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Through music and storytelling, ‘Welcome to Indian Country’ showcases Native joy

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Ryan Hunt
Nokosee Fields and Mali Obomsawin during a performance of "Welcome to Indian Country."

Traveling around the U.S. as a tour producer a few years ago, Andre Bouchard began to notice something.

“All these just exceptionally talented Native musicians that were playing as the bassist in one band, or as the fiddle player in another, or that sort of thing,” Bouchard said. “And the notion just slipped into my mind that I might be able to put them into a group by themselves.”

He gathered the group — trumpet player Delbert Anderson; fiddle player and guitarist Nokosee Fields; vocalist, pianist and guitarist Lyz Jaakola; drummer and percussionist Nicholas Lucero; and bassist, composer, and singer-songwriter Mali Obomsawin — and, shortly before the pandemic began, they started to build a show, virtually.

“Each of the musicians was contributing a song, and then a couple started contributing a few," Bouchard said, "and then we started putting in a few songs that were homages to our ancestors, our Native ancestors, like Jim Pepper.”

The end result is “Welcome to Indian Country,” a musical event with storytelling woven throughout courtesy of Washington State poet laureate, Rena Priest.

“I went to Olympia to do the residency with the other performers and it was just such an amazing experience to get to see everybody bring their gifts together and make this show over the course of six days,” she said. “I’ve never worked with musicians. And then also to be in collaboration with all Indigenous performers is a rare thing for me as well, so that was really great.

“The connection was almost instantaneous.”

Bouchard says early on, the group knew which direction it wanted to go — and what message members wanted to communicate.

“There was a lot high-level concept talk about sort of what we want to say. And one of the ideas that the group landed on was there was a preponderance, a large body of work that focused on the challenges that Native peoples face as a community. Things like substance abuse, things like missing and murdered Indigenous women, and those are extremely important topics.

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Billings Symphony
The Pretty Shield Foundation has erected teepees at the site of Saturday's concert and will start the evening with a cultural presentation.

"But there was very little out there that was reflective of the joy that we felt as being part of this community, the connection to our culture, the connection to our art, the singing, the poetry that runs through our veins."

After residencies in Olympia and Minneapolis, Welcome to Indian Country is now going on tour, with its first stop in Billings this Saturday. Bouchard, who was born on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana, says the engagement from the Native community so far is heartening. The outdoor show will be preceded by a teepee lighting and demonstration by the Pretty Shield Foundation.

Priest says she hopes audiences walk away feeling enriched, and with a sense of Indigenous people as contemporary, creative and vibrant.

‘We’re out here and we’re creating and making and contributing to culture in a way that is really full of joy and happiness and skill,” she said.

“Welcome to Indian Country,” presented by the Billings Symphony, is this Saturday at 406 Events Lawn.

Nadya joined Yellowstone Public Radio as news director in October 2021. Before coming to YPR, she spent six years as digital news editor/reporter for the NPR affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, where her work earned several Kansas Association of Broadcasters awards and a regional Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Social Media. Originally from Texas, Nadya has lived and worked in Colorado, Illinois, Washington, D.C.; and North Dakota. She lives in Billings with her cat, Dragon, and dog, Trooper, and enjoys hiking, crocheting, and traveling as often as possible.