Taki Telonidis

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

First Nation title 1 from 38
First Nation title 1 from 38

The 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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


Big Sky Birthday, July 24, 2010

In the second of our series of conversations with Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, Western Folklife Center Producer Taki Telonidis called to wish him Happy Birthday and found him in the town of Malta near the banks of the Milk River. Henry has been on the road for nearly two weeks, retracing the travels of his ancestors and giving out books of poetry to people he meets in rural towns and Indian reservations along the way.


[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henryrides_2.mp3]



Taki Telonidis A couple days ago you said you were doing this ride in part so you could ride horses like your grandfather and great grandfather did...in the same places. And I'm wondering as you're doing this, what sort of things are you thinking about? Is your mind taking you back to those days of your grandparents?

Henry Real Bird Back to those days. Like you get the feeling...not that you have been there before...but to know that your blood has been there two generations before you. Unbelievable! It makes you...it just makes you...you're so happy you just want to cry sometimes, just because you're so happy, you know.

Taki Telonidis That's beautiful. I'll bet you some poems will come out of this experience.

Henry Real Bird Oh no. I'm doing that. I'm doing that. In fact I'm writing as I go along type of thing in my mind I'm putting it all together. And then in the end I'm going to regroup and finish this thing off maybe in one poem. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I see awful things too...good things and bad things. Just like over in Wolf Point, Montana, I saw a lot of alcoholism there. So that was a depressing sight, but that is there. So I'll write a little piece in there to show that. Oh I've been wanting to use this line which I haven't been able to use: what have you done to life, or what has life done to you? And then to wander around like that. I"ve had that line painted on my heart for a long time and I haven't been able to really use it, but I"m going to use it there I think. I'm just working it all out.

Taki Telonidis One last question for you Henry. Today is your birthday and you're spending it on the banks of the Milk River and you're 62 now which I think entitles you to reduced admission to National Parks and all sorts of privileges. But does it also make you an elder? Do you consider yourself an elder?

Henry Real Bird Oh I'm lucky to be an elder, and I appreciate that because of all the things that I have been though, and I'm lucky to be alive and I know that. And I appreciate that. You know they have that saying to where...long, long on the tooth or something like that...

Taki Telonidis Long in the tooth.

Henry Real Bird Yeah long in the tooth, but for us they say when your eye tooth crumbles and your hair is pure white, nobody can outfox you. Nobody can outdo you in thinking. And so for knowledge to turn into wisdom type of thing. I'm nearing that stage in life, type of thing. That's how we see it, yeah.

Taki Telonidis Henry thank you very much. It's great to talk with you again, and we'll touch base with you in a couple of days.

Henry Real Bird Oh yeah, the next couple of days...tomorrow I'm going to stay over in Dodson, and then I'm going to finish off the fair there. So I'll watch the demolition derby there, then after that I'll be into Fort Belknap, and from then on I still have to make arrangements for the other end. But everything just falls into place. You just sort of kick your horse into the day and keep on going, and you run into something nice.

Taki Telonidis And the demolition derby sounds like it'll be a highlight.

Henry Real Bird (laughs) Oh God yeah. Yeah I'm going to watch the demolition derby. I saw a poster here, so I"ll be there for that. And I called ahead over there and they're going to let me stay over at the fairgrounds. So I'll have stables and everything for the horses, and no motel or anything...so I'll put up my tent and slowly drift out into the stars, you know.

Taki Telonidis Henry it sounds great.

Henry Real Bird Good night.

Taki Telonidis Nice to talk to you.

Henry Real Bird Yeah.

Ride Across Montana with Henry Real Bird

Henry Real Bird—cowboy poet, Crow Indian and recently named Poet Laureate of Montana—has embarked on a 415-mile journey on horseback across northwest North Dakota and northern Montana. He is handing out books of poetry to the people he meets along his route, which will take him through Indian country where his grandfather rode a century ago.This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape. Listen to and read short interviews we’re doing with Henry as he progresses from his start at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, to his final destination on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation southwest of Havre, Montana, in early August. Over the next year, the Western Folklife Center will explore rural Montana by surveying traditional artists whose work and way of life provide social commentary that holds lessons for the rest of us. This extensive fieldwork effort will culminate in an hour-long radio broadcast, podcast and an exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum that is made possible through the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Listen to our first interview with Henry recorded on July 21, 2010, as he rides along the Missouri River thinking of the juneberry pie that he and his riding partner, Levi  Bruce, were gifted the day before.


