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Cultures join to shape Keith Bear’s music

Native American flutist Keith Bear performs with the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra at a children’s concert Wednesday at Bemidji High School. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – When two cultures co-mingle to become one, the wisdom that ensues erases the earthly boundaries to become one spiritually.

This week Bemidji children have listened to the “Fable of Old Turtle” as narrated by composer Linda Tutas Haugen and Native American flutist Keith Bear. The story of Old Turtle by Douglas Wood, with illustrations by Cheng-Khee Chee in the new printing, reaches across generations and cultures with its message of love and forgiveness.

“I was in Grand Forks from 1999 to 2002, working under a three-year fellowship writing several musical pieces for the community,” Haugen said. “I discovered this book and I just loved it, it brought together a lot of different elements and I thought it would be appropriate for Grand Forks given there’s a river there.”

Haugen went on to explain how she wanted to bridge the different cultural groups in Grand Forks and she kept hearing about this wonderful flutist, Keith Bear, and they finally met. Haugen asked Bear if he would be interested in playing with an orchestra. Bear said he did not read music and so began the long journey they took together in composing the musical composition.

They started working together by phone; Haugen in the Twin Cities and Bear in North Dakota. Bear would play one of his flutes and Haugen would try to figure out how the sound of it could be translated into standard musical notation. In the end, Haugen listened to the sound of 27 flutes before she sat down to compose the music. The finished piece was first played by the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra in 2001 and at the Turtle Mountain Reservation in 2002.

Bear, whose native name is O’Mashi Ryu Ta-Northern Lights, is a Mandan-Hidatsa storyteller and flutist from Fort Berthold, N.D.

At concerts, he appears wearing the regalia that his wife, Jo Esther Parshall Bear, sewed from deer and elk shot by his sons; decorated with quill work and beading by his daughters, and  leggings tattooed with the battle history of his people.

The horse hair hanging on the leggings denotes disgust with the weak warrior killed in battle.  But the horse hair hanging from the tunic, near the heart, honors a brave warrior – one who gained respect even though killed in battle. On the front of the tunic hangs a white weasel, an animal known for its ability to master its environment and an eagle feather stands proudly at the back of his braided hair. Bear is an elegant man who speaks with great humility about his gifts.

And a man who enjoys the humor in ordinary life as Bear retold the story of how he first described the “key” of his instruments.

“I was working with a person from the National Symphony and she wanted to know what key(s) my flutes were in and I said monkey,” said Bear. “I just monkey with my flutes until they sound right to me. I have made over 40 flutes and each one is called by name: double barrel is shotgun; triple barrel is Gatling gun and my smallest piccolo is meadow lark. They are all made from in the traditional manner from cedar.”

“You know,” Bear added, “I learned to play by listening to the wind.”

Bear’s father, Johnny, and his uncle, Carl Whitman, also played instruments without knowing how to read music. In fact, they played as fill-in musicians in North Dakota for such notable bands as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Lawrence Welk. Bear laughed when he said they knew Welk’s music from listening to his television show. However, Bear’s daughter Sonya (Blossom of Snow) is the musician in the family who can play nine different instruments.

Bear and Haugen have been guests of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra this week in a residency underwritten by the Region 2 Arts Council Arts and Cultural Heritage fund and Target. They have visited classrooms at Lincoln School and Northern Elementary; yesterday morning the orchestra played to a full house of attentive fourth- and fifth-graders at the Children’s Concert at Bemidji High School and then it was on to Red Lake with a smaller group for a chamber performance of Fable of Old Turtle.

This Sunday, the BSO will present “Music and Peace” at 3 p.m. in the high school auditorium. The program includes Haugen speaking the words of Old Turtle while Bear plays the sounds of God speaking through nature.

The program also includes “Between Two Cultures,” an original composition written by Russell Peterson. It is a musical interpretation of three different drawings by Native American artist Star Wallowing Bull: Unknown Territory, Windego vs. the Cannibal Man and Once Upon a Time.

“The Planets, Op. 32 by Gustav Holst is the composer’s elementary observations in the study of the astrological character of each planet. This Sunday, the planet Jupiter brings frivolity with its folk music underpinnings. Venus, the bringer of peace, is interpreted by oboe and solo violin – the “morning star.”

As Bear spoke these words, “Beauty can be powerful,” he spoke not only of the beauty of the music but also of the people in how they see God in each other and the beauty of all the earth.