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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