On my Dad’s side, his Dad died when he was little. I think his Mom lived to be quite elderly and used to visit here occasionally. On my Mom’s side, I do remember my Mom’s Mom, but not too well. My Mom’s Dad passed away probably when I was five years old. I did not have much contact with my grandparents.

Probably what got me interested in traditional art was at school, I realized there was something missing there. I think it was just that I came to the realization more or less in my teenage years that there was something, some big gap there, probably toward 15, 16 years of age I began to really consciously hang out.

Kevin Locke, Lakota Flute Player, Hoop Dancer, Storyteller and National Heritage Fellow was 38 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1992.

I think one of the individuals who really encouraged me a lot was my Mom’s uncle. I think of him quite a bit. His name was Abraham Endicort. He died about 1974. I remember he kind of wanted me to stay with him. Even though I was just a teenager I used to drive him around to different powwows and things like that. He would talk quite a lot to me. I guess just the focus of attention was very influential to me.

I really enjoyed hanging out with a lot of these older people. I began to take on some of their expectations. One of the expectations in that generation was certain things you should know such as genealogy.  They made a big point of always being able to use the proper kinship term with everybody, then he would always take special effort to explain the genealogy. He was not uncommon in his ability to go back many generations and remember all of the details and intricate relationships and remember their Indian names also. That is something I fall short on. There are very few people like that today.

Then, I was thinking about some of the values of the people in that particular generation, some of the people around Standing Rock and the area I lived, like some of the singers. They were very conscientious.  For instance if they were going to sing some ceremonial songs, you have to do the right song, there is a proper order, proper sequence and the right cadence of singing that song, and so on and so forth. All the attention to detail. It really was impressed upon me.

I began to get interested in some of these ceremonial songs. For instance, I wanted to go out fasting because this is something different ones told me.  If I wanted to find out anything it is something you have to do.  I remember this one fellow that put me up for fasting. He is from Rosebud. He always called me his nephew, kumkushka.

I always called him Uncle. His name was Charles Kilzim. He said, “Okay, well, if I’m going to put you up fasting, what are you going to do up there in this place?”

I said, “Well, I guess I could just pray or whatever.”

He said, “Well, I don’t know. You’re supposed to sing when you go up there. That is the custom. Sing your prayers.”

I said, “Okay.”

“What are you going to sing up there? I don’t want you up there singing Mary Had a Little Lamb or Row, Row, Row Your Boat or anything like that.”

So then he really made a conscious effort to go over the right songs, proper songs for fasting. He had a bunch of songs just for fasting.  Right down the line, all these songs for fasting. He would talk about when he was a young person and how he had an interest like that and he went out fasting just about every year since he was maybe 15 or 16 years of age.

He died at 80.  I guess he would have been born about 1900 or somewhere around there. He was really a stickler for being precise.  In other words, in the repertoire of spiritual songs, the impression I got from him and others was, “If you aren’t going to do it in the right way, it’s just monkey business.” Why even bother then, if you’re not going to do it right? That impressed me, that the procedure was something of significance.

For instance, I got this Heritage Award for these flute songs, these love songs that you play on the flute. Those particular songs are a very esoteric genre of music that is all but completely atrophied now because the context of those songs go back to the pre-reservation days also up into the early reservation days.

There haven’t been any songs composed in that genre for probably 50 or 60 years. I don’t think there have been any new compositions because it is a very distinct genre. You can go out to these New Age music stores and see hundreds of tapes of these flute players, but nothing you hear is going to have anything to do with the original genre of that music, which is very distinctive. You can hear in these love songs, I don’t care if it’s Lakota, or where it’s from, there is a thread of continuity that goes through all of them in terms of their musical structure. It is easily recognizable.

I got interested in the Indian flute music around 1972.  I had a chance to meet Richard Kubull in St. Francis, South Dakota. He would go around to powwows and occasionally different powwow committees would ask him to do a little recital. He attained a little bit of notoriety also because he was also on the Dick Cavett show.  He would do little performances at schools and then he did the flute. That is how I got interested in the Indian flute.

I remember the first songs I learned on the flute, I had this recording done by the Library of Congress by an ethnic musicologist by the name of Willard Rhodes, and he did the field recordings I think during the 30s and 40s.  There is a very well known series of recordings of a flute player named of John Coloff who is the official agency translator down at Pine Ridge Agency. He was really a good flute player and singer and he recorded several songs. He played and sang these recordings. It’s called “Sioux Favorites.” Those are the first songs I learned, off the recording.

