Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 24, 2001 - Issue 32



'Listen to the Wind' the Old Turtle Croons


by Dorreen Yellowbird Grand Forks Herald


 art Creation of Turtle Island by Roy Thomas

If a turtle could dance, he surely would have kicked up his heels this weekend.

The old man -- the wise spirit of the turtle -- was in Grand Forks for the "Old Turtle celebration." It was a weekend of stories and songs at the local schools and Dakota Science Center, and the old turtle even sat in with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra. He was the cello.

For me, the "Pied Piper" of these events was Native American flutist Keith Bear. And if Bear was the Pied Piper, then composer Linda Tutas Haugen was the mother who gave life to the work of Douglas Wood. It was from the soul of author Wood that the story of "Old Turtle" was created. And it was the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra that allowed Old Turtle and his friends to dance with the wind and cavort with the antelope.

The story of Old Turtle is important to our community because it teaches tolerance and understanding. One of the promoters of the events said the community needs this message because there seems to be an undercurrent of frustration and anger here.

When I walked into the Dakota Science Center on Saturday afternoon, I could hear the sounds of Bear's flute even before I entered the room. That was the first event of the weekend. The orchestra was warming up at the Empire Arts Center for the evening's performance. The youth orchestra would play, then be joined by the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra. It was a good evening of wonderful music. (The orchestra will perform today at the Chester Fritz Auditorium for community groups and schools.)

I have always been partial to the Native American flute. The haunting music has a way of bringing snippets of the past and the culture to me. As I listened to Bear's flute sounds reaching toward the high ceilings of the old church that is now the Dakota Science Center, I saw my grandmother sitting in her old car, her legs out the open car door and arm resting on the back of the seat.

The grass at the powwow was almost white gold, I remember. It was August. As my grandmother talked to us, the dancers' bells and the drums echoed against the hills around the powwow arbor.

My father was leaning on his car top off at a distance but close enough to hear. That vision of my father -- apart, yet listening -- is how I remember his relationship with my grandmother.

It is, perhaps, because the Native American flute is such an unassuming, ordinary instrument that it can carry those visions without the sound overwhelming the vision.

I had to smile when Bear told me that one of his first flutes was made from an old fence post he'd found in a field. He played a short piece, then handed the flute to me. It was smooth, with finger holes that weren't in a straight line. The leather that was tied to it smelled of tanning smoke. And a small, carved bird sat proudly on top.

Another flute, he said, came to him when he was climbing around in an old barn. It was the top part of the door frame. On this flute, you could even see where a nail had left a small scar. The instrument is of cedar and still has the deep, rich smell of that tree.

Bear has many flutes. Some have been given to him, but most he made. Some are richly decorated with beads, quills or carved swans and bears. One that he highly prizes was made by his daughter.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the orchestra that evening as I settled myself into my seat at the Empire. But there was Bear, in a ribbon shirt and braids, sitting in the middle of the musicians who were dressed in formal black and white.

Bear doesn't read music, he told me. He had to wait for a signal to become part of the symphony. Then he slowly rose, and the sounds of his fence-post flute mixed and joined easily with the formal renderings of the orchestra.

It was a strangely wonderful sound.

Here was a message of tolerance and understanding brought to the community by representatives of two very different groups: the formal orchestra and the Native American with his homemade flute -- the precise sounds of the symphony, and the natural, commonplace sounds of the flute.

The wisdom of the old turtle is now in the wind, river and earth. Perhaps those seeds of a friendlier community will take root.

Yellow Bird's e-mail address is or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228. She writes columns on Tuesday and Sat urday.



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