Reviving traditions

Lakota artist Kevin Locke tours Southeast as cultural ambassador

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005

In the mid-1970s, Lakota artist Kevin Locke began teaching himself the Lakota language. It was then illegal, and spoken mostly by elders, in secret.

A few years later, he picked up the Lakota courting flute, an instrument that had also faded into obscurity. There was just one other player, according to an article in the magazine One Country, and he learned by listening to a Library of Congress recording from the 1930s.

Locke was already being credited with helping revive the Lakota culture when he started to learn the Lakota hoop dance, another traditional art that had almost vanished. By 1980, he was traveling around the world as a cultural ambassador.

Since the mid-1970s, Locke, 51, has visited more than 84 countries, toured dozens of times throughout the country and released almost a dozen recordings of his flute playing. But he doesn't consider himself a performing artist so much as an educator.

"It wasn't a conscious choice. It just kind of evolved," Locke said of his beginning as a touring artist. "My academic background was in elementary education and I was also a school administrator, and so it started from that."

"I wouldn't define myself as a hoop dancer; more as an educator or a communicator," he said. "The main thing is just to affirm the one-ness of the human family."

Locke will perform at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 17, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, $50 for families and available at Hearthside Books or the door.

He arrived in Southeast Alaska on Monday, Jan. 10, and performed for three groups of Juneau schoolchildren on Jan. 11. He was in Ketchikan on Wednesday, Jan. 12, before heading to Metlakatla on Thursday, Jan. 13. He'll stop in Wrangell on Friday, Jan. 14, and Petersburg on Saturday, Jan. 15, before heading back to Juneau for Monday's performance. A Baha'i, Locke will also be visiting with Baha'i groups during this trip.

Locke and his wife, Danielle, still live in Wakpala, S.D.. (pop. 235), about 10 miles west of the Missouri River in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, just south of the North Dakota border. It was 34 degrees below zero there last week.

He tours and spends most of his time on volunteer work with the youth. She's the manager of the women's shelter.

More than 80 percent of the 500 people in the Lockes' district, a 20-by-20-mile square with about 500 people, are unemployed.

"The poorest counties in the nation are right here in this area where we live," Locke said.

Locke, whose Indian name is Tokeya Inajim (or "First to Arise"), is the son of Patricia Locke, an activist for Indian rights. He learned the importance of his heritage and tries to pass this on to young people, strangers, even his nine grandchildren.

"He has a particular way of working with young people that helps them see who they are and what their potential is," said Kay Larson, an educator in Wrangell and a friend of Locke's. "Maybe because I'm a Southeasterner myself and lived here quite a long time, I'm quite aware of the challenges our youth faces these days."

"He's not just this artist on stage making things look pretty," she said. "What's of the most interest to him is to promote the understanding of our spiritual service and the common ground that we share as humans."

Larson helped organize part of Locke's trip to Southeast Alaska. She spent a month with Locke and his wife in the summer of 2003 in Standing Rock, working on a service project they organized for the area's kids.

"I watched as these children flowed in and out of their home," Larson said. "The doors were open to the community 24-seven, and it really provided a haven for the kids to come and have a really good time and be totally accepted."

Music and culture evolved differently in the Northern Plains than it did in Southeast Alaska, according to Locke. Around here, traditional dances were performed in fairly confined areas - cedar lodges, longhouses, long, ceremonial rectangular buildings.

"The Southeastern Native people elevated the art of theatricality with staging and lighting and transformation masks and music," Locke said. "Out in the prairies here, the dancers were not confined to the interior space. You see a great difference with more extravagant movement."

The Hoop Dance includes up to 28 hoops and is said to be a "choreographed prayer." Locke bends the hoops into various symbols - flowers, trees, birds, animals, stars, the sun. The hoop itself is a universal archetype representing "unity, harmony, balance, perfection, beauty, interconnectedness, inter-relatedness and peace and well-being," Locke said.

"It's thought to be the perfect design, the mark of the creator," he said. "The whole idea is that the dancer portrays the animating force, which guides these things into reality."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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