I learned those really good, I played them over and over again, then I thought, “Well, that’s good. I need to get some more songs.” Then I realized those were the only songs recorded in that genre.

I went around and found to my happiness there were a lot of people who knew those songs. One man was Ben Black Bear, Sr. He died about 15 years ago too. He knew so many love songs. Lots of them.  He could just go on and on and play love songs. He was really eager to share those.

Another fellow that I got some love songs from was Bill Black Lance. Another one was William Horn Cloud. He was pretty well known. He also passed away, but he was a really well-known singer. Joe Rock Boy, quite a few. I went around and visited them. They were really eager to share the songs.  I made a real systematic effort to visit them. I took gifts and things like that and established a really good friendship with those guys.

What I did was I had a little tape recorder, so I recorded them singing. That is how I learned it. I just listened to those a few times.  I just sang the song just like I was singing among them. I just learned it that way. I reconstructed how you would play it on the flute.  I can’t read anything. I never had anybody show me anything on playing the flute. That is totally self-taught from beginning to end.

By the time I started playing the flute there were no flute players around. I know that Doc Tate was doing it down there. I don’t know how Doc Tate learned the technique for playing it either. I do know that a lot of those guys down there were influenced by a man named Belo Kozac. He was a well-known flute player down in Oklahoma.

The instrumentalization is so closely related to the vocalization that it really isn’t that much of a thing. The instrument is, all you are doing is just extending the voice, the same intonation and everything. That’s the whole idea.

I didn’t even really start hoop dancing until probably a little before my son was born, a little over 20 years ago, I was about 22 years old.  I was encouraged. The first time I got encouraged to hoop dance, this man named Arlo Good Bear from New Town, North Dakota. I met him a few years before because when I was going to school at Black Hills State in 1972, I met those guys at that time, him and his brothers and sisters. Around 1979 or 80 we went on a little tour together in New York City, some kind of a program there at Liberty Park, a place where they send the tours out to Statue of Liberty. There’s a park there and we did a little program there.

We were staying at a hotel near there. He was really an accomplished hoop dancer, and he encouraged me to learn how to do the hoop dance. My response was, “It’s a little bit beyond the scope of what I could do.”

He just said, “No, you can do it. It’s not going to be hard for you. In fact, I’ll give you four lessons. I’ll give you one lesson now and three later. Then you’ll be able to do this. You’ll be on your own and be able to do the hoop dance.”

I thought I would just humor him a little and go along with him. He had the hoops there and he took me through a few designs. We just did some basic designs. The design you do with one hoop, then three.  Just some basic designs. I remember we had our program to do. After that we went to the airport. I went straight back and he went somewhere else. He flew to Minock, North Dakota.

It wasn’t too long after that, maybe a couple of weeks, that I got a call.  His Mom informed me that he was in an accident and he died. She asked me if I could be one of the pallbearers at his funeral. I went out there to the funeral. It was really a nice ceremony that they did. I remember we filed by his casket and viewed the body just before he was interred.

After that we had the burial, then they had a feast after that. Then, we went back home. After that I had a very vivid dream where I saw him laying in his casket and he got up and he took off upwards. He got not that far up and he turned and looked back at all the people at the site near the cemetery and he looked like he was really smiling and continued on.

After that I had several dreams where I saw him hoop dancing. He was having a wonderful time hoop dancing. After that I didn’t have any more dreams like that. It was about that time that I began to remember over at the hotel room he said he was going to give me four lessons. “I’m going to give you four lessons, one now and three later. After that you are going to be on your own. You will be able carry this forward.”

That was where I got started. That was the motivation I had. I got some hoops and I began to try it. What really got me doing performances was I went on this tour to Africa. I really wasn’t going to go on this tour but there was a cancellation and so they called me almost at the last minute. So at the last minute I went on this two-month tour to Africa. I took my hoops that I made and took them on the trip.

When we got over to Dakar we had this school there where they actually specialize in teaching some of their traditional dances. We had a lot of free time. I had those hoops and I spent a lot of time there by myself going through all the different designs over and over again.  I think I had 11 or 12 hoops at the time. I began to try to develop a routine.

That was on the tour, for about seven or eight weeks. I was able to develop a little performance routine. I thought it was pretty good. It was a non-critical audience because they didn’t know. It was kind of a safe environment.

