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Indigenous opera singer Kirsten C. Kunkle on Yellowstone, becoming part of the land again

Kirsten C. Kunkle performs onstage
Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
Kirsten C. Kunkle (Muscogee) performs onstage with Intermountain Opera Bozeman Artistic Director Michael Sakir on piano.

An Indigenous opera singer has written a song that she hopes will be a new anthem for Yellowstone National Park.

Kirsten C. Kunkle reads "Reclaim the Land"

Kirsten C. Kunkle’s song “Reclaim the Land'' explores what it means to become part of the landscape again. As she sings of Yellowstone’s beauty, she also highlights past and current challenges facing Indigenous people.

Kunkle performed the song at the All Nations Teepee Village at Madison Junction earlier this month as part of the nonprofit Mountain Time Arts’ “Yellowstone Revealed” series in collaboration with Intermountain Opera Bozeman.

Kunkle read “Reclaim the Land” as a poem first and then sang it. She spoke with Yellowstone Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz about the meaning behind the song.

Kirsten C Kunkle: I think there's possibly a misconception that reclaiming the land could be that we want the land back to own it. That’s not it at all, at least not in my perception. It is to become part of that land again in a cultural and historic way.

Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
The performance was part of two evenings of classical music at the All Nations Teepee Village at Madison Junction.

Yellowstone, specifically, is one of the most incredibly beautiful places I've ever seen on earth. I've been to many, many beautiful places, but there's something that exists in Yellowstone that I can't put words to. It’s not tangible; it's almost mystical; it's magical. There's something there that exists, and I think it's in the purity of the nature that we see: the fact that the animals can just roam and go where they want to go, and it's expected that we as humans get out of their way and let them have that.

The piece itself is written specifically for this occasion, but a lot of it does tie into the Indigenous experience: the Indian Removal Act, hair cutting, residential schools that, you know, took away the culture and the missing and murdered Indigenous women situation. Those are things that not everybody always knows about. They're starting to come to the forefront a little bit more. But, I think preserving that in this zeitgeist moment, in this song, is important.

The great arch stands/Illuminated tipis demand attention amid the big sky/We demand attention/ Now is the time.
Kirsten C. Kunkle's "Reclaim the Land"

Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
Métis fiddler Sapphire Ferguson Jetty (Dakota and Chippewa) performs in Yellowstone.

What Mountain Time Arts has done in Gardiner and near that north entrance is they've put up these enormous teepees, and those teepees are lit at night.

There is a movement, I think nationally, and maybe even internationally, that we start recognizing people more for who they are as individuals, but also as who they are historically from their backgrounds.

And this is the chance, in my opinion, that now these big illuminated teepees, they're part of what is happening here; they're amid that big sky, but they're also demanding an attention that didn't exist before. You can't miss them. And I think that's what I'm trying to say is that we are demanding an attention that you don't dismiss us, that we are part of this land; we are part of this culture; we are part of the greater American experience. We don't wanna be overlooked anymore.

In my opinion, what I do better than anything else is sing. And I bring the love of music to what I do. I had this incredible opportunity that I can bring this Western style art music that I've been studying my entire life and infuse it with my heritage and bring it to Yellowstone for people that may have never heard classical music, or they may have never been to Yellowstone before.

And it all comes together all at once, in that in and of itself I get to reclaim my little portion of the land.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.