photo courtesy Jay Red Eagle

Flutist Jay Red Eagle: Doing What He Loves, With his Whole Heart

Dawn Karima Pettigrew
2/7/13

Jay Red Eagle is a multi-talented musician and business man, who has an impressive ability to creatively multi-task. The result is evocative flute music, stirring videos and a brilliant career in the entertainment industry.  This Oklahoma Cherokee powerhouse graciously shared his insights into media, art and performing in our recent interview.

How did you begin your musical journey?

I briefly played the violin and guitar in grade school. The Violin lessons didn't last too long, but I loved the guitar even though I was not a great guitarist. I also play the piano once in a while, but I really need to take some lessons when it comes to those instruments. A flute maker gave me a cedar Native American flute and I loved the sound of it. Nobody had to push me to practice. I played and played that thing until I figured out just about every sound you can make with a flute.

The flute is certainly evocative and traditional. What does it mean to you, culturally and personally?

Personally, the flute is my way of expressing my feelings, a form of worship, and a way of relaxing. At times I just pour out my spirit through the flute rather than with words or by talking about something. Other musicians write lyrics to go with music to express their feelings or mood, but I turn to the flute and I think it pretty much reflects what I'm feeling at that moment. I think you can convey any feeling through music as long you don't hold back, and believe it or not, a lot of people tell me about the different emotions they feel when they hear my music at times. It's like speaking directly from your heart to another person's heart. They can identify with it in the same way they recognize words. Culturally, the Native American flute is something I think we should preserve and pass down to the next generation, just like Native languages, dances, stories, and everything else, including all arts and crafts. Although it was traditionally an instrument used for courting, it still could be today. I am not a flute maker but I would love to learn the craft of making a flute myself. I am still a big fan of traditional flute music without another instrument behind it and if anyone has listened to my music they have probably noticed that.

What gives your music such strength?

That is a tough question. All I can tell you is that I let go of everything when I play, sometimes just closing my eyes and letting the music come forth of its own accord. I never sit and think about what or how I'm going to play, except for maybe a slow or medium tempo song, and maybe with a piano or drum in the background. Other than that, it's 100% inspiration when it comes to composing and recording new songs. When I am about to record I often wonder what is going to happen next. Where is this going to go?

What does playing and composing music mean to you personally?

Personally, playing music is just something I love. I never considered it work, and probably never will. While editing music I may feel a little different about that at times, but that's usually very brief and when I just don't feel something is right about the mix or I am too tired to finish it at that moment. At times I have to force myself to stop and take a break or sleep, and come back to the project later.

Who is the most important musical influence in your career? 

Probably Buffy Sainte Marie. She is a pioneer when it comes to Native American music and songwriting. Songs like "Up Where We Belong" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" represent a very significant moment in history for Native American music. She speaks from her heart about injustice, happy moments, love, pow wows and everything in between,pertaining not only to Indigenous people, but to everyone else as well and I applaud her for doing that.

Whom do you hope to influence?

Honestly, I don't hope to influence anyone but the Creator. I think that is really all that counts in the end. Like they say, "Life is a circle," and what goes around comes around.  I never sought fame, I still don't, and probably never will. If I was after fame I would certainly be in another musical genre. Native American flute music has come a long way, but it's still very far from mainstream music and still a niche market. However, I do want people who hear my music to enjoy it, and hopefully most of them do. It's an honor to hear from people all over the world who like my music, and I do try to reply to everyone of them.

In addition to your flute music, you have been an innovator in other forms of music. I truly enjoyed collaborating with you and Pensmoke the Professional Outcast on "The Sacred Grounds," especially since you embraced and encouraged my musical dance/pop style and Pensmoke's old school hip-hop style. It was fun and the result has been a radio hit! Our collaboration blends your traditional flute with my singing in Cherokee and Pensmoke's rap in English and in Cherokee -- wow!

First of all, I love your music and Pensmoke's. Pensmoke, also known as Pensmoke the Professional Outcast, or Michael, is being true to himself. His music is very personal to him and he lets everyone know that he is not a sell-out. He stands up for what he believes in and I have a lot of respect for him because of that. He's not out to make a quick buck by recording something that goes against the grain of what he feels inside just because it would be popular or have the potential to be a mainstream hip-hop hit. I know its the same when it comes to your music. I have listened to it and I know exactly where you're coming from. I was very honored to work with the two of you on "The Sacred Grounds" and I am thrilled that it will be included in James Blood's "Idle no more" mixtape. I also heard you are going to appear in Dallas Arcand's "Idle No More" video. I can't wait to see it.

