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Native American flutist Joseph Firecrow brings his music to Malden May 31

Posted by Marcia Dick  May 22, 2013 09:59 AM

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Joseph Firecrow plays at the Annual Genundowa Festival in Hammondsport, N.Y.

Grammy Award-winning flutist, singer, and storyteller Joseph Firecrow returns to Malden May 31 for a full-length performance at St Paul's Episcopal Church, 26 Washington St., at 8 p.m.  Firecrow will offer more of what enthralled audiences at the Opening Celebration for Malden Reads in February, a web of stories and songs that energize and nourish the mind and heart.

Firecrow is a sought-after recording artist, composer, flutist, storyteller, and performer. He has earned awards, accolades, and artistic opportunities for his work. In addition to releasing seven albums, Firecrow’s  musical talents have been tapped by Ken Burns for the director’s documentary “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.”

Firecrow has also won numerous awards, including songwriter of the year, best instrumental recording, and flutist of the year from the Native American Music Awards. His fourth album, “Cheyenne Nation,” earned him a Grammy nomination in 2001. Most recently, Firecrow was awarded Best Flute Recording for “Night Walk” by NAMA. He was also given the honor of opening the ceremony with a statement, prayer, and song, a fact that reflects the respect he has earned from within the Native American artists’ community.

These awards are a credit to Firecrow’s musical achievements. They reflect his musical skill and reputation amongst fellow entertainers. And yet at the heart of his performances is a role that goes beyond music. This role, as a Cheyenne flute man, is what shapes his life and work. It is the heart of what he does and is, as he explained in a recent interview.

As a child, Firecrow heard the song of flute in the evenings on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana that was his home until age 9. The soulful emotion of this evening sound, delivered by then flute man Grover Wolfvoice, stayed with him even after he had left the reservation as part of the Mormon Indian Placement Program, from which he only returned during the summers.

In college at Brigham Young University, he enrolled in a flute-making class taught by John Rainer Jr., instructor of Native American music. In the class, Firecrow made his first Native American flute and learned how to play. This experience, along with his reading of "Cheyenne Memories," a book of the legends and history of his people written by his grandfather, John Stands in Timber, moved Firecrow to reconnect with his Cheyenne identity. At this time in his life, however, he was still unsure if music was to be the driving passion of his life. 

After college, Firecrow pursued a variety of opportunities, “sowing his oats,” as he puts it. Working at a number of hard labor jobs and as a tree planter and sawyer for the Forestry Department, he then moved on to oil rig and power plant work.  But Firecrow became concerned about the ways in which these jobs were destructive to the planet. He returned to the reservation in his 30s with the flute he had made in college and starting making and playing the native instrument with newfound eagerness.

At that time, many people on the reservation were keen on ceremony, for which the drum was the most important instrument. They mocked his choice of flute over drums, claiming it as a female-oriented instrument. Firecrow rejected this notion completely,  because the flute according to tradition had always been for males only. Used in social contexts – often played at night – it was to be used to express love for others, for family, for wife and children, and for spirituality. Women, according to the Cheyenne beliefs, did not need this catalyst for expression. Men did.

Remembering the influence of John Rainer Jr. and inspired by Native American flutists such as Carlos Nakai, Jonathan Maracle, flutemaker Hawk Littlejohn, and many other talented  musicians, Firecrow continued to pursue flute with growing intensity. He says, “I loved playing it. I would make flutes by the fire. I would play into the night.”  As if the flute had always been with him – just quiet – Firecrow mastered all that was connected to the beautiful wooden instrument so traditionally intertwined with the identity of his people.

It was from the tribal elders that Firecrow learned the art of the flute man. They taught him that, “To be a storyteller has to come with a flute man’s role,” he says. And this also means “doing right, being clear about the intent of playing, and knowing where the flute comes from. For music, for the Cheyenne people, is not a distinct practice, it is part of everything else.”

Playing flute then also means learning the stories chants, and songs of the people. It means “walking with deliberateness,” doing right, embodying what it means to be Cheyenne. All of this, Firecrow gained through guidance from the elders and in community with the people.

The elders have given Firecrow their blessings as flute man. But they continue to watch him and test his knowledge and accurate representation of the songs, stories, and flutemaking. “Often,” he says, “when I least expect it – like at the grocery store in the checkout lane – I’ll have to recite a story or sing a song. Other times, they’ll throw me a piece of wood, and I have to construct a flute on the spot.” Firecrow is happy for this ongoing relationship. He always gives the elders credit. He remembers them. And he wants to make them smile.

When he leaves the reservation, Firecrow brings this spirit of humility and respect for elders and for people in general with him. Whether he is composing, performing, or fusing versions of his Native strains with classical, jazz, rock, or contemporary music, he works hard and shows reverence for the complete experience of playing. The nature of the music, the audience, and his companion performers may change, but he always knows where the flute comes from, where it is going, and the reasons he plays it. And those reasons – the desire to connect, to express his love and appreciation, to inspire wonder for everything that connects us as humans, is what drives Firecrow to share much more than music with those who hear him.

The Malden community and Malden Reads invite you and children aged 10 and older to join us as we share the wonder of Firecrow’s pure and compelling performance on the evening of May 31.  Tickets are available at the door for $15. Students and seniors are $10. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds of the concert benefits Malden Reads.

For more information about the event, visit

For more information about Joseph Firecrow, visit

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