Healing the Warrior’s Heart: On the Road in Montana

First Nation title 1 from 38The Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer Taki Telonidis and his production team recently returned from a 2-week shoot on the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana for the documentary Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. In addition to Taki, the production team includes partnering producer Gary Robinson, videographer Doug Monroe and sound engineer Paul Maritsas. This is Taki’s first blog entry about his experience shooting the film.

“The film shoot on the Blackfeet reservation was an intense experience, and one that served as a reminder of the poverty and tremendous need that exist among Native populations, as well as the power and hope that reside within traditions and spirituality. The Blackfeet Nation is a place where warrior identity is very much alive in our time, even though many current soldiers have lost the connection with the healing traditions practiced by their ancestors. Yet there are others for whom those traditions remain relevant both during their deployment and as they re-enter society.


Vietnam veteran Marvin Weatherwax presents an eagle feather to Martin Connelly.

“We spent a couple of days with one young man named Martin Connelly who recently returned from Afghanistan, was suffering acute symptoms of PTSD, and is now finding relief through ritual and spirituality. It seems that warrior ceremonies at Blackfeet were largely ignored as recently as 15 years ago, but are now re-emerging as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to help soldiers who are having a difficult time when they come home.

“We attended a sweat lodge for two returning veterans (one of whom was Martin), and witnessed an honoring ceremony for them in which an elder veteran/spiritual leader presented them with an eagle feather and warrior name, an important rite of passage for combat veterans.

“We also conducted interviews with two directors at the Veterans’ Administration who’ve been instrumental in establishing Native Healing ceremonies at several VA centers including here in Salt Lake City. They expressed frustration with how slowly the VA system has incorporated Native healing into its programs, and also told us that they’ve documented a decrease in the use of medication by both Native and non-native vets who take part in sweat lodges and other Native ceremonies.

“We did an interview with the head of the Crazy Dog society, who are the keepers of Blackfeet spirituality, and who include many veterans in their ranks. We were able to record some of the preparations for their annual Sundance or Okan.


Three horses and a mule

“In strategizing about what visuals could best accompany a section that discusses how the healing traditions of today are carried over from warrior history and ceremony that reach back hundreds of years, we decided to do a warrior reenactment with young riders from one of the local ranches on the Blackfeet reservation. After rain forced us to postpone the reenactment twice, the weather cooperated on the third day and we were able to shoot a very nice sequence of warriors going off and returning from war. Incidentally, this reenactment was organized by a veteran of Desert Storm and the 2nd Iraq war who was given the title of War Chief after his return home.


A scene from the Blackfeet warrior reenactment

“We came home from our trip with more than a dozen interviews, and well over 1,000 video clips which we are now labeling and organizing. Right now the thought of boiling down this mountain of video into a coherent story seems daunting, but most big projects feel that way in the early stages of editing.”

Healing the Warrior’s Heart is a production of the Western Folklife Center in collaboration with Tribal Eye Productions and KUED Channel 7, Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate. The program will premiere in 2014. You can support this project with a stakeholder donation to Western Folklife Center Media Programs.


The intrepid crew scans the horizon: Paul Maritsas (Sound), Taki Telonidis, Gary Robinson (Partnering Producer), Doug Monroe (Director of Photography)

Cowboys and Accordions in the Rear View Mirror

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Monday, February 3, 2013

Cowboy Poetry is over but the friendships continue. On a balmy Monday morning, it’s a bittersweet trip to the airport to send off  my sweetie Chuck back to New Zealand for several months. The parting is sweetened by an impromptu accordion serenade and mini-reunion in the airport lounge with Italian musicians Marco and Gianluca, chef Valerio, and Cowboy Celtic’s Keri and Nathan.  Chuck and I dance a waltz and a schottische, seeing the beaming faces of our new friends as we whirl past. As everyone heads to the plane, my mood lightens a little to see Valerio grinning ear to ear back at me.  A few minutes later, still wrapped in the  afterglow of the Gathering and melancholy of parting, I bask in the sun while listening to Hot Club of Cowtown and watching the aircraft take to the sky.

For those of you also suffering from “post-party depression” like me – or who missed this year and are looking forward to the 30th – you can recapture a bit of the mood on the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/westernfolklife.  Share your remembrances and photos with us at info@westernfolklife.org. And please tag your Facebook photos with Western Folklife Center, so we can see what memories you’re taking home with you from the Gathering!

