ST. FRANCIS, S.D. ? In little more than a year, four American Indian professionals have found musical success with their band while demonstrating to reservation youth that success can be accomplished anywhere, even on a South Dakota reservation.
Wakinyan, which takes its name from the Lakota word for lightning and thunder, recently was nominated for Best Independent Recording in the 2001 Native American Music Awards for the song, 'If I Ever.'
The group began with three seasoned musicians practicing in Spring Creek and St. Francis.
James Bordeaux and Ralph Young had spent months looking for a lead singer to bring a strong songwriting presence and vocals to the band.
Nearly giving up looking for just the right mixture of musicians, Bordeaux talked to Jackie Bird about his band's need for a lead singer. Bird recommended Darren Geffre, a computer professional in New Mexico. A short time later, Gary Antoine, an assistant administrator at St. Francis Indian School, joined the band.
There were few prospects in sight when Bordeaux, Young and Antoine finally made contact with Geffre for a telephone audition. Geffre played his music over the receiver. 'I was about ready to quit (music),' he admitted.
Now the group is ready to release a CD.
'We wanted to do something different,' Bordeaux said.
The musicians chose Wakinyan as a name because each time they gathered to play, huge plains storms hit the area with dangerous lightning and thunder. The thunder being is the spirit which teaches the Lakota hard lessons, symbolic for the group.
The four men, all professionals, came from diverse backgrounds, but shared a desire for meaningful lyrics and an opportunity to show reservation youth a successful group could flourish on an American Indian reservation.
Bordeaux, Young and Antoine, all members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, grew up on the reservation. Bordeaux and Antoine teach on the reservation. Young is an emergency medical technician with the tribal ambulance service.
Geffre, a Blackfeet from Browning, Mont., was raised in Aberdeen, and is a computer programmer. He lives in Albuquerque, but will soon return to Aberdeen easing his commute to practice with the band preparing for the Nammy awards and a tour promoting a new CD titled 'Thunder Beings.'
All four have sacrificed much family time to pursue their venture.
Geffre, from a family of six, began his musical career learning to play the guitar. 'I bought my first guitar at a pawn shop for $35. I babysat for the money to buy it.'
He learned to play a series instruments because when he started experimenting with recording he often waited for people who were late or didn't show up when it came time to lay tracks down on a recording. That versatility helped him learn to write full accompaniments for his music.
Geffre has been singing and writing since he was 13 and he has honed his songwriting skills to near perfection. He is serious about his music, yet maintains a down to earth attitude. His previous bands include Black Diamond and Crimson.
Young, who grew up in Rosebud, has been playing bass guitar for 11 years. His fluid playing style made the band's unique sound complete.
He played with Electric Rose and with Seventh Generation for three years before that band dissolved.
'When the band broke up, I quit playing music,' Young said. Unemployed and armed with only a high school education, he was running out of resources. His sister who was taking a CPR course suggested he join her.
Young has worked as an EMT for four years and finds gratification in his 'day' job. 'I've actually saved one life,' he said. And, while the pay is low, it allowed him to return to his real love ? music.
Young spent more than 36 hours awake on duty during the Rosebud Fair, demonstrated his commitment to the band in an interview and then played at a late night concert in St. Francis.
Bordeaux has played in bands since he was 15 and in a variety of musical styles including jazz, rock and heavy metal. He also played with Seventh Generation, which advocated healthy lifestyles to American Indian communities across the Midwest.
He began playing the saxophone, but chose the drums while still in elementary school. He won awards at many South Dakota music competitions playing the snare drum.
Then, during his senior year in high school, Up With People arrived on the reservation. Bordeaux was asked to interview and then joined the group for a world tour.
'While others were saving up for high school rings, I was saving all my money to go into this program,' Bordeaux said. He brought home many production skills from where he learned how to set up lights and sound equipment.
'Not only did I drum, but I ran concert lighting equipment and sound equipment.'
Later at the Denver Academy for the Arts, he needed a job and the academy placed him at Mile High Sound where an already skillful Bordeaux worked with lighting and sound for virtually every band that played a concert in the Denver area.
'That's what put me through college,' he said.
In college, he found he had to work twice as hard as his classmates, funds were limited and money for food was scarce. He covered school expenses, it little else and Bordeaux said he learned much about survival including eating a lot of ramen noodles during his lean years.
But the job exposed him to an explosion of new trends and musical styles moving into the Denver area. 'I was really thankful for the chance.'
However, the lifestyle of drugs and alcohol around him began to take its toll and Bordeaux decided to move back to the reservation.
