Founder of the American Indian Institute, creator of the Billings Symphony, and conductor of the distinguished Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts, Mr. Staffanson was born in 1921, along the flanks of the Yellowstone River near the badlands of Sidney, and grew up as a cowboy in the Deer Lodge Valley, where his grandparents had settled in 1872. After becoming a conductor, he founded the first symphony orchestra in Billings, Montana. Devoting the latter part of his life to the preservation of Native American culture and wisdom, in 1977, Mr. Staffanson founded the American Indian Institute, creating with traditional indigenous leaders the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth. His work with these Elders opened lines of communication between indigenous cultures globally in ways that never before existed. For close to forty years, Mr. Staffanson has built lasting relationships with political, business, and spiritual leaders in Japan, Russia, European countries, and in Africa. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing in Oregon recently published Mr. Staffanson’s memoir, Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians, with a foreword by Chief Oren Lyons, and an introduction by Todd Wilkinson.
Why was it important to you to write Witness to Spirit at this point in your life?
New Memoir by Robert Staffanson
published by Wyatt-Mackenzie
The idea of writing about the development and achievement of the “Two Circles” has been considered for a number of years. I never had blocks of time to devote to it. When damaged hearing began taking me out of the center of our activities I had time to deal seriously with it. In conversation with two professional writers whom I respect, their verdict was in need to help my story be told in a relevant way. Accordingly, it became a memoir. It couldn’t have been done earlier.
How did you decide what would be the most meaningful moments in your life to talk about?
The problem was elimination. I tried to select the most relevant and pertinent elements that fit the title: “Witness to Spirit.”
Chief Oren Lyons wrote the introduction to your book. What did that mean to you personally?
Oren Lyons has been both my good friend and a leader in the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth. His uniqueness is in the depth of his spiritual commitment to the indigenous heritage, while possessing an informed understanding of both the historical and current issues faced by indigenous people worldwide. When that is combined with his being a charismatic speaker and diplomat, he has a unique position in the interface between the indigenous people of the world and the cultural and political forces that impact them. He is one of the de facto leaders of indigenous people. I could not be more pleased to have him write the introduction.
Some of those you talk about in the book include Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. In what way would you describe the impact they had on your conducting and love for music?
People in the arts learn much from interaction with colleagues. I was fortunate to have friendships and association with leaders in the field of conducting and classical music in general in America and in Europe. Those associations, only a few of which are mentioned in the book, were critical to my growth as a conductor and interpreter of classical music.
center: Robert Staffanson, his wife, Ann, and Arthur Fiedler
You’ve had a great partner in your wife, Ann, whom you've been with for seven decades. How would you describe what that has meant to you and the work you've done and what have been some of the keys to making your marriage work so well?
Ann has been the greatest influence in my work. We were partners. She provided the solid emotional and spiritual basis of a home which was both a refuge and supportive of drastically contrasting elements of work. Without it I could not have coped with the drastic convolutions of my life. She supported the challenges each element provided. She was a trusted “sounding board” – a partner with whom issues affecting life could be discussed honestly and with candor. I trusted her judgement; decisions affecting our lives were joint. My life would not have been the same without her.
My book is entitled Witness to Spirit. It could as well have been titled “Witness to Love,” because love is at the center of spirit. Our love has grown over seven decades and is the most important ingredient in the success of those years.
There are many keys to a successful marriage: deep love is one, another is compatible interests. In our case, music was an overpowering connection but not the only one since her support and enthusiasm was the same in other efforts of life. Kindness and empathy smoothed any bumps. I cannot possibly express the depth of my love and gratitude for her.
You wrote in your book that great music is a primal force. As you wrote: “It takes us beyond the confines of our world into realms of spirit: a harbinger of what may be ahead for us.” What did you discover over the years as a conductor in how to truly hear inside great music and to lead others to bring out their best as a conductor?
Growth in any area of life is a process. Spiritual growth is nebulous since it does not have tangible markers to document its development. I can testify to the validity of spiritual growth in music because I have lived it but I cannot define its markers or the steps necessary to achieve it.
Perhaps the basic ingredient in reaching spiritual heights through great music is aptitude. One has to have a receptive capacity to absorb and process great music. Beyond that are circumstances: access to hearing great music, becoming part of a group sharing the experience, learning from people who are further down the path of spiritual development, among others.
The influence of a conductor on both musicians and audience is as difficult to pin down as the music itself; neither can be codified or replicated. Both are real and are recognized by discerning people but are part of the mystery of great music.
In what way can we learn more from the Indian elders to be more respectful inhabitants of this planet?
First, we have to understand that the ethos of “western society” is limited. I am part of that society and have great admiration and respect for much of it and would choose no other but social, economic and spiritual evidence testifies to its weaknesses. One of its most damaging characteristics is a rapacious attitude toward the natural world and the elements that support life.
Traditional Native Americans hold a more respectful and spiritual attitude to the earth, the life it sustains and the elements that support life. Their wisdom stems from countless generations of life in this hemisphere. We are newcomers who believe we have all the answers and that the people we displaced and essentially destroyed were “savages,” without the understanding of “civilized” society, and that their ethos is built on superstition and ignorance. We had to have that understanding in order to live with the physical, cultural and spiritual genocide we perpetrated. Until we lose some of our arrogance we will not learn from traditional Indian elders.
Robert Staffanson conducting the Springfield Symphony Orchestra
The mission of our organization, (American Indian Institute) for the past forty years has been to create better understanding across cultures and to help traditional Native Americans keep their heritage and worldviews from going down. The climate for them has improved in that time and their impact both in our society and around the world has had its effect.
But the process of achieving parity and understanding across cultures will be both long and hard. We have made progress. The wise ones at our first gathering at the Missouri Headwaters in 1977 said it will take a couple of generations before we can assess our progress in what we want to do.
One generation has past. It is now our obligation to turn over our mission to the next generation healthy, vital and geared to meet new conditions. This generation has done the heavy lifting in creating a joint venture between Traditional Native Americans and their counterpart in the larger society based on trust. A great first step, a foundation upon which coming generations can continue the mission.