Out where I live in South Dakota there is a high level of excellence. The criteria is very high. Anything short of this high level of excellence is viewed with a lot of criticism. Therefore, it wouldn’t have been very easy for me to develop any kind of performance and ease in performing in my home area because of that high standard. It was really a wonderful opportunity for me to do that.

I just thought, well, it just struck me, he had said that and even though he wasn’t able to physically fulfill what he had obligated himself to, yet somehow he was able to complete this obligation he had made.  It wasn’t like I got a real lesson like in terms of technical ability to execute the dance. It was more like motivational. I thought, “If he did that I should try to do my part.”  I still view it that way.

As I have been doing the hoop dance, it has been an amazing thing as I have been doing this folk art, these traditional things. Without being sensitive or aware of what would happen, it is just like I walk to the store. I went through these experiences without any ambitions and all these other doors just started opening up.

For me, it is no mystery. In retrospect, these are just the things that came before me. Especially since becoming a Baha’i, doors have just opened up. It was 1979, not really aware of anything about the scope of the Faith or its significance. I just kind of stumbled through without having any kind of ambition or direction at all during my life.

It is an amazing thing because these different practices like music and dance are things that have a lot of continuity, it is something that continues on from those who have gone beyond this world. All these songs, and different things, these are things I didn’t make up myself. I am just continuing them on.

When I do the hoop dance or play the flute it is just like the barrier, the seemingly insurmountable barriers separating this physical world from the spiritual world just kind of dissipates, evaporates. Like everything comes together. The past blends with the present and the present blends with the future.

This is the thing occurring in this new day. Really, Baha’u’llah has come to fulfill these prophecies that point to this time, this point of transition. Christ said, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, these spiritual qualities, the will of God will be made manifest on earth. This huge chasm is going to be reduced and this earth is going to reflect these divine attributes. Of course, it has to be reflected in people’s hearts.

We are living in a time now when we are seeing all the things those who lived before us longed to witness. We are being part of all this for those who have gone before us. To me, it is a wonderful thing to bring all these traditions with us. The people who have gone before us would have longed to have done this, and we can do it on their behalf. It is all part of the process of being connected, like those who have gone beyond, those who are here, those yet to come. We are all brought together. I always feel that way. I don’t really feel the separation. It all comes together. What really helps me to invoke that is the arts. It really helps me a lot to be a part of this incredible transformation process occurring throughout the world.

For me it is really neat because, when doing a performance or program the whole feeling I have is, “Okay, we all have to make this transition, we all have to make this eternity trip. Let’s just move further down in that direction, this short time we have together.” It is a process of pulling these worlds together, the physical and spiritual, the process of spiritualization.

This is the real power of the folk arts, the extent to which they can allow the joy of those who have gone before to come through, and the joy that they would have in allowing them to partake of this process. It’s just a feeling I get. I can feel it, too, back home when they have community gatherings and they have some real good dancers and singers, it just creates that whole environment. It feels really powerful. I know that most of the arts in general have their effect, but some art is trivialized, and distracts us, and pulls us in different directions.

The beautiful thing about the traditional arts where I live is to exalt the human spirit, to ennoble the human spirit. Some of it isn’t, but the part that’s really strong, that survives now, we are very fortunate it is for that purpose to ennoble the human spirit. The community gatherings that we have, the songs that we have. If you do a critical analysis of the text that is what it’s all about, to encourage the people to be brave, be courageous.

I was thinking we had this Veteran’s Day dance a week ago back in Wakpala. It was really unique. I didn’t dance myself, I just watched, but all these little guys were out dancing. My 13-year-old daughter was the first one to get dressed up and go out there. I was looking at the singers. I remember a few years ago it was all the old guys sitting around the drum, mostly older people dancing. Now it’s just young guys sitting at the drum and it’s all young people dancing. It’s great to watch.

It was really neat to hear the songs and think, kind of an analysis of the songs in my mind, the lyrics are very beautiful. They’re saying it’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s a challenge to do these things but it is worthwhile. In other words, it’s talking about the generosity and the sacrifice that is required to carry on some of these things. It’s worthwhile because it is a way of encouraging ourselves and our people. It is really good we have these things we can bring for the benefit of our own communities.  It is something we can contribute to this emerging global civilization that we all have strengths to bring to life.

