Native Americans and singer Margo Price kick off 2019 Farm Aid concert
In its 34th year, Farm Aid 2019 rocked the farmland in South-central Wisconsin. Held at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin this past Saturday, this year’s concert opener, paid homage to the first people of the area, the Hocak (Ho-Chunk) Nation.
As part of the organization’s action to include the original farmers of our nation, which natives refer to as Turtle Island, members of the Hocak, Cherokee, Oklahoma, Otoe-Missouria, Shawnee, and Otoe-Talihina tribes, along with singer Margo Price, opened the concert. (Watch the opening ceremony)
Hocak Elder and Vietnam Veteran Navy Corpsman Andy Thundercloud, extended a traditional greeting to the crowd. Thundercloud, supported by relatives Justice Green and Koonzie Decorah, with all three playing hand drums, rendered a welcome song, while Andy’s sons Jon and Josh stood on stage.
Following Thundercloud’s welcome, country-western singer Margo Price sang the Lord’s Prayer accompanied by Otoe–Missouria and Cherokee tribal member Denise Alley, who signed the prayer in traditional Native American sign language.
A first for Thundercloud sons Jon, Josh, and relatives Koonzie Decorah, and Justice Green, Andy stated that it had been a real privilege. “I consider it an honor having been asked to do this. When I was asked, of course I didn’t say no I’m not going to do it. I was very, very happy to do it, like I said I consider it a real honor being able to do this,” Thundercloud said with a warm smile.
The previous day, Thundercloud said that he participated discussions held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that saw several different organizations and government entities coming together expressing their concerns and feelings of the ongoing and critical problems facing our nation’s farming industry.
Thundercloud offered, “I don’t know how many years they’ve been doing this. This is the first time they’ve invited indigenous people, or the native people, to participate. They had a panel made up of the different tribes in the state of Wisconsin. I think what they had to present, what they had to say, opened some eyes up. Hopefully it’s going to open their minds and realize we have a lot to contribute to them to help them along with what they are trying to do.”
Andy’s son, Jon, said that the group was originally contacted by relative Melanie Tallmadge-Sainz, founder of the non-profit organization L.E.A.F. (Little Eagle Arts Foundation). Started in 2013, LEAF is dedicated to preserving and promoting American Indian art by cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit of American Indian/First Nation’s artists in order to achieve success and promote a cycle of economic security in Indian Country.
Tallmadge-Sainz, who was invited to participate in the Homegrown Village at Farm Aid, was a catalyst in the Thundercloud’s appearance. “They had asked her about someone to do a blessing and perhaps a song, and she immediately thought of my father and our group. She contacted me several months ago. I had to call my father and my older brother, out of respect for our ways since they are the elders of our family, to see if this would be possible. They readily agreed. Unfortunately, my brothers and I are in mourning right now, so we weren’t able to sing. But the rest of our group was able to make it. I’m proud of my relatives here and my dad for taking on this responsibility and great privilege,” Jon said.
Koonzie Decorah shared that he was there for his relatives because they are in mourning. Decorah wanted to support them, and noted that he has sung with the group for many years. “It’s good to be here,” he said.
Green added, “I’m here because my Tega (Uncle) asked me to come sing because his family is in morning. It’s an honor to sing with my Choka (Grandfather) and support the family.”
Cherokee and Otoe–Missouria Denise Alley, who signed the Lord’s Prayer, is no stranger to participating in Farm Aid concerts. This year marks twenty years that she has been involved with the organization. “It’s wonderful to be here,” Alley said. “My father adopted Willie Nelson as a brother many years ago in the 80’s. He invited our family to come and do the opening. My father used to sing a Welcome song, but Willie Nelson has always sung The Lord’s Prayer. This year he asked Margo Price to do it for him. He’s getting to be an elder as well. It’s wonderful to honor the land and the people.”
Alley, also acknowledged the participation of the Hocak Nation saying, “We are so grateful that the Ho-Chunk people could be here to welcome everyone in a good way and acknowledge the land and everyone.”
She stated that she and the Wisdom Indian Dancers were just glad to be a part of it year after year acknowledging beautiful Mother Earth and the beautiful Creator and for all blessings. “As tribal people, we do that. We’re glad that Willie asked us to come and do that and be part of it,” she said with a smile.
Alley said she was blessed to have her nephew David William Alley Mead with her on stage. Mead, who closed the opening welcome ceremony with a song as his aunt danced, is a warrior having served in Iraq from 2004-2005 with the US Marine Corp. Mead echoed his aunt’s involvement with Farm Aid Farm saying, “My family’s been doing it since ’87.”
Mead recalled that his grandpa Dennis Alley was hanging out with Willie Nelson, and Nelson had asked him to come and do an exhibition for him. “He’s (Mead’s Grandfather) been doing it ever since. My first one was in Dallas, Texas at the Stadium and then Ames, Iowa. I quit doing it for a while. I went to the Marine Corp. When I got back from Iraq, my grandpa asked me in 2007, he was like ‘hey, Willie asked me if you’d want to come do this for us.’ The day before Farm Aid, my grandpa passed away. For my grandpa, I’ve been doing it for him. In 2010, my uncle was a singer, his son, passed the drum (hand drum) to me. I’ve been singing for our dance troop ever since.”
