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Native American is not a style of music

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PRIOR LAKE, Minn. - If the second annual Native American Music Festival proved anything, it's that Native American is not a style of music.

The two-night event, May 19 and 20, at Mystic Lake Casino featured 16 acts from throughout Indian country who expressed themselves in a spectacularly rich array of music, dance and comedy.

Seasoned performers like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rita Coolidge shared the festival's spotlight with emerging talents such as blues-rocker Derek Miller and gansta rapper Natay. The traditional - singers Ulali, drum group The Boyz, hoop dancer Jackie Bird - rubbed elbows with the profane - comedian Drew Lacapa. And the serene - flutist Tree Cody - was shattered by hard rock - XIT.

Event organizer Leon Thompson says the festival is much more than a great concert. "This event is about the promotion of Native American music. Recognition of Native talent is long overdue. We invited industry people, the press, and performers to showcase what Native American music is all about."

The festival was underwritten by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which housed and fed performers at the casino's hotel and restaurants.

Thompson says most of the roughly 3,000 tickets distributed were given to Native American groups and individuals with the goal of promoting cultural awareness.

"We're not trying to make any money. Most of all we're trying to show young Native people that nothing is impossible."

Thompson says Native performers are eager to be a part of this festival. "Everyone that was asked ended up coming. I've got a stack of letters on my desk from people who hope to be a part of next year's show. This is a real positive thing for the performers. They want to be a part of this because they're treated with respect when they come to Mystic Lake."

Music producer Robert Peaslee, owner of Creative Native Productions, says the weekend showcase was a great place to do business. "Having all these stars, reps, managers, and producers in the same place, at the same time has been tremendously helpful. I've hooked up with several people that I've been hoping to meet for years. The business cards I've accumulated this weekend are worth their weight in gold.

"I'm telling the performers I meet, 'I'm a skin, you're a skin, let's do business.'"

Elaine Miles of "Northern Exposure" and "Smoke Signals" and rising star Drew Lacapa were hosts for the Friday night performance. Between sets by Brul?, Ulali, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Derek Miller, they kept the crowd in stitches, poking fun at reservation life with the dead-on humor of a seasoned comedy team.

Lacapa, an Apache-Hopi from White River, Ariz., says this was the first time he and Miles ever performed together. "I've never planned anything I've done on stage. I've been a life-long goofball. I've just had so much fun performing over the past few years, but working here with Elaine has been the frosting on the cake. I don't know if I can take too much more. My blood sugar will go off the charts."

Before Lacapa, who bills himself as "300 pounds of love," began traveling the country as a pageant host and parade marshal and doing stand-up at pow-wows and casinos, he worked as a nurse's assistant for the Indian Health Service.

"I used to get in trouble for making patients laugh," he says. Now Lacapa gets paid for making people laugh. While he plays for diverse audiences, Lacapa says he never changes his style to fit the occasion.

On Saturday night he did a 30-minute routine in a dress. The audience of elders, children, and everyone in between appeared to greatly appreciate Lacapa's irreverence, laughing with abandon the entire show.

Friday night's musical offerings were highlighted by the playful, rocking flute of Nicole LaRoche (Brul?) and the ever-inspiring Sainte-Marie.

LaRoche grew-up in Eden Prairie, Minn., an upscale suburb of Minneapolis. She began playing the flute in fifth grade and as she grew, developed a unique style that seemed to come from somewhere else. She didn't know she was Lakota until she was a teen-ager, when her father, band leader-keyboardist Paul LaRoche, found his adoption papers.

While the elder LaRoche has experienced more than 20 years in the music business, it was Nicole's flute that cut through the eight-piece band and danced about the auditorium.

Nicole, 20, says being in the spotlight as a Native woman has forced her to examine herself. "It's been hard. I used to consider myself a little bit of everything. Now I have a better understanding of where I came from, and why I thought the way I did."

Buffy Sainte-Marie was all over the musical map, one moment folky, and the next getting funky on the keyboards and laying it out like a techno John Trudell. She performed her Oscar-winning song, "Love, Lift us up Where We Belong," and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," an angry, sad commentary on the Pine Ridge political climate of the 1970s, recently popularized by the Indigo Girls.

Sainte-Marie is part of a former generation of songwriters that believes what you say is as important as how you say it. She spoke-out against domestic violence and warfare, condemning the idea that these are "universal values."

She spoke to the children of the wealthy Shakopee community and implored them to maintain traditional values. "Please remember, nothing will ever take the place of community and education. A lot of people think you go to school so that later you can make money. That's not why. I hope you all know why."

While all of the other acts held "meet and greet" sessions backstage to sign autographs and pose for photos, Sainte-Marie was escorted to a restricted meeting of the three-member Reservation Business Council. No details of that meeting were made available. Disappointed fans joked that Sainte-Marie had been summoned to the "Godfather," a reference to elusive community chairman, Stanley R. Crooks, whose oversight of casino operations gives him tremendous financial leverage.

If the chairman was invisible at the festival, brother Glynn A. Crooks was ubiquitous. Glynn, the community's amiable vice-chairman was co-host at Saturday's show, crooning between acts to Country-Western standards like Conway Twitty's "I May Never Get to Heaven."

Rapper Litefoot, Blackfeet actor Steve Reevis ("Fargo," "The Doors," "Dances with Wolves"), and Sainte-Marie entertained between acts. Litefoot and Reevis, when on stage alone, seemed at times uncomfortable in the role. But when adoring female fans began to scream, Litefoot, considered the first Native American rap artist, busted a rhyme about his warrior vision and the lessons learned from Crazy Horse, that left the crowd yelling for more.

Along with an awe-inspiring hoop dance by Mary Bird, Litefoot's three-minute explosion was the evening's most captivating performance.

Natay, a young Dine rapper from Albuquerque, N.M., performed a tight, 40-minute set. Teen-agers in the audience seemed to love every minute of the gansta-rapper's banter: "Hello Mystic Lake, where are all the ladies out there?" But his tributes to "dead homiez" such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. left many scratching their head.

Of all the festival's acts, Natay showed most convincingly that "Native American" is not a style, but any sort of music that is performed by Native Americans. Natay and young blues man Derek Miller, perhaps the festival's youngest performers, were among its most passionate, and least polished.

Both showed promise and may well mature into big-time acts in the coming years.

Billboard Magazine reports that American Indian music has been picking up sales steam over the past 18 months, spurred by an increase in the number of releases and a growing commitment to the genre by U.S. music retailers.

"I feel like this genre is about to explode," says Tom Bee, president of Sound of America Records and a member of Saturday night's headliner XIT.

"Back in the '60s they said, 'The British are coming! The British are coming!' Well my cry is, 'The Natives are coming! The Natives are coming!'"