WELLPINIT, Wash. – Music, food and dance bridged the gap between two peoples Thursday evening, the night the Spokane Symphony came to the Spokane Indian Reservation.
“We’re coming together to share our cultures,” said Warren Seyler, tribal vice chairman. “It’s opening the eyes of people in the city of Spokane who may not realize what our culture is all about.”
It was certainly an eye-opener for Eckart Preu, the symphony’s conductor from Germany, where Native American song and dance is the stuff of “just adventure books.”
“It’s fascinating to see how they keep their culture alive,” Preu said of the tribe as members of his orchestra and board of trustees walked out onto the floor of the Wellpinit School gymnasium to dance with tribal members to native drumming.
“It’s enriching for us, too,” said Preu, who came to Spokane in August. “We’ll see if it influences our music.”
But before the symphony struck the first note of Beethoven’s Sympony No. 7, there was a lot of music of a different order. Drummers, led by school instructor Pat Moses, accompanied native dancers in the “Cup Dance,” the traditional call to meal.
And then nearly 600 people sat down to a salmon feast provided by the tribe. Later, during the Intertribal Dance, Preu and his musicians, dressed in black, mingled with the reservation people in native regalia and street clothes. All stepped to the heartbeat of the drums, the smiles on their faces revealing a oneness of spirit.
It was the second time the orchestra has visited the Wellpinit School. Last year’s encounter was sparsely attended compared with Thursday night’s event.
“When you think of how much it costs to go to the symphony, a lot of these students didn’t have that opportunity,” said Rosemary Hoskins, administrative assistant for the school.
Wellpinit second-graders, accompanied by the orchestra, sang the traditional native story “Where is the Coyote?” in Salish, to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” The nearly extinct language has been revived at the school, and the significance of children singing it on such a special occasion was not lost on the crowd.
“As far as I know it hasn’t happened before,” Seyler said.
“I’m very proud to sing in my native language,” said one of the second-graders, Deviney Wynecoop, dressed in regalia. Her family lives near Little Falls Dam. Her mother, Camille Wynecoop, will graduate from the University of Idaho after finishing her student teaching at Wellpinit this year.
Native elder women, including Eva Boyd, asked Francesca Firstwater, who lives on the Spokane Reservation, to help bring symphonic music to the tribe. Firstwater is a volunteer on the symphony’s education committee.
“This grew out of that committee,” she said. “Its mission is to bring music to all peoples. The dream is to build a long-term friendship, not to impose the symphony on the tribe.”
Boyd, a Spokane tribal elder who lives on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, was recognized Thursday for sparking the idea of bringing the symphony to Wellpinit. She, Seyler, Preu, Firstwater and others hope to make it an annual event.
“This has been a dream of mine for many years,” Boyd said. “I’m so happy that I finally got to see it.”
The estimated $25,000 cost of bringing Beethoven, Strauss and Mendelssohn to the “rez” was borne by the Spokane Symphony Annual Fund donors, the Washington State Arts Commission, the Wellpinit School District and the Spokane Tribe, among others.
But you could not put a price on the event’s most dramatic moment, when 20-year-old Elizabeth Samuels, accompanied by the symphony orchestra, sang Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”
“I’ve always wanted to sing with the symphony and never thought it would happen,” she said.
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