Chickasaw Nationalism Sings

Pride in his Chickasaw culture—and his larger rootedness in indigeneity broadly—quite literally sing forth from Jerod Tate’s being.

story by Veronica Pasfield | photos by Aaron Slagell

Some Indian people grow up with a diminished sense of self and culture. At the age of nine, my grandmother moved off her reservation and into a white, working-class neighborhood. On her walk to school, the women along her route would come onto their porches and throw rotten fruits and vegetables at her. Segregation was in full swing in Detroit during the Depression.

Although that skinny little girl grew up to be a stunningly beautiful woman, one who was undeniably Native, my grandmother remained shy about identifying herself as such until late in life. The fact that her father was sent to a horrendous federal school established to assimilate Indian children into Euro-American society, by any means necessary, certainly didn’t embolden either of them.

Such experiences run rampant in Native families to this day. They provide a stark contrast to the worldview embedded in Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s narrative lexicon. Pride in his Chickasaw culture—and his larger rootedness in indigeneity broadly—quite literally sing forth from Tate’s being.

“I have a very high-brow feeling about being Indian,” Tate said. “Indians are at the top of the heap, and have been for quite some time. I have the perspective of being from a tribe that, for a long time, has had contacts from all over the world. The way we’ve adapted to things in the world is really quite remarkable.

“(My people) had a relationship with settlers for hundreds of years. We were like an Eastern European block country; dark people in houses and top hats. We were business people, world players, dual citizens. We spoke several languages. We were pianists, painters, architects, engineers. All of that came with us to Oklahoma.”

The world has listened to this truth via Tate’s classical and folk-inspired musical compositions. From his studio near May and Northwest Expressway, the composer crafts works performed on premiere stages from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC to the San Francisco Symphony, to a score for Hollywood director Terrence Malick.

In 2017, OKC's Canterbury Voices commissioned an oratorio from Tate called Misha’ Sipokni’ (The Old Ground). The piece speaks to the ancient migration of the Chickasaw and Choctaw people from the West into present-day Mississippi. Traditional knowledge says they were once one people, led by brothers Chicaza and Chatah. Enemies kept this community on guard, and they eventually followed signs from a sacred pole until they arrived at the Mississippi River. Their special white dog bravely jumped into the formidable current, giving the people the motivation and hope to cross the river.

“Their sense of self compelled them to survive and thrive,” Tate said. “I feel this ethos is very particular to Indians. (Misha’ Sipokni’) is very operatic; an oratorio is staged like an opera without the costumes. It’s usually epic, and often based on biblical tales a la the exodus from Egypt.”

"It says in my bio that I’m dedicated to developing an American-Indian classical composition. And I am.”

Tate trained at Northwestern University and the esteemed Cleveland Institute of Music, and used his training to create a titanic work that made full use of the oratorio form. The Misha’ Sipokni’ score called forth the full Canterbury adult and children’s choirs, and the OKC Philharmonic. The children’s chorus represented the ancient spirits and the white dog. The soprano part heralded the voices of the matriarch and the people. The tenor part gave voice to the Chickasaws, and the baritone represented the Choctaws. Tate wrote the libretto (text of a vocal work), which was then translated into Chickasaw by Joshua Hinson.

“When composing music, I can’t think in terms any less than Beethoven and Debussy and Bartok,” Tate said. “(These) were national composers. It says in my bio that I’m dedicated to developing an American-Indian classical composition. And I am.”

How did Tate gain such chutzpah? Like the sacred pole that pointed his people towards a certain compass point, the composer is very much an expression of deep influences. His Chickasaw musician/lawyer father, Charles Tate, looms large as an Oklahoma tribal judge and Indian rights advocate. He served on the front lines of activism demanding that the U.S. recognize the Chickasaw and Choctaw constitutions in 1969. He also helped the Pueblo people secure water rights in landmark cases, among other accomplishments. The family descends from the first elected Chickasaw chief in Indian Territory and the first elected Chickasaw governor.

Dr. Patricia Tate, Jerod’s Irish-American mother, was a professor of dance and a choreographer. Though Jerod remembers sitting on his dad’s lap at the piano, or listening to him sing around the house, Patricia provided her son his first big musical push. While Jerod was a new piano performance student at Cleveland, Patricia commissioned him to write a ballet from Native folklore. It would be performed at University of Wyoming, where Patricia was on faculty. Jerod’s first response was, “I can’t!” Eventually, he couldn’t resist, Tate said. “It was literally my way of marrying my two traditions.”

Rodney Grant, fresh off his role as Wind in His Hair in Dances With Wolves, played the ballet’s poetic narrator. While the production toured, Grant told Jerod that composing was simply too important, and he must pursue it. The student soon added composition to his studies and never looked back.

Jerod’s CV rolls deep. Impressive arts organizations seek commissions from him, including the University of Michigan and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Indigenous languages, especially those spoken in Oklahoma, appear regularly in Tate’s work. In 2015, the composer collaborated with major poet and Creek citizen, Joy Harjo, on a piece drawing from her latest book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. The Tulsa Symphony produced a song cycle of five Creek hymns. (There is so much more; the curious will have to check out his website and iTunes to hear more.)

And what of Tate’s third meta influence: Oklahoma? Why is there such an intensity of talent among Indian artists here? Are there too many ghosts, too much history?

“It’s very clear that Oklahoma is a very unique Indian place,” Tate concurred. “The U.S. wanted to put every last Indian in Indian Territory. They weren’t concerned about it as a state for a long time. Because Removal wasn’t a flat-out war like the Northern Plains, it changed the nature of things.