June 3rd, 2013 Last Updated on: June 3rd, 2013
Chippewa-Cree/Dakota Sioux performer Jermaine White Elk recently sat down for a visit to discuss his music and art. A NAMMY -nominated traditional flutist, White Elk is also noted for his artistic endeavors and graphic designs. This devoted recording artist continues to be a leader and mentor throughout Native America.
Q) Your music is stirring! It has such strength and energy! How did you begin your musical career?
A)Thank you very much! I began my flute playing when my friend Rainbow was playing her flute outside my grandfathers house. I came outside and heard a sound i never heard in my life. I turned around and there she was, playing her Native American flute. She showed me how to play it and I later found out that there were classes at the local college. I took three classes, Music, Native American Flute, and Intermediate Native Flute. I am very humbled and thankful to both my friend and my teacher Merilee at the time, for even recognizing me as a top student in all three classes.
Q) The flute is certainly an invaluable facet of Native traditional music. Please share with us what the flute means culturally and to you personally?
A) The native flute, as I know it, was introduced from the Plains tribes as a courting instrument, where the man would court the woman by playing her a song. A brief story of this states that there was a young woman getting water everyday from the river, and the young native boy would watch her and found interest in her. So, day after day, he would play his flute for her. Some of the other men would laugh at him from a distance until one day, she came up to him, covered him in a blanket and he continued to play for her. Me, personally, I look at the flute in a whole different way, to me it is a blessing to from the Creator through the gift of music that he gifted me, and I feel that it is another way for me to help others that are going through a tough time or feeling down, and my songs are a way of healing. Each song, I believe comes to me from the Creator for that person or persons that need an uplift in life or a healing moment.
Q) What gives your music such strength? What do you hope your listeners gain from experiencing your music? What does playing and composing music mean to you personally?
A) I think its not my strength of my music, but the strength of the Creator in the song. I hope that anybody listening to my music, no matter where they are at the time, or what they are doing in the moment that they are, I hope it brings you strength in a good way from the Creator to you from my heart to yours. When a song comes to me that I am able to add meaning to for any person and having a story behind it means a lot to me and even more when I perform the song or just even play it in the moment that it comes to me. I would have to say it is when the eagle, who is one of our ancestors that have gone on watching over us from above, first takes flight from its nest to begin their new way in life.
Q) Tell us about your tribal heritage. How does it shape your music? Who is the most important musical influence in your career? Who do you hope to influence?
A) My tribal heritage comes from the Chippewa-Cree and Dakota Sioux. I was raised mostly with my Chippewa-Cree heritage from the far north in Canada, from a little reserve called “Atahkakoop” (Star Blanket) in Saskatchewan. When I was younger, I lived there with my mom and my grandma, who is originally from there. She was “Cree”. I learned a lot from my grandmother and was fortunate to meet my great-grandmother, called “Mahikahn” (Wolf -in Cree).
Later, I moved back to the U.S and learned more of my culture of my Chippewa and Cree side from my grandfather on my other home reservation called “Rocky Boy” located in Montana. There, we go by “Nehiyahwahk” (Four Bodied Spirit-Cree). I learned more of my language and our ceremonies along with my grandfather. I am humbled that I had this opportunity with him and many of our past leaders that were also strong in our language and the ways of life.
It all shapes my music as one from the same purpose that I believe was put on this beautiful earth for, and that is to help others and guide them towards the proper way of life mainly from experience both negative and positive and to help heal and better their lives. I would say my most musical influence in my life would have to be my grandfather, who is still with us today. Everyday, no matter we would be doing, he would always be singing at a pow-wow in a ceremony or even in the house or the vehicle, and that was his gift that I feel came into my life as well, along with the positive teachings and words of wisdom that he always shares with me to this day.
I would like to continue to influence the younger generation as well as our elderly leaders to continue to working together to better the future of our future as they do today, because no matter what, the first cry of a baby to the first wise words of an elder, nothing will ever beat that moment that will always be engraved into your life.
Q)In addition to traditional flute music, you have been an innovator in other forms of music. Our collaborations on my newest CD, AS HONEY FOR SWEETNESS, blend your traditional flute with my singing. What do you think about the roles of tradition and modernity in our music?
A) First of all, I would like to thank you for the collaborations that we did, and I think that music will always be a influence in anyone's life today no matter how they are feeling or what they are doing and wherever they are. Adding our traditions to it today makes an even bigger impact because it shows that we are still strong with both music and our roots of our traditional side. I say that for all in music, whether you are Native, Asian, Jewish, Greek, Arab, or any other great nationality, you know who you are and what your music is meant to accomplish.
Q) You are multi-talented, so I want to discuss your art and graphic design. Will you please share your vision for your art with us?
A) I would gladly share my vision of my art with you all; I have been drawing since I was in elementary, from cars to landscapes to graffiti or tagging. My style includes both Native and urban. I was influenced from both types of lifestyles of city life and reservation life. When I discovered that what I used to do on paper, I can now do on a computer and especially what many of our ancestors did on hides or rock or land in general, I decided that I wanted to keep sharing my heart and vision to others and also influence them to do the same with their art, because we are all born with the gift of art or drawing.
My motto for my art is ” Bring your vision to Life ” from a traditional standpoint in today's technology, because we all have a vision in life and sometimes to it is hard to make it a reality to see a better view of it. So, I tell people, that's why I have this precious gift, is to bring theirs to life,so when I create it, they are in shock of it , but mainly can see it clearly now, like when we first put on a pair of glasses and see a more clear picture of whats in front of us.
A) For those of you out there, you are put on this earth to serve a purpose, in a positive way to help others, mainly showing your ancestors and the Creator that you are growing and maturing in the life that was given to you, and also be thankful to the Creator and the ones that you learn from everyday.
Q) What's the best advice you ever received? The worst?
A)I would have to say that the best advice I received to this day is listening to the worst advice and learning from it to help others give advice in general to people that they run into in their lives as well as experience, so the best advice sometimes is the worst, but you can turn it into the best to help others.
Q)You and I also share a great love for our respective tribal traditions and languages. How does your culture impact your identity? Your music? Your art? How can we as Native artists successfully navigate the waters of business and media from a cultural perspective?
A) My culture impacts my identity, by reminding me everyday to remind others no matter what race they are, they are part of a culture that is so strong, you are able to share it with the world through music, art, dance and many other gifts in life, and like that of the water and land that we build our business and media on, we can benefit both by knowing our culture like that of the land and use the modern lifestyle as water to guide them together to better our perspective of life on earth with the gifts of healing.
Q) I certainly admire your work ethic and I learn from your leadership.
What else would you like us to know about you?
A) That I am just a common man as you all are on this earth, with gifts given to me by the Creator, and with that, “Do not abuse the gifts you have, because like anything we are gifted with in the physical manner, can also be taken from you. Go into life with a good heart and strong Mind along with the creator, for the roads you face ahead of you will help you and at times hurt you, but know that in life every path that you walk on, you eventually will have to create your own and lead others with everything that you have learned as well, Be Strong, Be True, Just Be You. Thank you.
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Dr. Dawn Karima Pettigrew (Creek/Cherokee) is a NAMMY winning recording artist, who hosts A CONVERSATION WITH DAWN KARIMA, a Native American radio program that airs on TalktainmentRadio.com and its affiliates. Her home is the Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina.
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