On the Road with Rik Palieri

While I was on the road in South Dakota, I thought I would stop in Mobridge to meet with my friend, hoop dancer and flute player, Kevin Locke. Kevin is known as a national treasure and keeps alive the old traditions of his Lakota people by traveling the globe and introducing people to his culture through music and dance.

I first met Kevin when I was performing at a school in his town a few year back. On our first meeting, I told him that I was interested in learning about the Native American flute and about the Native American culture. Kevin invited me to a sweat lodge and later shared some tips on playing the flute. Kevin had spent many years collecting the old songs from the elders. He told me that the flute was a gift from the great spirit and came through the gift of a woodpecker. There is an old story that tells of a young boy’s vision of a woodpecker that had perched on an old cedar tree. The woodpecker reached down and pecked five holes into a hollow branch. When the woodpecker flew away, the branch broke off and as it sailed through the sky, it played music as a gust of wind rushed through it.

The flute became associated with romance and was used in courting rituals. If a young man fell in love with a woman, he would often compose a song for her to win her heart. If she accepted his song, it was a symbol that they would be together. If the man or boy was not musical, he would contact a shaman to compose a song for him. These shaman were often called the Elk dreamers and had a gift for composing wondrous melodies. Often the boy would bring a horse in exchange for his gift.

Kevin encouraged me not to try to learn the traditional songs of his people, as some of these songs are sacred, but instead to use the flute to compose my own melodies. We spent a whole evening sharing stories and music and ever since have enjoyed spending time together whenever our paths cross.

On my recent visit, he asked if I would like to join him and do a performance together for the kids on the Reservation. I had played at “Little Eagle” school on a past trip, so it was fun to come back to perform with Kevin. The kids were all excited as Kevin played the Flag Song on the flute while the local men joined in singing and drumming. Kevin played a few more songs then brought me up to play a few tunes on the Polish Bagpipes and flutes. Then Kevin played a few more songs, then called on his friends for some dance music. Kevin whirled round in circles as the hoops spun around his body. Near the end of the show he was able to get all these hoops of Red, White, Black and Yellow (the colors of the human race,) to form a ball. He held it up in the air and said, “If we all were able to come together like these hoops, what a beautiful world this could be. But if we take out just one hoop, the whole world (or ball) will fall apart!”

Later Kevin asked me to stay and join him at his sweat lodge. Kevin is BAHI and proudly spreads this message around the world. When he is at home he tries to have a “sweat” at least a few times a month. To prepare for the sweat, we gathered together some big logs of driftwood, lit them and covered them with rocks. We let the wood burn until it was just hot ash and the rocks were glowing red. Using a long pitch fork we scooped them up and laid them into a small pit, located in the center of a cloth covered dome. Kevin and I crawled inside. He closed the door tight, and began to pour water over the hot rocks. The lodge was pitch black, and was filling up quickly with steam. Kevin began singing songs in his native Lakota tongue while he shook his gourd rattle. We sang and prayed as the air became scorching hot. After a while we went out to breathe the fresh air. This was to be a healing sweat for one of Kevin’s friends and one of mine. As it would take three more cycles, we crawled back in the lodge to continue the ceremony. Once again Kevin poured on the water and in an instant the air was filled with steam. My body was dripping with water and my hair felt like a river as we prayed and sang through the hot mist. I asked Kevin to teach me some words so I could join in; he did and we sang together and prayed for our friends’ health. During the last cycle, Kevin prayed in Lakota and finished by linking an old familiar prayer with a song of his people.

Kevin handed me the water pot. I slowly prayed and kept pouring out the water. It was getting hotter and hotter and then I poured the rest of the pot on the rocks. Kevin and I climbed out of the lodge and felt the cool breeze from the river. It was done!

Rik Palieri is a folk singer who travels the world. His latest album is called Panning for Gold