[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/henryrides_1.mp3]

Transcript of Henry Real Bird's Interview, July 21, 2010

Hal Cannon Where are you Henry?

Henry Real Bird I'm over here along the Missouri River.  I been ridin' here since Tuesday...so I've been on the road about 9 days. And I stayed last night at a town called Fraser.

 Hal Cannon Are you on a horse right now?

Henry Real Bird Yeah I'm riding a horse right now along Highway 2 in Montana. What they call High Line.

Hal Cannon Can you describe what you're looking at right now?

Henry Real Bird Oh gosh, just a vast amount of land...just rolling hills all over to the north, and then on over to the south I’ve got cottonwood trees in the valley floor of the Missouri River, north of the river. Then across the Missouri to the south we've got them hills there..the breaks...just beautiful.

Hal Cannon Henry I'm hearing cars just speeding past you. What's the difference between the way you're seeing what's going on and people going 60 miles an hour?

Henry Real Bird Oh yeah. The slow pace..you see more. I saw hills and creeks that I didn't know existed. I mean I’ve been on this road before but I never paid attention to it but now you see all this beautiful landscape. And uh..I mean this is good traveling here.

Hal Cannon So where did you start out Henry? 

Henry Real Bird I started out from the Fort Berthold Indian Revervation.  We started out along the Missouri there on the trail of the buffalo, and uh, going through patches of sweet sage, eating juneberries. And I was saying that life cannot get any sweeter than this.  To be able to ride a horse for the day and then just eat the juneberries.  And when I got over here yesterday, they stopped me on the road and took me over and gave me some juneberry pie.  And I had some more again last night and I went over to the sweat lodge over here in Frazer, and prayed.  They say the sweat lodge…you use that to remember who you are.  But the whole thing is...places where my great grandfather rode over on Fort Berthold and over to Fort Union and then I just wanted to ride a horse right where they rode horses too, along the Missouri. And that's what I'm doing, and then giving out books of poetry along the way.   

Hal Cannon What is the reaction when you hand someone a book of poems?

Henry Real Bird They're surprised and they just browse through it right there, and they don't know what to think and so I'm gone by the next day so I don't know what they think. I just put my name on there and everything else.  I just want them to enjoy the thought..enjoy the thought and go for the ride into the feeling whatever it is.

Hal Cannon You were made Poet Laureate of Montana, is this part of what you think your job is as Poet Laureate for the state? 

Henry Real Bird You know I took it on like that, because nobody else will ever do this type of thing, you know.  Nobody has the guts to just saddle up a horse and just go from town to town just giving out books of poetry and stuff like that.  And so I figure that I'm not like everybody else and that's why I'm the way I am, and so this is just my style of giving back to the people what I have taken from life out here in Montana. 

Hal Cannon Henry I admire you. 

Henry Real Bird Oh, I don't know it's just uh...

Hal Cannon I do, I count you as a good friend.  I really appreciate what you do.

Henry Real Bird I appreciate you too because you've kept me alive.  In the beginning when I didn't want to live any more, you guys kept me alive and that was alright, you know. And so I feel good today.

Hal Cannon You've helped us.  You've helped keep us alive my friend.  So can we call you along the route and ask you how things are going?

Henry Real Bird Yeah, call anytime and wherever I am on the road if I get good reception we can connect.

Hal Cannon Good luck on your journey and we'll call you in a few days. 

Henry Real Bird OK. See you later then, OK.  Bye.

Hal Cannon Bye Henry.

A Refugee Field of Dreams

Taki Telonidis and Hal Cannon spent a recent evening on the west side of Salt Lake City, Utah, with refugee families preparing to cultivate gardens in an abandoned field. Taki, the Western Folklife Center's Media Producer, wrote this report of his experience.

