The experiences of Mitch Walking Elk

The experiences of Mitch Walking Elk

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Singer/songwriter/activist Mitch Walking Elk took the
top honors in the Best Blues CD category at the recent Indian Summer Music
Awards for his release “Time for a Woman.” He recently gave insight from
his past to his present-day activities and future plans.

Taking a break from his hectic schedule with the Indigenous People’s
Network and his latest musical pursuits, Walking Elk spoke from his home in
St. Paul in an exclusive and candid interview about his remarkable life and
love affair with music. By itself, it’s a story worthy of several blues
songs.

A member of the Arapaho tribe of Oklahoma (with Cheyenne heritage), Walking
Elk grew up among his people. He said, “I am inspired by life, love, and
the failure of it. The early part of my life was really hard.

“I grew up in the white man’s institutions. No father figure in the home,
and my mother was handicapped. When I was six, I was shipped to the
boarding school. My mother, even with all her challenges, knew the right
thing to do was to send us so she wouldn’t lose custody of us.

“On a conscious level, I developed survivor skills — even though some were
negative ones. I’ve come to know that my clan is the Coyote, who is a
survivor as well as a singer. My clan spirit watched over me all those
years and continues to help me to this day.”

Walking Elk, 54, went into an orphanage when he was 12 after being in
several boarding schools. He spent ages 13 — 15 in the Oklahoma state
training school. “When I was at this institution, I was 13 when I co-wrote
my first song, entered a talent show and won first place.”

When he was 16, he spent time in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He
learned guitar while there and between stints in the Oklahoma State
Reformatory. A brief taste of freedom came when he was 19. “I went back to
the state pen when I was 20. When I was 22 I was sentenced to 50 years in
Ohio for armed robbery. I had intermittent periods of being released, or
else I would escape long enough to get into some real trouble. Those
survivor skills were being honed all the time.

“In 1978, I met a man in Sioux Falls, South Dakota by the name of Boyd
Bristow, who later went to Nashville and played backup music for Shelly
West, Dickie Lee and other big-name country stars. He moved back to Sioux
Falls and opened a recording studio. He helped me put out my first two
recordings, which made me hungry for more. He also helped me realize that
making a recording was a reality and not so unreachable.”

Walking Elk pleaded guilty to a domestic abuse charge in the mid-1990s.
“That turned out to be good for me because it presented me with the
opportunity to address unresolved issues in my life and to deal with anger,
and it helped me understand why I placed myself in situations that were too
much for me to deal with appropriately at the time. I benefited from [the
incident] greatly and today I am a better man because of it.”

In the late 1990s, he was diagnosed with cancer. “I went through a series
of ceremonies to get well. I never went to the white man’s doctor. I was
treated and cured in ceremonies. When I run into obstacles or have
questions I go to a ceremony, or home to Oklahoma to my friend,
teacher/mentor Lee Pedro, who takes care of the southern Arapaho and other
tribes, spiritually.”

He is currently employed by the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, which is an
HIV/AIDS prevention project within the Native community of the Twin Cities.
“I work for the people on a daily basis. I do outreach, dispense thousands
of condoms and safe-sex information. I do trainings about the issues of
HIV/AIDS and, at large, do HIV testing. I’ve been at this job for a year
and a half now and it has been a very educational experience!” He tours on
the pow wow circuit in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the summer, and his
display table draws smiles from people at each gathering.

“I have suffered through the worst of what the white man’s system has to
offer, and have come out on the other side tattered and torn, but intact
and headed in the right direction. The pipe, Sun Dance, and the sweat lodge
saved my life. My commitment to the spirits, the people and myself is to do
my utmost to do better than I have in the past.”

A 20-year veteran of the music industry, Walking Elk likes to saturate his
protest-flavored music with Latin and blues rhythms and instruments, and
the rich variety of languages of his heritage. His travels are reflected in
some of his recordings. “I toured Europe 11 times. I performed in South
America, Mexico, Canada, Japan and, of course, the U.S.A. several times.”

Walking Elk is one of that rare breed of musicians who can make the
transition from folk to blues to world beat to classic rock with ease. He
accomplishes this feat without much effort in his vocals and his
accompanying music. “He’s a musician’s musician,” said his close friend and
fellow musician Wade Fernandez. “Mitch is one of my inspirations in music
and in life. I have learned a lot from him and wouldn’t be where I am right
now if it weren’t for Mitch’s guidance.”

His lyrics are nothing short of brilliant: his years spent as a political
and environmental activist echo throughout his work. He supported racial
and treaty rights and environmental issues, and will continue the fight. “I
have been on the front lines of those struggles for close to 30 years,
including participating in the Longest Walk in 1978, the boat landings in
northern Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early ’90s, plus places in
between. I’ve done numerous gigs for nothing, or next to it, because that’s
simply the way it is.”

Walking Elk is knowledgeable when it comes to the subject of musical
success. “It means to be able to make a living from music alone. If I am
able to get a hit song along the way and it helps the people and the causes
in the process, I’ll go for it.”

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