A study of racism in rural Nebraska, 1940 - 1970

The 4 video chapters of Alliance are derived from Kenneth Lincoln's "The Day the Sun Died," a novel which depicts the fate of Native Americans almost a century after Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. During WWII, over 500 Sioux Indians moved from their reservations in South Dakota to Alliance, Nebraska in pursuit of jobs at the paratrooper base located there. Lincoln focuses on 1969 as a pivotal year during which 4 Indian deaths occurred in the city jail and a scandal erupted involving the rape of Sioux women by local police.

The novel examines racism in Heartland America during the same period that black Americans were pursuing their struggle for civil rights in the South.  Alliance probes the attitudes and actions of local merchants, civil servants, police, retired citizens, teachers, clergy, white and blue collar workers -- the popular and the outcasts. The events are real, but the names of individuals have been altered to protect their identity.

Piano sketches for Alliance were finished in the summer of 2009, after which Lincoln recorded the narration tracks in Dallas. The video and music were produced over the next 4 years by Stalos. Kenneth Lincoln is Professor Emeritus of Native American Studies at UCLA. He has taught Native American studies and modern literature for 41 years.

Overture -- Chapter 1

The visuals present a detached view of a small, prairie town with its red-brick streets, capped by a railroad depot at the end of the central downtown street, the cluster of liquor stores between 1st and 3rd Streets, the segregation of the Native American community behind a railroad viaduct, the restrictions on shopping in the retail stores, and the state laws limiting the education requirements for Native American children.

  An area of the city known as Indian Town was separated from the white residents of Alliance by a railroad overpass, a creaote-soaked structure with steep embankments that stood like a portal into another world. The photo above was taken by Lincoln a few decades after the events of 1969. Lincoln's photo faces south into Indian town. The intersecting dirt road at this junction, barely visible in the photo, is 1st Street. The overpass at Potash Avenue and 1st Street is prominently featured in Lincoln’s book. South Potash Avenue is now paved and the overpass has been widened and reinforced with steel siding along the tracks, but you can still get a sense of the "other side" from looking at the photo.

Alliance is a small prairie town of 7,000 + inhabits and lies north of the railroad tracks running east and west. As shown in Google's map, Potash Avenue runs north and south, extending 3 blocks into Indian Town on the south side of the overpass. No other street in Alliance directly connects the northern part of the town with Indian Town. When the Google Mapping Vehicle recorded the streets and alleys of Alliance, it never continued past 1st Street on Potash Avenue, nor went under the viaduct to map inside Indian Town. For some reason, Google had also isolated Indian Town from the rest of Alliance.

On page 97 of John Tavener’s “The Music of Silence” this statement appears:

“The great music of the Americas comes from the Indians…. it has a divine ray, and it is “poor in spirit” in the deepest sense, which is far more important than being rich in vocabulary.”

Tavener is a spiritual minimalist, constantly seeking to find the simplest means of expressing his most devout sentiments. One of his techniques is the use of pedal point, the sustaining of a single note or chord throughout a composition. The technique carries back to Bach and Gregorian Chant, but Tavener takes it to new levels. He refers to this single note as the “ison,” the “eternity note,” and its presence in his compositions represent the presence of "The Almighty.”

Native Americans had reed flutes, and the solo flute in this movement is written in the range of these simple instruments. The grace notes that become the signature of the flute's melody are akin to the slight inflection at the beginning of the notes played on reed flutes, caused by the imprecise closing of the fingers over the holes. The modern flute has precisely-suspended keys closed by springs that make the notes sharp and clear, but the reed flute, relying only on finger pressure, does not start -- or end -- its notes so cleanly. The slight bending of the pitch at the beginning and ending of a phrase is characteristic of the instrument.

Eldon Hawk Smith -- Chapter 2

This video depicts an Indian outcast with a long history of trouble.

The kind of anger that permeated the Native American residents of Alliance in 1969 was the heavy, silent kind that manifests as downward glances, deformity and scars. While music can easily emulate enthusiasm, hope, pride, sadness, love and happiness, it has difficulty with anger, especially when the music must be subdued enough to support -- rather than dominate -- the narration.

The Parade -- Chapter 3

An Indian prisoner in the local jail hears a 4th of July parade pass by his cell.

The setting for this movement is the city jail, which lies just two blocks west of the brick avenue that bisects downtown Alliance. The jail is within easy earshot of any parade traversing those reflective bricks. Native Americans were famous for their use of drums, but here the drums that pound through the walls of the jail house are the crisp, staccato notes from the town's high school marching band.

Parades were a common occurrence in Alliance, but since no Indian children graduated from high school, they couldn't be found marching in the band or riding on the varsity float. There were no Native American farmers to drive their tractors down Box Butte Avenue in support of the FFA (Future Farmers of America). There were no Native American merchants to sponsor a crepe-paper float from which butterscotch candy was tossed into the crowd. No Native American girl ever perched on the back seat of a shiny, new convertible as it pressed those red bricks deep into the Nebraskan plains.

But there was always a group of Native Americans sitting on the curb at the intersection of 2nd and Box Butte, watching the 4th of July parade come to an end, watching another celebration of American Independence, watching a nation's tribute to freedom and justice.

The Orchard --Chapter 4

A white mother and Indian father bury their child in the backyard orchard as a low, steady pedal tone emulates a sorrowful chant in the background music. The father recalls the "scarring" of the land and the imposition of white culture on his people as he observes the rituals of his heritage by wrapping the son in a buffalo skin and laying an eagle feather across his shoulder. The pedal tone fades when the mother, whose parents were immigrants from Poland, recalls playing Chopin for her son when he was a child.

The cylinder recordings of Frances Densmore, made at the beginning of the 20th Century and archived in the Smithsonian, served as a research source for this project. The books of musicologist Ron Theisz gave further insight. Densmore's transcriptions often contained one tempo marking for the voice and a different tempo marking for the drums. In some of her transcriptions, she indicated a change in tempo for the drums, but not for the voice. This is a practice unfamiliar to the European ear and provides a clue as to the importance of the drums in Native American music.

As the text introduces the final character in this movement, the pedal tone reappears as the Grandmother appeals to her tribe's forefathers for the return of the boy's spirit each spring. The upper voices in the music begin to emulate a famous song attributed to Sitting Bull, which I took note-for-note from Densmore's transcription while preserving the original key. The pentatonic melody was titled "Sitting Bull's Death Song," but it is presently referred to as the "Sioux National Anthem." After the first part of the song is disclosed at a tempo a little faster than Densmore's notes indicate, the tempo slows to its prescribed beat as Lincoln sings the opening melody again. The hammered chords at the end of the movement are drawn out for dramatic effect to coincide with the grandmother's gestures described by the narrator.

Cody -- Promotional Video

This short video provides an imaginative back story for Native Americans living in Alliance during the focal point of the novel. The story traces the defeat of George Custer, the revenge of Buffalo Bill Cody and the journey of an Indian grandmother to Alliance, Nebraska. The video uses a production technique called visualization, in which the visuals react in real time to the frequencies, rhythm and amplitude of the music.