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Concert band celebrates Native American Heritage Month with the Burnurwurbskek Singers

December 1, 2023

Robeson Amory
DRUMMING IT UP: Attendees and concert band members join the Burnurwerbskek Singers in Smith Union. The band performed in Kanbar Auditorium before audience members migrated to Morrell Lounge for the Singers' performance.

On Sunday, November 18, Studzinski Recital Hall’s Kanbar Auditorium and Smith Union’s Morrell Lounge came alive with percussion, brass, woodwinds and singing from the fall performance of the Bowdoin College Concert Band, followed by Maine’s own Burnurwurbskek Singers. The program was organized by Director of the Bowdoin Concert Band John P. Morneau in celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

The event featured pieces centered around moments in Native American history and a performance including both traditional and contemporary Native American songs by the Burnurwurbskek Singers, a Wabanaki group. This performance celebrating Indigenous heritage had been a long time in the making, according to Morneau.

“For years I’ve been wanting to do a program with [and] about Native Americans, and I just hadn’t found the right way to do it,” Morneau said.

After working with music publishers to identify various Native American composers and pieces, Morneau contacted the Maine Arts Commission, who put him in contact with the Burnurwurbskek Singers.

“I contacted [the Singers] and their leader Ronnie Bear, who is the principal person in the group, was very receptive to doing this kind of program,” Morneau said.

Morneau’s intention was to ensure that the performance faithfully conveyed Native stories. He shared readings with the band, familiarizing them with the histories surrounding the pieces that they played. The concert featured elements like the use of stones as percussion and the recitation of a poem upon which one of the pieces was based—all part of Morneau’s goal to convey emotion to the audience.

“One of the things that we discussed quite a bit in rehearsals is how are you going to tell the story without speaking?… [Telling the story] through an instrument is kind of like trying to do it with your hands tied behind your back because you can’t say anything,” Morneau said. “You have to tell the story musically because there’s a difference between playing and just performing with passion. And if you don’t perform with passion, the audience knows.”

Clarinetist Brady Nichols ’24 said that Morneau’s commitment added to the rehearsal process.

“We spent a lot of time in the rehearsal process talking about how to respectfully do the concert and how to tell the stories,” Nichols said. “John was very adamant in getting us to read the stories behind [the pieces] because he always said, ‘you can’t tell a story if you don’t know the story.’”

After the band’s performance ended, audience members migrated en masse into Smith Union for the second part of the concert featuring the Burnurwurbskek Singers. The group is made up of Ron Bear, his sons Nick Bear and Cree Neptune Bear, and Nyle Sockbeson. Later in their program they were accompanied by dancers, including Ron Bear’s daughter, Selena Neptune Bear.

The Wabanaki artists performed both traditional and modern songs, inviting audience participation during many numbers. They welcomed audience questions between songs and emphasized their group’s educational mission. Audience members jumped in with various questions about their traditions, practices, instruments and history.

The Burnurwurbskek Singers sat around their central drum, which Ron Bear said was acquired in the 1970s. The members played rhythms with decorated “beaters” and sang songs ranging from ancient pieces honoring their veterans, to the American Indian Movement (AIM) intertribal song, a product of the 70s.

They ended their performance with a circle dance, inviting everyone in the crowd to participate. They taught participants the steps and danced together in a ring in Morrell Lounge.

Audience member Ben Weintraub ’26 enjoyed the two-part program and how they played off of each other.

“I feel like they were complementary. The Concert Band provided a more ensemble-based approach to storytelling. You have so many different instruments providing a lot of different harmonic and melodic elements, whereas with [The Burnurwurbskek Singers], it’s very focused on the drums and on the voice,” he said.

Attendee Jodee Ristich said the themes that both Morneau and Bear discussed resonated deeply with her.

“Performances like this one are really nice for the community because it teaches and is so powerful,” Ristich said. “Information like this is so important to share because it bridges between people, and right now in this country we are very much not bridged.”


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