It didn’t look like much when we got there one evening last week… just an abandoned field near towering power lines that buzzed and crackled, next to an empty softball field encircled by a chain link fence. This was on the west side of Salt Lake City, and we’d come to witness the first chapter of a story that has the potential to change the lives of dozens of refugee families struggling to make a home in America. This project is part of a “growing” trend that helps refugees capitalize on one of the few transferable skills they bring with them from the third world: farming. Last year, Salt Lake County’s refugee coordinator, Ze Min Xiao (Zee), facilitated a handful of tiny informal garden projects that not only provided refugees with food, but also put them side-by-side with Americans who took interest in the refugees, sprouting friendships and even a few potluck dinners. This year Zee is organizing a more ambitious project: a small training farm that will be managed and tilled by four refugee communities in the city. The short-term goal is to provide these folks with supplemental income, but the longer-term goal is to cultivate a crop of commercial farmers who might one day own and run their own farms.

Hal Cannon and I were excited about this project from the moment we heard about it a couple weeks ago. We’d been looking for a refugee story for several months, and this seemed like a perfect fit given the rural mission of the Western Folklife Center. Plus we’d get to follow the story from its inception, over the course of the summer, to harvest time. So the plan was to meet Zee and two facilitators at the farm site, and look on as they did an orientation for leaders of the four participating refugee communities: Ethiopian, Bhutanese, Burundian and Chin (from Myanmar). We’d parked our car and weren’t sure we were even at the right place until a second car pulled up and a man stepped out with an equally disoriented expression on his face. This was Michael and he was representing the Ethiopian community of Salt Lake. Other cars pulled up and it wasn’t long before about a dozen men and women (representatives as well as some potential gardeners) were surveying the weedy field… looking like a delegation from the United Nations. Zee and her colleagues Chris and Steve did their best to explain the size of the plots, and the plans for preparing and tilling the soil, bringing in a tool shed, building fencing and irrigation, etc. As they spoke, my mind was transforming this fallow field into a verdant utopia where the four communities would work side-by-side sowing the seeds of their future. I imagined our completed radio feature: an inspiring, quintessentially American story of rebirth in the new world.

I snapped out of my daydream when Zee asked if there were any questions, and the group began peppering the organizers with queries. It was clear that some had not understood all the information that was conveyed to them, while others were hoping to accommodate many more families than their plot could support. One man asked if it would be okay to grow medicinal plants he wanted to import from India, while another wanted to raise goats at the site. The questions were handled graciously by Zee, Chris and Steve who promised to explore as many possibilities as they could. It began to dawn on me just how ambitious this project really is. The potential for that utopia is there, but it’s going to take an enormous amount of physical labor, diplomacy and translation to get to the promised land. This is, after all, a mash up of four cultures, each with its own language, leadership style and way of doing things, all trying to create something that must conform to American rules and regulations.

The meeting ended with handshakes and an agreement to meet at the plot in 10 days with volunteers from each community who’d begin work on building rows and pathways for the farm. After Zee left, each delegation broke up into a huddle with the leaders of each group fielding questions from those who didn’t speak English. Hal and I were suddenly surrounded by animated conversations in four languages, as the field slowly turned golden in the evening light. The refugee farm project was officially under way, and I had a sense that there would be many huddles like this one in the coming weeks and months. Once again my mind drifted forward to what this plot of land might look like in two weeks, or two months, and whether this whole experiment would flourish or whither on the vine.


I was brought back to the moment by the sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball. While we’d been engulfed in discussions about the farm, two women’s softball teams had taken the adjacent field and a game was in full swing. I stepped back to take in these contrasting worlds, impossibly different from each other, separated only by a few yards and a simple chain link fence.

P.S. Stay tuned to our blog for occasional updates and photos of the Refugee Farm Project.

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Angola Prison

The very first thing that happened at the rodeo Hal and I attended on Sunday involved four cowboys on four bulls, all set free at the same moment and holding on for dear life. It’s called the Angola Bust Out…and a pun IS intended…because Angola is a prison. Formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and informally as The Farm, Angola is the nation’s largest prison with over 5,000 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences. A few times a year, the gates are swung open and the public is invited to attend a rodeo that features inmates competing in various events. Our visit to Angola was the culmination of a week-long field trip tracing America’s ballad hunter, John A. Lomax, on some of the paths he took in the 1930s and ‘40s combing the South in search of folk songs. Some of his most fruitful collecting came from prisons, including Angola where he recorded the famous songster, Leadbelly.

