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A conversation with Grammy-winning musician Bill Miller

Bill Miller, a northern Wisconsin Mohican, is a Grammy award-winning musician, performer, songwriter and painter. In his career he has produced more than a dozen popular albums and most recently has conducted performances with Wisconsin’s La Crosse Symphony Orchestra entitled “The Last Stand” to commemorate Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn of the Great Sioux War of 1876 – 77.

Miller’s efforts with the orchestra brought him to Israel to share his musical talents. After returning to the United States, Miller spoke about his amazing trip, his soon to be released albums, a recent concert celebrating the 90th birthday of folk musician Pete Seeger and his contributions as a Native American artist.

Indian Country Today: You recently played with an orchestra in Israel. What was that like?

Bill Miller: I think it was a life changing experience and I have a deep respect for symphonic music now. Most people that don’t go to symphonies don’t understand symphonic music or get that close to it because they don’t think they can relate to it, but I stepped into that zone. It is difficult music to write and perform because it is very exact.

I made the piece about 33 to 35 minutes long. That is pretty much how long the battle of the Last Stand lasted. When they ask Indian descendants how long the battle of Custer’s Last Stand was they say ‘as long as it takes the white man to eat his dinner or how long it takes the sun to go between two lodge poles’ – which would be between 30 and 35 minutes.

ICT: Why focus on Little Big Horn?

Miller: I have been going out to that area with my grandfather since I was about 9 years old – we used to go and camp out every summer to Yellowstone River. He would take me to the battlefield and I have been studying it since that time. I always wanted to give my own artistic version of it from a Native point of view, different tribal point of view and an artist’s point of view.

When I was given the opportunity to do this when I was commissioned by the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, I jumped on it. When I took it to Israel, it was a whole other trip. One of the conductors was doing an artist in residency from Israel and he heard about this and asked if I could come to Israel with the orchestra for two weeks. I stayed in Tel Aviv.

I think Native people have such a powerful chance to speak with the world, especially today and I think we should all take advantage of it.

ICT: You are also releasing a CD soon correct?

Miller: A couple of them actually. There is one called ‘Chronicles of Hope,’ it is a singer/songwriter album I recorded in Nashville. I really haven’t had one out in quite a while. I am also working on a series of flute pieces on all of the directions. They are all done it is just a process of printing the art and getting everything done, so in the next few months you will see a new project.

ICT: How did the Pete Seeger birthday celebration go for you?

Miller: It was a cluster of musicians, there wasn’t really any solo performances. The only artists that played solo were [Bruce] Springsteen and John Mellencamp. I was lucky enough to sing on a couple of encores with Emmylou Harris on an old Pete Seeger tune, ‘Goodnight Irene.’ It was kinda cool and it was an experience to be at Madison Square Garden and represent Native people there along with other Native artists.

It was a great group of people. Pete Seeger is a big folk hero of mine. I met him many years ago and I am good friends with his sister and members of his family. The first time I saw Pete was in 1976 in Wisconsin and I was just starting to play and go on the road. He was a veteran by then.

ICT: As a Grammy winner and someone who has made great contributions to the Native community, what would you say to aspiring artists and musicians?

Miller: I would say to stay focused. There are three ingredients to what I do. I stay in touch with my heritage, my life experiences become part of my art and my faith or my spiritual path is truly the most important part that keeps it all together.

To learn more about Miller, visit