Written by Amy Mills, Programs Coordinator, Western Folklife Center

Another Year, Another Reunion

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Sunday, February 3, 2013

As the gathering comes to an end and Elko steadies itself after a rambunctious week, we are reminded how special this event is. This year was particularly great as so many different pieces came together creating the family reunion that we look forward to the other 360 days. Its sad to say goodbye to friends (both new and old), but these relationships will blossom year after year as long as people take time to visit. Get home safe, and keep in touch.

Written by Mike Gamm

Gathering the Future

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Saturday, Thursday 2, 2013

Early this morning artists, annual Gathering goers, and new comers came together in a round table discussion focused upon the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s future. The group focused specifically upon the growth and success that we would like to see over the next few years.

Without filling the page with meeting minutes, I have taken the liberty of selecting a few topics from array of subjects that came to light as voices were heard and ideas were shared. The following is a bit of a jumble, and in some ways so was the meeting, so take what you want from it and let the rest wash over.

How’s the Artist Selection? There was a resounding belief that the selection of artists has been well thought out and chosen by the Western Folklife Center‘s staff. And in addition to having artists that are fun to watch, this selection of artists does not see the Gathering as a focus upon them, but instead a focus upon the people that make up Western folk culture. (They are here to see friends and meet new people just like the rest of us). Simply put, the Gathering retains its roots.

With that said…

Are we an event based upon inclusivity or exclusivity?  There was an emerging dichotomy regarding what audience the NCPG should be focusing upon; ranch families that make up much of the area West of the Mississippi or people from urban centers all over. The Gathering started in the late 70s and early 80s by bringing local ranch families together to share and enjoy art, music and poetry. Today, ranchers and other hard working people continue to set aside time in their lives to get off the ranch and head to Elko. The Gathering has experienced changes and lulls in attendance over the last few years that have caused enthusiasts to worry about its welfare (making this one of the most important topics to address).

Is this a Business or a Social Event?  There are so many more fun events and strange happenings that many visitors either aren’t aware of, or don’t know occur. On any given evening you’ll stumble across jam sessions, late night dance parties and even personal heroes.  These are the parts of Western folklife that many find important.  I for one, implore that each and every visitor sit down at a table filled with strangers or approach artists that you otherwise wouldn’t, because this is exactly the right place to do it and we want to continue these traditions for years to come.


The Western Folklife Center is not in the best position to  support this event in the longterm without a good long look at how the business side of this event is related to its survival.  Of course, much of these questions will need to be answered by Western Folklife staff.

How do we bring new people in? Word of mouth and bringing a friend to visit the Gathering is simply not cutting it anymore, and the importance of getting the NCPG community involved in welfare and growth was a recurring theme. As well as keeping in mind that the local community and people whom work so hard getting this event going each year have a vested interest in the Gathering’s continuing success. If you are one of those people traveling hours or even days to get here, you’re a part of an effort to get the NCPG moving forward. Getting involved with other events and forums in your hometown may be the way to assure that the Gathering remains in Elko over the next 29 years.

There is a question about whether we should focus our efforts on social media (such as Facebook, Youtube or even this blog site).  Much of this boils down to what audience we would like to pull into Western folklif.  Sure, kids use these technologies but western folklife is all about focusing on arts by getting your hands dirty and meeting people.  Grass roots conversation is how all of this got started, perhaps there is a way to keep this part of the event in tact.

Is Our Focus Education or Entertainment? There is also a discrepancy with what age group we want to focus our efforts in developing the next generation of artist and visitors. Perhaps the “next generation” isn’t what it seems (such as young children or teens) it could be college twenty somethings that are ripe for new experiences or single 30 somethings looking for something familiar. This is difficult to define, but is a critical question facing the Western folklife center and the people that love Elko.

In Conclusion. There is a fear that if we reach out too far, we will lose what makes the NCPG and Western Folklife special.  Artists are open minded and forward thinking when comes to understanding that the social environment we live in today (and Elko itself) are changing entities. Perhaps, this year’s success will bring together an array of new ideas that will help expand our future.