I see all these things as part and parcel with all the folk traditions. I think the Indian people can be really thankful because of the real focus of these special musical and dance traditions. They are specifically focused just to help us to celebrate our connection to the creation and to help us to renew ourselves and to renew our communities.

I think when I was a little kid I was always like an odd man out. I didn’t fit into too many groups. I always felt like I didn’t really fit in very well. I guess I didn’t feel that bad about it. It didn’t really bother me.  One of the things I did as a little kid, I was constantly drawing.

I remember when I was in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades we moved up to Anchorage, Alaska. When I was up there, my Mom had a job. There were a lot of native people who came into Anchorage who didn’t really have access to jobs or anything like that, so they started what they called a Welcome Center to help them get established. They had this little Arts and Crafts co-op there. My Dad was working long hours and my Mom worked down there, so after school usually I’d go out ice skating, but sometimes I would go over there and sit around and visit with some of those guys.

It’s kind of an unusual thing, but I used to like to hang out with old people. It was pretty fun. We’d go to different dances and things. They have beautiful songs, performances throughout Anchorage.  12, 13, 14, 15, I got interested around that age. I used to do a lot of drawing, artwork. I spend a large portion of time more on contemplative, things where you have to be by yourself and think about things.

Then coming back down from Alaska, I really started with my Mom’s uncle. He was a powwow announcer too. We would go to different powwows together. I wasn’t really dancing at the time then. I didn’t start dancing until later. I just got really enamored with those types of opportunities in the city.

In my teenage years I found out, especially in South Dakota, if I really wanted to catch on to some of these things I had to learn the Lakota language. Then I found out it really wasn’t hard to learn either. I picked it up, which is an amazing thing now that I look at it. Not to be bragging, but people say, because there is no one who has done that who wasn’t born in a home speaking the language you can’t find anyone today who can speak the language. I think I’m the only one. I don’t know why that is, because I didn’t think it was that hard.

If you want to understand what people are talking about, just figure it out. I would ask people, “What does this word mean? What does this word mean?” People were patient with me. I don’t know why. People would tell me once and I would remember. If they told me what a word meant I would remember.  I know nowadays if I tell somebody a word or something a few minutes later they don’t remember. I think if a person focuses on something they can. Maybe it’s motivation.

Pete Ketchas was the one who first recommended I go out fasting. This would have been probably around 1973 or 1974. He was the first one who recommended that I do that. In fact, he was the one who put me up fasting the first several times.

I guess I really didn’t think of it as a rite of passage or anything. I did it because he seemed really insistent that I do that. I guess that’s the main reason. It is really an intense experience because the main thing that is really intense is the isolation. I know there must be a lot of cities where people are in isolation. But our whole framework is built around social conventions associated with eating. When you take all that away it is just a totally different world you go into.

There are other things, like the sun dance. I’ve done that many times too. But that’s totally different too, because you always have the whole prayer community there, the camaraderie, the group spirit to help you focus there.

The fasting, to me, my feeling of it is you just feel total nothingness because especially in the Dakotas in the places where people usually go to fasting, they are totally wilderness areas. You can’t see any sign of civilization or anything. It is really an intense experience. I never really tried to describe it that much, but it is really intense.

Something else that gives out insight for me is to read the fasting prayers revealed by Baha’u’llah. In the fasting prayers there are several places that mention how every hour of this period of these days, referring to the days of the fast, are endowed with a special virtue, inscrutable to all save God. And unto every soul has been assigned a portion of this virtue. It’s like, every moment is so intensified, this time we are living in.

To me, as a Baha’i, I can see where it is just all these social conventions, these man-made, fabricated images, that are holding us back. Because once you penetrate through all that, there is totally nothing. What is there? I felt like, how can we connect with God? I felt like being tossed into a big void and just falling. It’s really a unsettling experience.

It is one of the things that compelled me to go on. I figured, there must be some significance here. That is when I realized, when I found the writings of Baha’u’llah, I realized that this was the substance, that foundation you could stand on.

In retrospect, I don’t think I really would have recognized it if I hadn’t had an experience like going out fasting and realizing the total facade we are living in. I don’t think people really think of that when they never really go outside of this web that we have woven in this world.

That was one thing that also motivated me also to learn those songs. Now when I think about it, as a Baha’i, those songs are very significant, those Lakota fasting songs. You know they are divinely inspired because they talk about the movement of the sun, referring to the sacredness of the time you have pledged to fulfill, this most sacred undertaking, which is to go out fasting. It says, ‘My sacred ways, through my sacred ways I will now make a spiritual relationship with you. Through my sacred ways.’ It is a fasting song. There are a lot of them.

