When the Siletz Bay Music Festival closes this summer, it will do so on a note undeniably apt with the composition, How Can You Own the Sky? A Symphonic Poem Honoring Native Wisdom. The piece relates the story of the Native Americans who lived in the Rogue Valley and, in the 1860s, were forcibly marched more than 200 miles to the Coast (Siletz) Reservation.
“We did the piece here in the Rogue Valley and were very conscious that Siletz is where the story geographically ended,” said composer Ethan Gans-Morse. “We feel a deep connection between these two communities, the starting and ending points of Oregon’s Trail of Tears.”
Commissioned by the Rogue Valley Symphony to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2018, the work is a collaboration between Gans-Morse, his wife, writer Tiziana DellaRovere, and singer, dancer, and drummer Brent Florendo. The Siletz Bay festival performance adds projected images during the musical interludes by Joe Cantrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and ArtsWatch contributor.
Gans-Morse and DellaRovere crafted the piece over about two years, at least one of which was spent immersing themselves in the Native American culture of the Rogue Valley. They studied dance and drumming with Florendo, a professor of Native American Studies and Native Nations Liaison for Southern Oregon University, who also introduced them to the community. Florendo is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and is of Wasco/Yakama/Warm Springs descent.
“Ethan and Tiziana took as much time as they could to learn about the people of the valley and the Native perspective,” Florendo said. “How do we catch a song, the teachings around the drum, the dancing. That’s just an example of some of the things they took the time to learn, took the time to ask questions.”
Then it was time to write. Gans-Morse composed the music; DellaRovere wrote the poem featured throughout the performance and read by Florendo. The first movement represents creation; the second, the Indigenous people; the third, conflict; and the fourth, hope and reconciliation. It’s an upbeat ending, DellaRovere said.
It’s important to listen to Indigenous people, she said, “because they have a very important lesson we need to integrate in our lives. The message is that everything in nature, every being is sacred. The Earth is sacred, the animals are sacred, our life on Earth is sacred. We can learn from them and honor them.”
In the beginning, not everyone was on board with a symphony program offering a composition featuring drumming, dancing, and poetry sharing the stage with traditional compositions, said Gans-Morse.
“There were some ruffled feathers,” he said, including among donors and two women who said, “You know, in Europe, we would never put anything on this program with Beethoven’s Ninth, much less, you know, this new music that you’re doing.” But “after they actually saw the progress of our symphony, they completely changed their minds,” he added.
How Can You Own the Sky? premiered over one weekend in 2018 in the Rogue Valley — Ashland, Medford, and Grants Pass. In 2022, Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman conducted the Walla Walla Symphony in its performance.
“When it was performed in Medford, I had people who came to me after the performance and held my hand and said, ‘My great grandfather or grandmother belonged to this tribe,’” said DellaRovere. “They had tears in their eyes. I had the most extraordinary feedback. A friend reported that she was sitting next to a tribal elder. She turned to him and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ He said, ‘For the first time in my life I feel seen.’”
In Grants Pass, spiritual elder Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim — “Grandma Aggie” — was in the audience. At the time she was the oldest member of the Takelma Tribe. She died a year later in 2019.
“I was sitting next to Grandma Aggie,” DellaRovere recalled. “At the end, she said, ‘Take me up on stage.’ She was 90-something. We went up and she blessed the whole audience. It was so extraordinary. The maestro said, ‘This is the first time in my life I cried on stage.’ It was very emotional seeing this spiritual leader blessing us.”
And now the performance comes to the Coast, following the forced journey of the Native Americans more than 150 years ago and fulfilling a goal conductor Bergman has nurtured since his earliest days with the Siletz Bay Music Festival.
Bergman said the fact that the festival bears the tribe’s name comes with responsibility. “I always believed the Siletz name requires us to be more committed and take the extra steps to really bring to life what we can of the Native American legacy, particularly the Siletz Tribe,” said Bergman. “This piece is the perfect answer to that. It’s a very powerful piece. It tells the story in a very organic way. It opens with singing and drumming and then it gets into the storytelling and the musical text. It connects beautifully.”
The 11-day Siletz Bay Music Festival begins Aug. 25, with How Can You Own the Sky? to be performed on the final day, Sept. 3, during the Sounds of the Americas concert in Lincoln City.