This concert was different for Mead. In past years when other Native American’s had participated in Farm Aid, their performances were at different times. “They went on way later and we never got to hang out or even get to talk to them. The Ho-Chunk going on first, and us going on second was awesome, two sets of tribes going at it, letting everybody know that we are still here. We’ll help other people. It doesn’t matter if you are Native or White or Black or Asian. We are here to grow food and help people. I thought that was amazing,” he said enthusiastically.
Mead said that he loved the fact that Willie, Neil, John, and Dave are doing this, and hopes that each year they bring in other ethnicity that are farmers. “I think it’s awesome. I’m blessed to be doing this as long as I have been. I pray to God they ask us back. It’s a total volunteer fundraiser. I’m putting my time and money into it, and hope other people will do the same,” he said.
With a huge responsibility as the Farm Aid organization’s Executive Director, Carolyn Mugar, was thrilled with the participation of the Hocak at this year’s event. “My thoughts are that we knew we wanted them (Hocak) right from the beginning, because we are on Ho-Chunk land. We knew we wanted to honor the tribes whose land we are on as we came here. We were extremely glad that they said they would do it. It matters a lot to us. We always try to place everybody. For people, contango is to realize where we are each year and to make it as real as possible and as respectful as possible.” Mugar stressed that the organization will always have the respect and involvement of this nation’s first people in the forefront of each concert.
I had a chance to sit down with Andy and Margo in the artist VIP area after they opened the concert.
With this being Margo’s fourth appearance at Farm Aid, she shared some thoughts and feeling on this year’s event with us saying, “My father and mother had a farm when I was little. Through the farming crisis in the Midwest, they lost their farm in 1985 when I was two years old. I’ve always felt very passionate about helping local farmers. To come back and be at Farm Aid is always an honor, so surreal. It was great to be up there today. I was hanging with Willie in Nashville, and he said I’ve got stuff going on and can’t do the Lord’s Prayer, would you like to do it? I was honored and slightly nervous, but it’s a beautiful spiritual experience to be up there and share the stage with everybody. I’ve always felt a deep connection when I hear singing in that way and the drum beat. I’ve always watched that part of the show from the front of the stage. It was really surreal to be up there and such an honor.”
Thundercloud added, “I’ve always felt a deep connection when I hear singing in that way and the drum beat.” He continued, “It’s been a real privilege listening to her and what she was telling about her parents. It strikes me. I think it is a real shame. We were talking and I wanted to make her aware that this was our farm land here. During the spring we came here to plant our gardens. Of course, there were different parties that went out and did other things but there was a certain plan to have the responsibilities of growing the crops. They always stayed in this area. The others wandered off to gather the other fruits of the land and forests. I thought it was very appropriate that we gather here today. This is the first time we as Native people have been invited to something like this. If you had been around yesterday, we had a meeting over at Lake Geneva. I think there was quite a few people that didn’t like what I had to say. I let them have it.”
“I think it’s been very terrible what happened to the Native people of our country and what continues to happen. I love that Willie has brought in the true rightful owners of this land and this Nation,” Price said.
Thundercloud, quickly responded saying, “We aren’t owners, we are stewards of the land. One of the things I’ll share with you: We always think that nature is there for us. We are part of nature; nature is part of us. We have to understand. Once we understand that, I think we will make real progress as farm as pollution and all these other things. If someone would have told me 70 years ago that in 2020 you are going to be buying drinking water, I would have laughed at them. I think it’s atrocious.”
Price stated that she wasn’t sure whose quote it was, but shared that she once heard that ‘The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth’. A quote that has since stuck with her. “That’s what I mean. We think that nature is here for us,” Thundercloud said.
Being somewhat star struck, I had to ask Price how she got started in the music industry.
“I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and was not successful for a very long time. I just kept making records. I can be a little bit stubborn. I’ve been in Nashville for about 13 years. We faced a lot of failure and a lot of obstacles, just with making a living out of it. I finally put out a record. My husband had sold our car, I pawned my wedding ring, we sold all of our material possessions and went to Memphis and made a record at Sun Studio. Jack White from Third Man Records put it out. We’ve been able to make a living on it now. It’s something I’m grateful for every day.”
She continued, “I admire people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, people from that generation that had something to say in their music. That’s kind of always been my kind of mentors: people who were doing it not only to be self-serving, but hopefully touch people.”
When asked what needs to change for the current crisis facing farming in the nation, Price offered, “It’s going to take a major revolution. It’s going to take people caring about the earth more than they care about money. We have a long way to go but it’s good to see that there are people here that care. This week is also the climate strike week so people have been bringing activism to that. It’s something that we have to go back to, the old ways. Right now, we are here and we have a problem, and it’s good to see people trying to solve it.”
Visit DriftlessNow.com tomorrow, for another article on Farm Aid 2019.