I’m not a rodeo aficionado by any means, but this one was remarkable to me in many ways, primarily because of how “normal” and unremarkable it felt. Here we were wandering the grounds with hundreds of prisoners all around us, working the concessions, selling art and “hobbycrafts,” and performing music on several stages. All these men were convicted felons, but had achieved the status of “trustee,” which meant they could interact with the public (under the watchful eye of security). We interviewed several musicians throughout the day, many of whom had been there for decades, and who would never leave the confines of Angola; there is no parole for a life sentence in Louisiana.

Each and every person we spoke with was thoughtful, articulate and fascinating. It seems that their incarceration had forced them to come to terms with their past and their future in ways the rest of us rarely do. Maybe we’re just too busy with the responsibilities and distractions of daily life to philosophize like they do. We met Wayne, the young man who’d been asked to sing the national anthem at the rodeo, who was so humbled by this honor that he’d studied the words and thought deeply about the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers to secure the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, even though he’d forfeited his right to those same freedoms.

We also met Michael, a 27-year-old who writes and performs gospel rap songs, but who previously had rapped about his life on the streets as a “gangsta.” His new songs were positive and upbeat as was his conversation, but at one point he hinted at his sense of frustration and hopelessness in the early days of his incarceration. After we followed up on this point he took a deep breath, paused, then told us in detail about the night he attempted to commit suicide, and how the only reason he’s still alive is because he couldn’t find a place from which to hang himself. He then went on to talk about finding a bible that same night, and beginning his conversion to dedicating his life to studying the teachings of Christ. Because the rodeo was so loud, I had to get very close to him with the microphone, and I’ll never forget how his eyes locked on mine as he explained his ordeal. I don’t think I blinked for five minutes.

We spoke with many other prisoners that day and—to a man—I found their stories moving. And this leads to perhaps the biggest surprise in spending time with these inmates: my own reaction. I generally believe in being tough on crime, yet here we were with convicted felons…and not only did I feel comfortable, I felt compassion and empathy. On an intellectual level, I know these people have committed crimes, and that these crimes involved victims..some of whom may not have survived the incident. This is one of those experiences that’s going to take a while to process…and as crazy as it may sound… I look forward to my next visit to prison.

Taki Telonidis

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: East Texas

After a lovely dinner with our old friend and Houston City Folklorist Pat Jasper, we spent the night and got out of town driving through miles of urban sprawl. Finally the East Texas countryside opened up as we rolled into Huntsville, home of the Texas State Prison and its Museum. We had been turned down to visit the prison here so the Museum had to suffice. We had interviewed Bob Pierce earlier about the creativity in prisons so we got to look at many actual artifacts he had collected both showing real weapons and less direct weapons, remembering the old Woody Guthrie idea that his guitar was a weapon against fascism. After checking out a mural depicting Leadbelly on the side of a building near Huntsville's main square we drove on north toward Lovelady where the Gillette Brothers make their home. 

I'd known Guy and Pipp Gillette from Elko but my admiration for them grew as we witnessed their passion for the old-style life of East Texas ranching. Their ranch, its historic buildings, and the loving way they keep the traditions of their grandfather, all attest to how much they care for place and tradition. It was a joy to be taken through the construction of each out-building and then to the ruin of an old place on their ranch which used to be the social center for the black community in the neighborhood.

We got so wrapped up in the tour we were late driving into the community of Crockett where the Gillettes have established a music civic center called the Camp Street Cafe with music at least weekly. Folk musicians from all over go out of their way to tour to the Gillette's venue. There, we met a black preacher and his old cousin to talk about Camp Street in Lomax's time, contrasting the music scene today with that of the day when Lightnin' Hopkins played for nickels and dimes on the street which used to be the center of African American life in the town. We ended our visit with chicken fried steak, another fine American tradition and a final visit to the statue of Lightnin' Hopkins.                                                                                                                   

Hal Cannon

Steve Zeitlin, Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis stand next to the statue of Lightnin' Hopkins honchoed and maintained by the Gillettes across the street from the Camp Street Café, where Lightnin' used to hang out and play songs for the local African American community.


