the center of those tribal lands in Oklahoma. His memory was profound. He even remembered my Sonic Drive-In order from a visit with him there twenty years ago!
This is how I know Louis. He was an exemplary mentor, and will remain so, because the spirit lives long past the body or time. I will use his example for a template. He reminds me to be dignified, coherent in what I say and how I listen. And to be exact in my art, in anything I give back to the world. I will always hear his voice as he spoke on behalf of our peoples, and of course, his music. He was all of this, and more.
Mvto. Mvto Mvto Mvto.
May your journey be beautiful.
Joy Harjo February 24, 2007