The first notes from John Two-Hawks’ wooden flute filled the Crest Theater, quieting the large audience. A stand behind him held more flutes of various lengths and woods.
On Friday evening, hundreds of people came to the Great Bend theater to hear the music of Grammy nominated Two-Hawks, who plays Native American flute and dozens of other instruments. He’s recorded 20 CDs, including "Vision Seeker," "Wind Songs" and "Good Medicine," but that afternoon people came to hear him speak. Two-Hawks answered questions about Indian history and culture, from the perspective of his Oglala Lakota Sioux lineage.
North and South America were home to more than 100 distinct nations and millions of people "before we discovered Columbus," Two-Hawks said. So, when an audience member asked if an owl was a messenger of death, he said the answer depends on the people.
"Cherokee don’t consider it so," he said. "In Lakota, yes. I had a visit from owls both times before my parents died."
But it isn’t really correct to call the owl a messenger of death in his culture, Two-Hawks said. "It’s a messenger of change; something’s going to end." And sometimes an owl is just an owl, he continued. The inner voice in each of us makes a person aware of the message. "When it’s something different, you know what it is.
"We have an intuitive voice in all of us. Natives are geared that way. .... If you take the spirit out of the Indian, you take the Indian out of the Indian."
An audience member who said she recently learned of the symbolism of dragonflies asked Two-Hawks to elaborate on how the insect represents transformation. It might even be a story of resurrection.
"It begins as a water bug," he said. "Then it climbs up on a stick and hangs on the stick about three hours -- three -- then bursts forth from its cocoon as a dragonfly. After he’s transformed he flies over his old buddies, who don’t recognize him."
Things in nature do bring messages, he said. "For us it’s not so much that it’s symbolic, but it is. It really is a message. Things happen in the world and are messages from the creator."
Two-Hawks spoke for about an hour, and spent another hour signing CDs and visiting with people after the lecture. The questions he fielded ranged from spiritual to simply curious, such as "What’s up with rain dances?"
A lot of things about Indians as shown in old Hollywood movies were simply made up, or based on something more complex than the celluloid images portray, he said. "Smoke signals are a myth, by the way."
For the deeper questions, Two-Hawks said he sees a pattern or system in nature -- a reason for everything. But, "Most questions do not have an answer. Our word for the creator (Wakan Tanka) means The Great Mystery. Mystery is power; we have to not know so that we can continue to seek."
The John Two-Hawks lecture and concert were both sponsored by the Great Bend Tribune and Barton Community College, and admission to both programs was free. David Barnes, director of BCC’s Shafer Gallery, noted the programs are connected to the current exhibit at the gallery and a series of lectures that start this week.
"The Shafer Gallery is very, very much about preserving and expressing something about the spirit of the West," Barnes said.
Shafer Gallery will host the Native Witness Lecture Series from noon to 12:50 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from Jan. 31 through Feb. 14. These brown bag sessions will be hosted by Barnes, with the final presentation by BCC history instructor Linda McCaffery.
Native witness lecture series topics:
Jan. 31 – Bill and Bently: A Study in Art and Native Identity
Feb. 2 - Alone With Ghosts: Art Making in the Native American Worldview
Feb. 7 - The Kiowa 7: The Origins of Native Style
Feb. 9 - Contemporary Trends in Native American Art
Feb. 14 - Journey is Vision (Presented by Linda McCaffery)