In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Austin and Houston


John Lomax grew up on a farm hearing the songs of cowboys on the trails and also the songs of freed African American slaves. Something in those two experiences guided him through a life of preserving and valuing those two particular traditions. He was a man of his times, so his attitudes may not jibe with how we see race today; nevertheless, Lomax never wavered from believing that these two musical traditions were essential to the American character. We spent the morning at the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin with John Wheat and folklorist Roger Renwick. They both have studied extensively the life and times of John Lomax and we were able to have a really interesting conversation and interview about the man and his work. 


On the drive from Austin to Houston we listened to archival radio shows that were recorded by the Library of Congress narrated by John Lomax. The series The Ballad Hunter brilliantly and unabashedly laid out a rationale for the importance of folk creativity and what it means to a democratic nation to value the voice of the people. It's an inspiring radio show that in our cynical world everyone today should hear.

Downtown Houston is not fun to drive into after the lovely Texas countryside full of spring blooming wildflowers. We checked into a big impersonal hotel and made our way to the offices of the Houston Press, a weekly hip tabloid. There we sat with the great grandson and namesake of our subject, John Nova Lomax. At 40 years old, Lomax is the past music editor for the paper and feels a deep connection to the Lomax name. He loves his city in all its diversity and creative talent and works to bring out the finest talent of Houston. He also has a keen interest in social justice and combines all to carry on the Lomax name.

John Nova Lomax_sm
John Nova Lomax_sm

John Nova Lomax is a journalist for the Houston Press and writes extensively on the new music of Houston and the complexities of one of the most dynamic cities of our century.

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Fort Worth and Meridian, Texas

Don Edwards

Don Edwards

 Taki Telonidis and I are in Texas for the week working on a radio documentary on the legacy of John Lomax, the first folklorist to record cowboy songs and other great American musical traditions. We've just been here a couple days but spent most of the first part of the trip with Don Edwards who showed us the Fort Worth Stockyards where Lomax recorded cowboys in 1909.On the second day, Don took us to Meridian, Texas, where Lomax grew up. Don was very generous with his time and talents. 

Next stop was to visit Rooster Morris and his wife Jody Logsdon. These days Rooster is in the schools all the time talking to kids and playing his fiddle. It was really wonderful to see them and talk to Rooster about his great uncle, Jess Morris, who was recorded by Lomax and was a wonderful cowboy fiddler.

Rooster Morris

Rooster Morris

After that we interviewed a folklorist/historian/prison archivist who talked about Lomax's recording of prison work music and discovering singers like Leadbelly. That was interesting too. Today we visit the Lomax archive at the University of Texas speaking to John Wheat and Roger Renwick. Then we drive to Houston to visit John Lomax IV who is a young music writer and great grandson of the original Lomax. We will have dinner with folklorist and friend Pat Jasper. On Thursday we spend the day with the Gillette Brothers in Crockett Texas and talk to them and members of the African American community about cowboy music, blues and folk music in East Texas. 

Steve Zeitlin, director of CityLore, is co-producing this with us and he and Taki are then taking me back to the Dallas Airport where I have to fly home for a day to attend my brother in law's funeral. I join them back in Louisiana on Saturday to record at Angola Prison where Lomax recorded Lomax and other Black musicians and singers. 

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax

Don Edwards talks to the Western Folklife Center Media department outside the White Elephant

Don Edwards talks to the Western Folklife Center Media department outside the White Elephant

The Western Folklife Center has been asked to produce a story for National Public Radio on the folk music collecting of John Lomax. This coincides with the 100th anniversary of the publishing of his first collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in November of 1910. We are working with a New York folklife organization called City Lore and hope to produce other stories on the journeys of early folklorists to discover the soul of America through its folklore. On this week-long journey through Texas and Louisiana, we go to the place Lomax grew up and saw, first-hand, the cattle drives after the Civil War. We visit the Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards in Fort Worth where he collected cowboy songs and where Don Edwards sang those same old songs in the 1970s. As we journey along the same paths Lomax took we contrast the world he lived in with that of contemporary America.

We hope to produce a second story on Lomax’s collecting of musical traditions of African Americans. Lomax looked for singers in isolated communities and visited prisons to collect blues, gospel and work songs. He felt that cowboy music and the music of black America were two of America's great musical traditions. We will end our travels this week at Angola—the largest prison in America—where we will document the rodeo and talk to musicians and singers in that prison.