This month has been a month heavy with deaths, transformations, made light with a few births. Two mentors have moved on from this earth. The first to leave was Louis Ballard, the Quapaw and Cherokee world-class composer from northeastern Oklahoma.
When I arrived at the Institute of American Indian Arts for high school as a teenager, Ballard was 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: First Nation Composers Initiative (for which we were founding members), mostly about what matters. He encouraged me. As we visited and I listened to his manner of speaking 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 the wisdom found at the center of those tribal lands in Oklahoma. His memory was profound and alert. 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. 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.
And I need to mention an important mentor who suddenly left us this week: the poet Gene Frumkin. He was a poetry professor at the University of New Mexico who, along with poetry writing and English, taught kindness and concern. He nurtured his students; he believed in us. He encouraged us to enter poems in contests and to publish in small magazines, and once drove our poetry workshop up to a literary conference in Colorado Springs for the weekend. That act of commitment on his part sealed it: we were real poets! In the end what we will carry away from this place are memories, are the stories, songs, actions and words we share with each other. We certainly won’t be carrying away our name-brand cars, trucks, electronics, stuff or any of our money or our CDIB cards.
Mvto Gene Frumkin. I write to acknowledge him, and to remind everyone to go visit those who helped you along the way. My wise, inner companion kept nudging me to visit Gene, this man who nurtured the spirit of a young and conflicted poet back so many years ago. I was too busy.
We need to make it a practice to acknowledge and thank all of those who help us along our journey. Every gift we have is deserving of thankfulness: food, clothing, shelter, land, inspiration, friendship, vehicles, computers, movies, medicines, electronics, our bodies, planets, suns, and all of those who provide the gifts. We are dependent on the sacrifices of plants, animals, on various powers that move about, above or within the earth. We used to be much more aware of the process of life, and remembered not just how to speak with these, but that we had and have a crucial relationship to and with plants, animals and the rest of consciousness, to the Creator of all this. Some still acknowledge that relationship. Humans aren’t the only carriers of consciousness, of plans, of life.
Consider this: the plant we call “Corn” or “Vce “, has consciousness, and decided to colonize human beings so that it would continue to grow, asserts Michael Pollen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals. He proves it in his book as he shows the migration route of corn, and shows how corn and corn products have come to be in almost every meal that is eaten in this country. How did we become so human-centric to believe that humans are the only ones with consciousness? Consciousness isn’t linear. All life carries consciousness. All life responds to thankfulness. With a perspective beyond books, beyond theologies, beyond politics, beyond small-mindedness; we will remember.
Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember the moon; remember the dark.
Remember your birth, how you were given breath.
You were given laughter; you were given crying.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth: we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them;
listen to them. They are alive.
Remember the winds. Remember their voices. They know the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.