Thanks for the kind words...and for the collaboration! You've also started a production company -- what's your vision for it?

This is where I am wandering off the beaten path, just like my venture into the world of hip-hop. Sometimes you just want to go get your feet wet and see what that other genre over there is like if it's something you really enjoy listening to. I love film and video and I am hoping to make a move into that area of production. Right now it's hard to say where this will lead, but hopefully it will be to a good place.  I'm can only tell you I am taking very small steps as I move in that direction. I don't want to jump in over my head.

You've demonstrated a real knack for media, business and branding -- what advice would you give to an artist or entrepreneur at the beginning of his or her career?

Read biographies of very successful people. Learn from what they say,and listen to how they did it. Get a reading device on your computer or phone and start downloading books on business, branding,music, and marketing. There are a lot of free digital books out there, so you don't need a lot of money to start building our library. I read every day and I love to save e-books because I can carry my library in the palm of my hand or my shirt pocket.

What's the best advice you ever received?

"Do what you love." If you follow that advice, you'll never have to work for someone else if you put your whole heart into it what you really enjoy doing.

Earlier you mentioned preserving tribal languages, which is a perennial concern -- what would you do to ensure their survival? 

I think all tribal governments should have a website for learning their language, and that website shouldl be open to all tribal members 24/7. There should be pre-recorded classes that anyone can watch at any time without having to enroll or sign up for and wait to be accepted into. If we want to preserve our languages we are going to have to speed things up and open the doors to the classrooms via the internet and in our communities. Only letting a select few take classes is taking part in killing your language, especially if it is one of the many on the endangered list. They also need to teach verb conjugation. Without that, there is no way a person can learn to form sentences. That is one thing I have noticed about the Cherokee language lessons. There is no verb conjugation taught like you see in college or high school foreign language classes. This needs to be fixed immediately. People cannot learn and preserve a language by memorizing a few phrases.

What's your assessment of the state of Indian country -- what's good, and what needs to be done?

I believe every Native wants justice for our people, our treaty rights to be protected, our families to be healthy, to have housing, jobs and food on their tables. I hate the fact that our people are the poorest in America. We should be the richest. I believe we are when it comes to culture, but just the opposite when it comes to money. I think we all need to learn about money, and exactly what poverty is and what causes it. We need to understand what alcoholism is and why people fall into that trap. What is missing in their lives to make them turn to alcohol. If we could figure this out we could fix it for most of them. What is the root cause of all the Native American suicides? We need to teach the kids and everyone else that there is always hope. They don't have to be sad and live in poverty. There are so many ways to overcome the obstacles in their lives, no matter what they are. The first thing they need is a phone number or a professional they can contact. A crisis line if you will, that they can call without worrying about someone finding out they made that call. They need to be able to open up and tell someone what is going on in their lives and that person on the other end of the phone needs to be able to point them to a place that can actually help them instead of just listening. All the psychiatrists in the world could listen to someone, but if they only listen does it change anything?

What's your message to the American Indian people -- your parting words, if you will?

I just want everyone to know that I believe in all of you! I believe you can do whatever you want to do, and all you have to do is make up your mind that you are going to start doing what you love right now. If you only do one or two things a day to move toward your dream, you are making progress. And you must refuse to listen to anyone who says you are only dreaming. Everything that surrounds us in our homes was once only a dream. It took a dreamer to turn it into reality. And you can also be a dreamer who does the same thing with your dream. Marconi's "friends" had him taken into custody, and examined in a mental hospital when he announced he had discovered a way to send messages through the air without wires or other physical means of communication. Every person who did something great failed several times before they got it just right.  Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, has an observation I like: "Dreams are the seedlings of reality."

For more on Jay Red Eagle and his music, visit:

Jay Red Eagle on Facebook

Jay Red Eagle on iTunes

Jay Red Eagle at CDBaby

Dr. Dawn Karima Pettigrew (Creek/Cherokee) hosts the Native American radio program  "A Conversation With Dawn Karima" on Talktainment Radio and its affiliates. Her home is the Qualla Boundary Reservation in North Carolina.

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