Monday, December 18, 2006


A person can pick a pretty good quarrel with some anthropologists about the proper definition of a “shaman,” popularly understood to be a magician or “medicine man.” (Technically, a shaman is supposed in some cultures to be a person who has died, visited another world, and returned. It’s very serious and drastic, not to be taken lightly. “Medicine man” is a misnomer for someone with spiritual devotion and power.) In this case, the shaman is an impresario: “One who organizes or manages an opera or ballet company, concerts, etc. (from the Italian: Impresa or undertaking.)” Also, of course, Dugan dances the role of the Shaman in the production. As such he summons the Eagle who brings the “peace pipe” to the Cavalry and Indians.

Some Indians are touchy about this stuff, too, and might jump on Dugan for his approach except that Dugan IS Indian -- enrolled Blackfeet, Klamath, and another tribe that I can’t remember. You must remember that there is a long tradition of Native American ballerinas (I saw Maria Tallchief dance “The Firebird” in Portland in the Fifties.) though I don’t know of any other NA impresarios who are specifically focused on ballet. You have to know that NA men have never shrunk from any kind of dance, have recognized dance as the potent masculine force and athletic feat it can be.

The Coburns spent some years in Browning where Joe Coburn, Dugan's father, was a school administrator. I’m coming to realize that several educators, the Smalls, the Coburns and the Jamrusckas, all produced daughters with major talent. Liz, Dugan’s sister, was one of my most outstanding students in Browning in the early Seventies.

Dugan told me a Bob Scriver story. Dugan had caught a gopher (actually a Richardson’s ground squirrel) that was a melanistic mutation -- not albino like the White Buffalo, though one runs across them sometimes -- but a black one. Already the entrepreneur, he decided he’d sell it to Bob Scriver. Bob offered him a few dollars for it, but Dugan (thinking along lines just like Bob Scriver did) said he wanted ten cents for every time it was viewed. (He hadn’t thought about the practicalities of how that would be arranged.) Since he couldn’t get his asking price, Dugan took his gopher home, hoping that on second thought he could do better. But the dog ate the gopher. (Later Bob bought another black gopher from a different kid and kept “Inky” for a long time.) Dugan took this philosophically as a lesson in business practice. We also shared some memories of idyllic days exploring around Boarding School, one of the most beautiful places on the reservation.

The more I hear about Dugan and his wife, Vicki Chapman, and how they involve a horde of parents who make costumes and ferry kids around and keep them fed, the more I think about the accounts of Bob Scriver’s early band leader days, which were the foundation of his art career. There were no school buses in those days, so the kids went off to competitions and concerts in a kind of wagon train of private cars. There was no money for fancy uniforms, so they all wore black pants and white shirts with red capes that their mother’s made. They were supposed to wear black shoes and if they didn’t, Bob carried a bottle of black shoe polish and painted them. He’d have painted their bare feet if he’d had to. And they came back with ratings of "Superior" and "Plus plus plus!!"

Dugan is not so relentless as Bob was. He’s no heartless Diaghileff who sends people away in tears and despair. Somehow he is able to inspire and energize everyone without fits of temper. (If that’s not true, don’t tell me!) Anyway, his vision is based on peace and aspiration/inspiration -- “soul,” if you like. The “feel” of this production is very much like the movie series “Into the West” as opposed to that other series, “Deadwood.” It is a good-will bringing-together of the various parts of the Montana experience. I say that Bob Scriver’s spirit is with Dugan Coburn more than it is with any contemporary artist.

Both on the stage in his role as Shaman and off the stage, in his role as Impresario, Dugan holds out his arms to friends and to life. This is even more remarkable given that his base is Great Falls, home of the Malmstrom warriors. (I sometimes complain when I drive down there that half the drivers think they’re jet pilots and the other half ARE jet pilots!) These are the people who maintain nuclear missile siloes capable of destroying cities, civilizations.

But Great Falls was founded by Paris Gibson, a Universalist who believed in universal salvation. He’s the man who planted the first arching elm trees on all the streets. Great Falls was the home of Charlie Russell, peaceful nostalgist. And there are still people who came because of the railroad or the smelter, hard-working family folks. Great Falls is one corner of the Golden Triangle that produces wheat to feed the world and also fine beef. Those early ranchers and engineers and bankers who built Montana were often highly educated men from New England.

In the old days, when I came in the Sixties, the ranchers would do their best to make sure their sons went to Ivy League colleges, where they found wives to bring home. Often it was these women who were the sparkplugs behind local “culture” -- art, string quartets, public radio, churches, libraries and so on. Do you remember the fine bookstore and magazine stand that used to be in Times Square? That was one of those women. (Before her was Val’s Cigar Store.)

It tickles me that Dugan Coburn from Browning (and other places) should be a Great Falls impresario, summoning talent and support from the city that sometimes puts itself down, that sometimes resists Indians. The New Testament, relevant this time of year, would say salvation often comes from unlikely sources.

I would just purely love to be able to convey a busload of the really old-time Indians, the ones who were eighty years old in 1961 when I first came, to this Montana Dream Nutcracker. I think that they would recognize exactly what was going on and that they would love to have been onstage, REALLY dancing the fox dance or the deer dance!

I wonder if anyone has told Dugan that in the early Sixties at Browning High School we did a Christmas assembly that featured the White Buffalo story. Mike McKay was the warrior chief wearing someone’s precious white parade buckskins. Our White Buffalo was female, danced by Alvina Kennedy. I don’t think there’s as much as a still photo. I’m hoping that this production will be available on DVD. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s blessed.

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