He and Young played together in Seventh Generation and lectured about healthy lifestyles at area schools. 'Nobody was ready for that in Indian country,' he said.
Bordeaux was among young artists who brainstormed with Ellen Bello over creation of the Nammys during a trip to New York City. 'We walked down the street in New York City and what it is today is based on that simple conversation that took place at 3:30 a.m. My hat is off to Ellen.'
Bordeaux takes pride in the annual celebration that marks the milestones of Native American music and recognizes the accomplishments of Native American artists.
When the band was emerging, Geffre spent 28 weekends in a row traveling from Aberdeen to St. Francis (before he moved to Albuquerque). The overwhelming effort of the energetic songwriter was financially costly. He said he spent nearly $320 each week in gas to commute from Aberdeen to the Rosebud reservation to play with his fellow band members.
'It's all Native and we treat each other as brothers. There are no egos,' Geffre said. 'Our roots are here and we want to show people we can make it anywhere.'
Antoine learned to play the recorder while in elementary school. His grandfather, John King Sr., played more than half a dozen instruments including a violin. Antoine says he still has his grandfather's favored instrument. 'He could play any instrument with strings,' Antoine said of his grandfather.
Music came naturally because his entire family was musical, Antoine said. It was a way for him to pay his bills while he was in college. He worked, studied and was raising young children while touring to earn the money to finish his degree in school administration.
Antoine spent the final 36 weekends of his college career touring to pay for school expenses and support his family.
Today, the educator sees the band as a place for children to look for the role models he says are absent on the reservation. He pointed out that often the lost sense of identity students feel at the middle school level is because there are few visible role models to emulate.
'If you ask them what they are going to do when they grow up, they say 'I don't know.''
Bordeaux, who teaches media at St. Francis, said his classes which include regular live news broadcasts over KINI radio, have allowed many of his students to pursue careers in the media and music field.
'What I teach isn't just how to use a camera. I teach ethics and how to survive the world. Some of our students are really doing well in the industry.'
Bordeaux said he sees the band as a way to bridge the gap between what youths see on television and reality.
'Our kids are really influenced by what they see on television rather than what is reality. They place our own culture on the back burner.'
It isn't just music the four men want to show as an example, but how they conduct their daily lives, incorporating tribal traditional and spiritual values. On the day they were interviewed, they had been to a sweat.
Geffre said he often hears youngsters on the reservation say there is little to do, but there are options.
'If there is nothing to do then why are we so busy? Hopefully this is infectious.'
Antoine said he hopes other young artists will emerge using their skills to further career opportunities.
'Peoples' lives are wakan or holy because they do something with it. The Creator gave us these tools to be creative, write and sing. If we don't use it, that's our own fault. People have what it takes and they need to nurture it.'
None of the four denies that reality is paying the light bill. They dream to one day simply play music, but each continues his 'day' job, working in his profession.
Bordeaux said that while much of the world sees the depressed circumstances of unemployment ? nearly 80 percent on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation ? he sees a wealth of talented people who offer nearly every conceivable resource to budding artists.
The seasoned musicians, who have already experienced the pitfalls of the music industry, keep a clear goal in mind.
'It's about just being grounded and not being taken by all the glamour and glitz,' Geffre said.
Although every musician nominated for the prestigious Nammy wants to win, these four say they are honored just to have been nominated.
'It's hard work. If we don't get it, there is always tomorrow,' Geffre said.
And his heartfelt lyrics about reservation life blended with the history of the culture brings the listener a soulful look at contemporary life on the reservation.
Technology has been friend and foe as the band worked toward its goal. Geffre often sends computer files across the Internet for brainstorming sessions with his fellow band members. He says it allowed them greater flexibility in working on music.
But technology has its failings and the band knows firsthand about music piracy. The group is struggling to protect its intellectual assets. A studio CD was pirated from Young's bass guitar case and the music was uploaded onto Napster, which has been in court over pirated music for the past year.
The CD theft forced band members to revamp the release of its latest CD, available for purchase online. The band members said they have filed affidavits as part of a class-action lawsuit and may have to testify as the case comes to a conclusion.
For now, the group has learned the hard lesson from the spirit which serves as the band's namesake and band members are far more careful about such matters.
Wakinyan was in the lineup at Rez Fest 2001 on July 24, at the St. Francis Indian School stadium. The group has been featured on New Mexico public television, in an assortment of radio programs,
The band's Web site, www.wakinyan.net, details some of its progress and provides listeners an opportunity to hear its work.