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Music from the warrior spirit: Interview with Tommy Wildcat

Tahlequah, Okla. - The 2002 NAMMY award-winning flutist, Tommy Wildcat, travels throughout the country, and he has also been overseas 10 times, promoting his brand of very traditional music. Along with his twin sister, Tammy, Tommy started his own successful record label, "Warrior Spirit Productions" (the name has been shortened to "Warrior Records") to release his numerous cassettes and CDs, including "A Warrior's Spirit," "Flames of Fire," and "The Fire People."

The Wildcat twins became well known along with their dance troupe, Dancers of Fire, when they received national attention during appearances on the Discovery Channel's miniseries "How the West was Lost." Tommy's music has also appeared in Schlegender Production's "The Cherokee People," TNN's "The Great Outdoors," Grey Stone Productions' "The Trail of Tears," and AETN's "The Cherokee Keetoowas." Tommy also appeared in TNT's "Tecumseh: The Last Warrior." Wildcat is currently preparing for this year's performances and working on a new album that will be released early next year.

Wildcat said he started playing the flute 11 years ago when he was working at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma and saw some boys walking around with river cane flutes. He found out that a friend of his knew how to make the flutes. "Back in 1991 I was hired for the Cherokee Heritage Center, then I was hired as the dance leader, then in 1992 I started touring and getting into Cherokee blow guns and river cane flutes, and slowly I started getting more active with school programs and out-of-state events," Wildcat said.

"I coordinated boys and girls to go around out of state, from Houston, to St. Louis, to Nebraska, doing cultural events. It was more or less what a dance troupe would do. At the same time my music started to develop.

"In 1994 I came out with my first CD "River Cane Flute Music," then I changed to a six-hole flute, and I created three more albums. I learned as I went along, but I had performance gigs, dance performances, and bookings everywhere, so I learned while I was in front of the audience. I started getting more active in documentaries, and now, in 2004, there's a PBS special on the Trail of Tears and they want to use my music on the soundtrack.

"As we were getting booked I started learning about the history of the flute; it almost went into extinction, but it made a comeback about 40 years ago, and it's pretty much widespread over Indian country. To win the NAMMY flutist of the year was a great honor. I've always pushed to do things properly and to my best ability. I drove all over the county playing gigs. I put almost 400,000 miles on my vehicle. It's not just about promoting Native American music, but also promoting Native American history with my music."

Wildcat found there were very few people in his area who played the flute, and no one was doing what he wanted to do, so he had to learn the music business, the marketing, and distribution, on his own. "I wanted to make things happen for my community," Wildcat said. "I wanted all of them, my nieces and nephews and the community, to know that I'm doing something with our heritage and culture, but it also requires business. Cherokee culture is the basis of my whole upbringing.

"My parents took us every weekend to some dance grounds; my grandparents and their families were participants in the stomp dance and that tradition has been passed down along with the old customs and language. Within the Cherokees there are very few people who have hung on to that. We're probably around 10,000 strong, but that's very few people, considering we are the second largest tribe with 240,000 members. I come from one of the families that have held on to the living entity of the Cherokee culture. In myself, I not only used that in the beginning, but today I'm much broader as a Native American entertainer."

Wildcat first started releasing his albums during the height of the new age movement, when the market was flooded with "Native Heart" recordings, usually by non-Natives inspired by the American Southwest. While he was worried about being lost in the shuffle of flute CDs, he found that his Native pedigree helped him considerably in his career. "New age artists are forever coming up all the time, even now," Wildcat laughed. "When I first started on the pow wow trail back in 1995 no one knew who I was for about a year, but my career really took off in 1997 when I came out with the CD 'Warrior Flute.' It is still my best seller; it sells more than my NAMMY award-winning CD. Then I started getting hired a lot, and my programs offer more insight, culturally, and it helps me, compared to somebody who doesn't have a cultural background. People want to hire people from the reservations; people would rather hire Tommy Wildcat rather than someone who just says they are Indian. I can entertain people for hours, as opposed to someone who just walks up there and says he's a Native flute player. That might be entertaining to the kids, but adults want to know what they are seeing."

Wildcat will be performing throughout the year and working on his next album. His cause is still about cultural promotion, not just selling records. "I look forward to seeing all my friends across the country as I gear up for this year. I'm looking forward to getting more involved culturally, I just love it. I love flute playing, I love dancing, and I just plan to stay involved and continue to promote not only the great legacy of the Cherokees, but also the legacy of all Native American culture."

For more information, visit cherokeeproud.com or e-mail Tommy at tommywildcat@hotmail.com.