KALISPELL, Mont. - He's known to some as the "Matador of Metaphor," a "Tribal Troubadour," or simply "The Buckskin Poet." But no matter the title, Jack Gladstone's main goal is to breathe life into Native American history.
The Montana-based musician and songwriter, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, has been spinning stories and spotlighting historical figures and events with audiences for nearly two decades. He's logged hundreds of thousands of miles on his aging van, and shows no signs of turning back.
It's tough to put Gladstone, 42, in a musical box. You could call him a balladeer, but that overlooks his country swing, or you could say he's an oral historian, but that doesn't cover the breadth of his musical offerings. A more apt description might be an eclectic Renaissance Man who deftly mixes his traditional Indian past with the contradictions of the New World present.
In 1999, he was nominated as Native American Songwriter of the Year. His eighth professional recording will be released in coming weeks.
"What I'm trying to do is rearrange the thinking processes of my audiences," he explains. "I feel real lucky. I know there's no one in the Native American field who can do what I'm doing like I'm doing it."
Gladstone says it's natural that he has one foot immersed in his Indian heritage while the other remains planted within the dominant culture. Born to a Blackfeet father and a German mother, he's been faced with a multicultural schism all his life.
Gladstone grew up in Seattle, but began fully identifying with his tribal past in 1967, the same year his father, a World War II veteran and merchant marine, gave up alcohol and started filling in the blanks. During his first visit to the Blackfeet Reservation that year, Gladstone says he was united with many of his relatives.
"There was this marvelous reconnection and I was able to reconcile my past through experience," he says of the early days spent in Browning, where he returned as an adult to teach and help coach high school football and track. "I immersed myself in the homeland of my father."
Gladstone graduated from the Catholic John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Seattle and was immediately awarded a three-year football scholarship at the University of Washington, where he was recruited as an offensive lineman. Football, he said, was the perfect venue to vent his anger and frustration about the "tidal wave of Manifest Destiny" that had flooded Indian nations across North America. His fervor, once unleashed on the gridiron, helped his team secure a championship at the Rose Bowl in 1978.
But he says football didn't fill in all of the holes and eventually "the warrior withdrew to the classroom," where his personal unrest was instead channeled into academic endeavors. While studying history and anthropology at the university, Gladstone says he became more certain that he wanted to spend his life helping others understand the Native American past. That helped lead to the university's public communications program, where nervousness often transformed Gladstone's speeches into songs.
As he learned more about the plight of fellow Native Americans, Gladstone says he also began to see the ties to persecuted animals, especially the wolf, the bison and the grizzly bear. This medley of connections to the human and the natural world is deeply interwoven in his work today.
"We have a mythology that's still remembered and practiced with the Earth as a central theme," he says of his tribal heritage. "We can learn. We can be inspired from it.
"I want to reflect the humanity of our people, which essentially means the humanity of all people," he says. "Being a mixed-blood, I've got to look at it as a human being. It's not fast-food history. What I want to afford the listener, though, is an economically fulfilling trip where they say, 'Wow, I haven't looked at things like that.'"
Gladstone says he often devotes a hundred or more hours of research into a song that may only stretch four or five minutes.
Along with profiling epic tragedies, he showcases heroes, such as the legendary Indian athlete Jim Thorpe, as well as the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. Included are pieces about York, the only African American who journeyed with explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, and the whiskey-soaked Whoop-Up Trail, which ran north from the American frontier into Canada. There's even a song about a bear who wanted to have spots.
"My writing has always been pretty strong," he says. "It's stronger now than it ever has been. I think I'm a pretty good amateur historian."
Gladstone also has written songs about various family ties, including "Old Glad," a story about his great-great-grandfather, William Gladstone, who married a Native wife in 1855 and built the first sawmill in southern Alberta. On the other side of the family was great-great-grandfather Red Crow, an early chief of the Blood Tribe.
Out of dozens of songs penned and performed by Gladstone, "Speak to Me Grandma," is perhaps the most poignant. It tells about the things he learned from his Blackfeet grandmother, who died in 1980, and offers yet another heartfelt glimpse into the rich lives of tribal elders. The song, he says, "took about 14 minutes to write.
"That was a gift, kind of like my one five-minute mile in football," he explains. "I try to not think of how much more I could have gotten from her."
Gladstone, an artist-in-residency in schools across the country, founded an ongoing Native American summer lecture series in Montana's Glacier National Park. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with widely renowned performer Rob Quist for more than 70 "Western Harmony" programs throughout the region. A possible collaboration between the artists is being discussed for the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial, he says.
Despite his considerable success, Gladstone remains humble, as well as thankful for his talents. While he knows he could rise up further in the music business, he and his wife, Linda, are content raising their two young children and keeping their business, Hawkstone Productions, a modest affair. The company has an Internet website at www.hawkstone.com.
Gladstone hopes to complete the last leg of a historical trilogy on the Northern Plains by the end of the year, and who knows what other projects will come after that.
"There's still stories out there," he says. "I will continue to attach myself to them ... "