This year’s Martin Luther King Day weekend celebrations began with an interactive performance by Kevin Locke, a storyteller, hoop dancer and Native American flute player. To be talented at any one of these traditional arts would be one thing, but Locke brought all three together for a memorable event at Montana State University Billings last Friday night.
This Lakota/Anishinaabe performer from South Dakota divided the evening in two halves, primarily because there was simply not enough room down in the front of the lecture hall for the hoop dancing.
The first half of the evening consisted of Locke’s storytelling mixed with playing a variety of cedar flutes. Every melody was introduced by a story that had both a great sense of humor and a serious message. Locke took many opportunities to integrate the theme of the weekend and the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into what he had to say.
The room was filled with dozens of people from several racial and ethnic groups, from crying infants all the way to an elder in a wheelchair. The diversity might be expected for such an event, but it also reflects the two local organizations that co-sponsored the show: Not in Our Town Billings and the Baha’i Community of Billings.
After an opening prayer sung in Lakota, Locke performed another prayer in Plains Indian Sign Language to recorded backing music. He said the words in English as he spoke in the graceful hand and body language once used for communication between indigenous nations of the American Plains who each spoke their own languages.
Afterward, he quizzed the audience with various English words and a majority of those in attendance correctly “spoke” back with the appropriate sign.
Locke has a quirky sense of humor that interspersed his serious message. All throughout, he made connections between indigenous world views, the Baha’i faith, and Dr. King’s message of racial harmony and social justice. When playing a beautiful melody inspired by the meadowlark’s song, he told a story of going out early one morning to hear what a bird was saying. Its song was sung in Lakota, saying, “Cousin, go back inside and comb your hair first.”
After discussing how the flute was traditionally used in courtship, he said he was going to perform a special “Indian Love Call.” After having everyone’s attention, he put his hand to one side of his mouth and went, “Pssst!”
After a brief intermission to move everyone out into the larger atrium, where his CDs were available for purchase, he explained the history of the hoop dance and his personal story related to it. Still in a joking mood, he explained the oft-told parable of “Give a man a fish and he won’t go hungry,” altering the second half to, “Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day out in a boat drinking.”
The demonstration of the varieties of hoop dancing incorporated up to 30 wooden hoops about 20 inches in diameter.
He created representations of many animals and other shapes that were underscored by profound messages that tied in with the theme of the weekend with great harmony. He brought about 80 hoops along, so he recruited about a dozen audience members to learn some of the basics of hoop dancing. Children as young as 6 on up to 60 participated with much entertainment and joyful celebration.
The evening ended with a round dance where everyone held hands, eventually shaking hands, then being blessed with a prayer in Cheyenne from a Northern Cheyenne former college roommate of Locke’s. It was a fitting end to an evening that was a wonderful beginning to the MLK weekend activities.