I know now that’s why this uncle of mine insisted I do that because when you are out there fasting it is the only thing you have to hang on to.  You need those songs. It gets etched indelibly in my mind. I don’t know if I was able to express my feeling of going out fasting, but it’s like going into a whole different world where you realize one’s total insignificance without this relationship with our creator, this feeling that there must be something, some kind of bond or relationship we can make with our creator. It is really a powerful experience for me.

It is a beautiful thing, because we have a divine standard, and we can use that to reflect on the cultural heritage we have, and begin to see those things that are very beautiful, and very valid. We tend to see things in an either-or, black or white way, so people naturally assume if it’s outside a religion, you have to give up your culture. But it’s not that process at all. Through the writings of Baha’u’llah, we know that all peoples have received a portion of these graces from the Creator and the abilities have been pervasive, they always have been. We have beautiful things we can bring forward from these traditions.

Having this divine standard enables me to appreciate the significance of these different songs, just like the fasting songs I was describing.  It is wonderful to be a part of this process and keeping these cherished traditions of our ancestors new and dynamic. In so doing we can kind of vindicate the sacrifices and things they went through then to be a part of the process of bringing Heaven and Earth together.

A lot of people think, “Oh, it’s nice to preserve your language. How nice. Good boy.” But, no, it’s not like something quaint or interesting to do. It is an imperative. We have to do these things. It’s like the gene pool, and how it connects to the prosperity of humankind. It’s vital, not just nice.

This accumulated wisdom and knowledge is vital. It’s a life and death thing that we have to bring these things. It is a crucial ingredient that has to be added in order to realize the spiritual dimension of ourselves. I don’t really have the words to describe it, but this is something that we can all be a part of. Not just to do it because it’s interesting and nice, but it’s a strategic and systematic part toward this movement toward a global civilization.

There are so many beautiful things that the human spirit has produced from the past. For instance, the Lakota people had beautiful ways of expressing different angles of the creation. Just like all the different songs we have in which it describes we can sing as an eagle. You personify the eagle. You are eagle-like. You say, “I am the first to soar with the new day.” Or maybe you become the thunders and you speak with voice of the thunders, just like you see these big thunderheads that light up, you say, “I appear in this way. I cause the buffalo to move over your country.”

When you think about it, these are real pretty ways of expressing these ancestral voices in the creation. We know everything in this physical world, everything in the world is a spiritual manifestation of a physical reality.

Linguistically, the languages are so beautiful. The human spirit transcends the boundary of language, but one of the neat things I know specifically from Lakota language, that has a beauty of expression in many ways, is in describing processes. So if you use the Lakota language you have to be very concerned about using processes. It is almost like you have to have more of a scientific, analytical mental framework to speak the language. You can’t be lax in your descriptions. We know the incredible richness and diversity, it all has a part in building this world and civilization and enriching our global inheritance.

There are riches that come from the different traditions in the world. We are all legitimate heirs to the entirety of this. We don’t just do it on behalf of this little group of people. For example, Mrs. MacDonald, the tradition she has of making leis, it’s not just for the benefit of her small, little kindred population. This is something that adds richness to us all. It is part of a global inheritance that we are each legitimate heirs to.

I think of what we can do right over there in South Dakota, the Lakota people have something significant to contribute way beyond Dancing with Wolves. That’s nothing. We have something significant to contribute to this global civilization that has yet barely begun to be realized.

One of the things that is really nice to see is seeing your own kids taking an interest in what you do. That’s pretty nice. My kids really do help me a lot, like this younger daughter, this 13-year-old, she really is an enthusiastic little dancer. She gets out and hoop dances too. She likes to sing and learn songs.

I traveled most of the time that she was growing up. But she is the one that seems to have the most interest right now and it is really neat to see that we can encourage that and enable her to develop her sense of self and identity.

It is really wonderful to be involved in traditional arts and traditional dance. It is also multi-generational. It extends one’s sense of connection, not just rooted in the past but in the future. It is really wonderful. I know in so many cultures dance is tied just to specific generations, specific social contexts and so forth. In the Lakota communities this just totally involves all the generations in the hoop of life.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


© 2023 Robert Atkinson Website design by Zellous.org

Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?

Create Account

Skip to toolbar