The NCPG is a truly amazing place, a place to meet family that you never knew you had. People from all walks of life are able to come down to Elko, making it a great place to not just see artists perform their craft, but also take the time to create friendships that last a lifetime.

The Western Folklife Center wants to know what you have to say, please leave comments below. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

What is it that brings people to the NCPG year after year?
Who is the target audience at the NCPG?
How do we keep our community roots, while keeping a focus on entertainment/education?

Written by Mike Gamm

Something Else To Do: Rodeo Swing

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Saturday, Thursday 2, 2013

imageToday, dancers and would be dancers gathered in the High School gym to learn rodeo swing. The event began with an informative yet simple introduction by Craig Miller and Amy Mills that got people up and moving in no time. Some attendees may have been intimidated by the dancing prospect, but Craig instilled confidence by explaining that there is “no right way to do these steps.”


A class like this allows smiles, laughs and mistakes that result in a bunch of great dancers. Craig gives the tools needed to move feet in the right direction, and allows you to fill in the rest. If you plan on attending one of these classes be sure to leave all your bashful baggage at home because its time to dance.

Written by Mike Gamm

Water in the West: A Round Table Discussion

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Saturday, February 2, 2013

ws3Water can be a ‘dry’ subject but today’s panelists enlightened the attendees through engaging conversation about watershed development. Each speaker explained that we as a society need to widen the lens as we search for solutions to changes that are fast approaching. Water is simply a big issue in the American desert and we have the ability to engineer successful change if we approach the problems and questions with open minds. We need to recognize that both agricultural water use and drinking water are important, but they develop and sustain different forms of societal growth. There was so much in this discussion that the speakers couldn’t get to, but below is a summary of the ideas and information the panelists provided.

Jack Loeffler, “Thinking Like a Watershed” and “Headed Upstream”
Jack gave a brief, but dense history about how modern water management has been formulated. Over 120 years ago John Powell rode across the American West creating a detailed map of the territorial watershed. Powell proposed that the watersheds should be the driving factor for defining state lines so that each area could derive their own self sustaining plan. However, once the watershed had been made public, entrepreneurs descended upon those watersheds with regulation and control. This money and land grabbing has led to a focus upon money making rather than a focus upon creating regard for the land that we live on. The Law of the River in which different states were afforded fixed amounts of water is controlling water growth today and is an important part of understanding where we have come from, and the limits of where we are going.


Lisa Hamilton, “Deeply Rooted”
Lisa spoke about how water is being utilized effectively today, and how there are practices that aren’t so well defined.  Instead of wondering why we put a million person city in the middle of the desert (like Las Vegas), we need to ask, what is important for our future and we have to ask how we will use low precipitation land effectively.  As a whole, we need to take into account the importance of regional effects, and create a relationship with water that represents where we want and need to be. “The West begins when annual rainfall falls below 20 inches,” this quote rings true the fact that western states have a distinct climate that should and does directly reflect the way we utilize water.

Alexandra Davis
To start, Lisa stated that ‘We have enough water for the West,’ but included that we need to develop a relationship with water that accurately reflects what is important when sustaining a thriving society. Most of the water comes in the winter as snow pack that will then fill rivers in the warmer months.  However,  this system of ‘water storage’ is quickly changing today.  Annual precipitation is changing from snow to rain, which will challenge our current water storing methods. The Prior Appropriation Doctrine solves many local issues but has difficulty tackling the regional water problems because it creates a winner/loser mentality.  Care for the environment and focused discussion about agricultural growth together is a key to creating a sustained system of water usage.

ws2We are focused upon our personal economic sustainability far more than the landscape in which we live. It is important to avoid growing beyond the sustaining capabilities of the land.

Written by Mike Gamm
Photos by Charlie Eckburg

Mary McCaslin

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Friday, February 1, 2013

DSC_0009Mary McCaslin has honed her style from folk’s deepest roots. Even a short performance at the Flag View Stage didn’t fail to take the audience back to some of songwriting’s best years. Her influence on contemporary Western folk music is evident with songs that explain life’s experiences through the looking glass. Her steady hands worked with the guitar effortlessly, and some could hardly wait to see her unique use of the banjo. Mary stays true to each song without flaunting her skills; allowing the audience to surrender to the music.

Written by Mike Gamm