November 25, 2012

Grammy Award-winning flutist coming to town


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Joseph FireCrow’s Cheyenne name, Hoespenakohe “Unsuccessful Bear,” is a powerful warrior’s name.

“This name ties us directly to the top of the food chain with the bear,” said the Grammy Award- and Nammy Award-winning Native American flutist, who will be performing Monday evening at SUNY Plattsburgh.

“We view the bear as our relative. We do not eat their meat or wear their fur or skins or use their skins or claws. We have a great respect for them.”

“Unsuccessful Bear” references a human’s inability to completely emulate a bear.


Fifteen years ago, FireCrow relocated to Connecticut. He is originally from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.

“It’s a beautiful change. Back in Montana, they think it’s all concrete and asphalt out here. I learned to fly fish coming here to Connecticut. It’s an awesome sport. I just love it here.”

FireCrow’s accomplishments include a Grammy in the New Age category, guest artist on David Darling’s Grammy-nominated “Prayer for Compassion” and six Native American Music Awards.

His music appears in Director Ken Burns’s documentaries, “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Ideas.” It was also featured in “The War that Made America,” a PBS film.

For his 2010 release, “Face of the Music,” he was named Artist of the Year and Flutist of the Year by the Native American Music Association. Last year, he won Song/Single of the Year for the compilation, “Out of Many, We are One.”


FireCrow grew up in a family of 12 children: six brothers and six sisters.

“I’m kind of in the middle. I’m the sixth one up from the bottom. I’m the middle of the pack.”

While he was growing up in the 1960s, his grandparents were very connected to their grandchildren.

“There was a lot of teaching going on and following the oral traditions of our people. Nothing was written down. It was all oral, a lot of storytelling and singing. We would sing and dance. We couldn’t wait to grow up.”

All the time, he heard the beat of the drum and the beautiful, melodic flute.

“The stories connect us to our environment and to our people. That gift is priceless. Today, there are still pockets of this going on, especially on the reservation. It’s a simple life but a very difficult life. It’s always good to talk about where we come from and never forget our elders.”


In the summer of 1977, FireCrow learned how to make traditional flutes from the late John Ranier Jr., a Kiowa Comanche and San Juan Pueblo Indian from Taos, New Mexico.

“He taught us in college, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He taught us how to approach the flute. It was for us to learn from the oral tradition how to play them.”

Flutes are generally made from pine, cedar or any soft wood.

“There are six holes in the flute for playing to make the melody. There are other holes in the flute for tuning and making the flute play. You have to be shown how to make them. That’s how that oral tradition comes in. You have to see what that person is doing, their posture and how they use carving tools to literally scoop the wood out of the center.”

He returned to the reservation.

“I learned from my uncle and my elders to complete the full circle of flute man.”


His vanity got in his way in his early 20s.

“So, the gift of the flute, that passion to make them and the ability to play a good flute was gone. The flute did not come back into my life until my late 30s.”

He worked as a lumberjack, oil-rig roughneck and at a coal-fired power plant in northeastern Montana. In 1993, he decided to restart his musical career as a performer and recording artist.

“I looked at what we were doing to the land, at the power plant, with the strip mining. I started thinking about how I was making a living since I left college. I was cutting the trees down, drilling into the earth or using those resources, just basically destroying the planet, in my opinion.

“You look at what you’re doing. The money and the benefits were good, but my heart didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel whole.”

It was a turning point.

“I realized now I was mature and committed to my elders to get these things right and get these things straight.”


Long ago, all young men carried flutes.

“The women do not need the flute. The flute was used not only in courtship but to help heal one another and to spread love as a warrior.”

The warrior’s reality was often harsh in the protection of his people.

“Long ago, when times were simpler for the warrior man, this was his way to show his emotions through music and to sing with it to play it for all the people.”

“It’s timeless, it speaks truth, and in its simplicity, it’s beauty,” said FireCrow of Native American flute music.

“These things come from our elders. They kept them alive, and they’re still intact, which is really cool.”

Email Robin



WHO: Joseph FireCrow, Native-American flutist. 

WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday. 

WHERE: Warren Ballrooms, Angell College Center, SUNY Plattsburgh.