Arvel Bird NAMA Entertainer of the Year 2007-2008

By Richie Plass
Special to News From Indian Country

I first met Arvel Bird at, Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee, WI., in September of 2003 or 2004. Arvel was performing with Brule. I have known Paul quite a few years and I thought the addition of a fiddle player to his music was great.

When their performance was completed, I went backstage and introduced myself to Arvel. The first thing I asked him was, “You gonna join the ‘Fiddle and Jig’ contest tomorrow?”

He didn’t know anything about it, so I filled him in. He was able to perform in the contest and he walked away the winner. Little did he and I know, we would have a future together. But more than that, little did he know the impact he made on a fellow Menominee that day. More on that later.

Arvel was born in Boise, Idaho. His blood line comes from the Southern Paiute Nation of Utah, something to this day he is very proud of. As has happened to and with many Native people across Turtle Island, Arvel was taught to not recognize his background.

But, as again happens too many times to too many of our people, Arvel was told by his Mother why this happened. The end result is all too common. Even though Arvel and his family are able to show the blood line to his family, the closing of the rolls long ago have made it nearly impossible to get his just enrollment. As is also the norm with many of us, he has said, “I don’t really need a piece of paper to prove who I am. I know who I am.”

Arvel began playing the violin at the age of nine. He was looking at playing the trumpet, but because his family had a violin in the house, that became his instrument. His first teacher saw potential in his playing. After awhile, playing the violin became his escape. Again, as is the norm for many young Native people growing up, Arvel and his family never felt he was “good enough.”

Being introverted, shy and having low esteem, he continued his studies for eleven years. After moving to Illinois, in the presence of a Hungarian teacher, Arvel received the self-confidence that he knew how to play the violin.

It was then that Arvel began to “discover” new music. After listening to Bluegrass, Celtic, Mountain, Cajun and Country Music, he began to expand from the classics and classical styles he had been taught. Knowing he wanted to expand his playing, he began a process of, “unlearning” what he had been taught.

“I have always, and will continue to play with passion” Bird has said. “I don’t really believe you need to be the best. I believe that truly playing from the heart is what counts more.”

After listening to Vassar Clements, Charlie Daniels and others, Arvel began to think of the fiddle becoming a “lead” instrument. Many people, right or wrong, say the fiddle and the violin are not the same. Not so says Bird. “I believe it’s the piece and the performer,” he says. I can say from performing with Arvel several times and hearing him perform with his group, One Nation, I believe he is capable of playing a, “fiddle tune” and a, “classical piece” all in the same song. This is what music is all about.

Arvel’s goal has always been to play music as a profession. He began traveling to “fit” the music. Stops in Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, landing in Indiana where in 1981 he and his band recorded Arvel’s first album.

After a few years there, he moved back to Arizona and as many performers and musicians, until people reach or find “the Big Time,” we need to eat. So, Arvel began his short career in Accounting and Bookkeeping. It was around this time (1986) when a victory in one of the “Marlboro” contests that Arvel found himself a winner. After the contest, Glen Campbell went backstage, introduced himself to Arvel, asked him to join his band, and Arvel began a six year run with Glen Campbell.

After this, Arvel performed with many great names in the Country field. Clay Walker, Ray Price, Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn, to name a few. This enabled Arvel to see and learn more about the entertainment and music business, but even through all this time, Arvel still had that one major goal in his mind; to make the fiddle a “Lead Instrument.”

His next big venture was to own his own recording studio. From there came his record label, Singing Wolf Records. It was then that new motivation began to enter Arvel’s work. Delving into his roots, he began a journey that would take him to new places.

When asked about this motivation, Arvel said, “I respect and honor the animals. They all have their own stories, just as we have our own legends, so I try to capture these signals.”

His recordings, “Animal Totems 1 and 2” show this in his truest form.

“When I’m in the studio, I like to play what feels good. I try to emphasize my own style, so one tune or lick may have a Bluegrass feel to it and the next might be straight blues. The chord changes, the musicians I’m with, these all fit into the initial idea I had for a song.”

One part of Arvel’s life that few people know about is his spirituality. Many traditional people are taught to be humble, assist others in need and live as good a life as possible. He was told of the Sundance Ceremony and thought about it. He spoke to several people and made the decision to commit. This was both an easy and difficult process for Bird.

“My Mom actually had a resentment for being born one-half Paiute. She lived in a state of denial for many years, but now she’s made a turnaround.”

When asked why she may have felt this way, Bird said, “Well, the prejudice she grew up in was so strong, it was drilled into her. She still lives in Scottsdale and I am so glad she’s here.”

It was important to carry on with Sundance, so he went to people he knew and told them he would take their prayers to the tree with him. He still participates in the ceremony, but while performing at a pow wow in Georgia, he was approached by an elder from Canada. After a long visit, the elder asked him if he was enrolled. The elder went on to say he didn’t mean to pry or embarrass him, but Arvel him, “No.” He went on to share his story to which the elder invited Bird to his homeland in Canada and become enrolled there. So after traveling across the border, doing the process asked of him, Arvel became an enrolled, Ontario Metis.

Now back to where this all started. As I had shared earlier, I am honored knowing Arvel calls me his friend. Our band recorded our first CD, “Lost In Nashville” in Arvel’s studio and he traveled to our reservation to record two of our elders playing old, old fiddle tunes brought to our reservation as far back as the 1880s. He is always looking to assist and help people whenever he can.

Again, this is a tradition carried on by Native people far and wide. In his travels he has come across many children who want to continue their own music, so Arvel has gifted many of these children with fiddles. But, the following has stayed with me from the first time we met.

When Arvel had participated in the “Fiddle and Jig” contest at Summer Fest, one of the other players was a childhood friend of mine from the Menominee rez, Garrett Boyd. After the contest, Garrett and Arvel spent some “quality” time together. Arvel showed Garrett some tunes, gave him one of his CD’s and encouraged Gareet to keep playing.

Well, my good friend has done just that. The next time Arvel was at Indian Summer in the contest, Garrett took first place! It was so cool because when he accepted his award, Garett said, “Wow! I beat the great Arvel Bird! This is way too cool.” And you know what, Arvel was the first person to shake his hand and tell him, “Way to go... now keep going.” I am proud to say, Garett has gone on to be a great fiddle player in his own right.

Bright lights, awards, recognition, having his own band where the fiddle is the “Lead Instrument,” you would think it would be time for a break. Not for Arvel. He and his band, One Nation continue to travel throughout North America. No matter if it’s a performance where its just him alone on stage or with his band, you will be entertained and amazed at his performance. His passion continues to come through on every song.

Two people Arvel would like to tour with are Bill Miller and Alan Jackson. “I have been invited on stage by Bill a few times at shows where we’re both on the line-up. He’s a great guitar player, fantastic singer and I would be honored to record with him.”

As for Alan Jackson, Bird said, “He always seems to come out with songs that have traditional roots. Even though so much now days seems to be so ‘cinematic,’ he always seems to come up with new things.” Believe me, no matter who he may perform with, that person will be the better for it.

If you see that “Arvel Bird and One Nation” are coming to perform where you are or close to where you are, please make every effort to attend. “Personal Power is what has gotten me to where I am and continues to carry on.” When asked what this means, Bird said, “To me Personal Power is making peace with where I am and to keep focused on what I want.” Grand words from a grand man. I am sure the awards will keep coming and the music will continue to grow.

In closing I would like to offer this final thought; “Thank you, my friend, for calling me your friend.” As I was told many years ago: “The Honor is not in the Action, the Honor is in being Asked.” Arvel Bird has asked me more than once to perform with him and I have. That, to me, is what it’s all about.