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Porcupine Singers Biography

Porcupine Singers

Porcupine Singers

We, the Porcupine Singers (Pahin Sinte Hoka), are a Northern Plains style, traditional Lakota singing group. Centered in the Young Bear Family from Brotherhood Community in Porcupine District on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, our group traces the Young Bear family singing tradition back to the late 1800s. We have performed the traditional role of song makers and singers in our community celebrations and ceremonies for many generations. In this way, then and now, we try to always acknowledge the gift that Tunkashila has given us.

In 1963 the late Severt Young Bear, Sr., then twenty-nine years old, accepted the family legacy of singing and composing songs in the traditional mode, and learning to live the way of life of the committed singer, the hoka wichasha, the master singer. Among his teachers and mentors were his uncle Henry Young Bear and his cousin Irving Tail as well as Drury Cook from Red Scaffold, whom Severt met in 1963. He also learned from Dave Clairmont, Leo Clairmont, Ben Spotted Elk, Leonard Metcalf, Ben Black Elk, Matthew Two Bulls, and Harry Jumping Bull. Slowly, Severt began to travel throughout the region to develop his status as a respected hoka wichasha accepting both the social standing as well as the responsibilities of that calling. Then in 1970 the group of singers, now from Pine Ridge and Rosebud, dedicated itself to becoming a new traveling Porcupine Singers group. Jim Clairmont, George Squirrel Coat, and Clement Whirlwind Soldier joined, and the group began to travel more and more. It was especially committed to performing the traditional Lakota word songs that were not very popular at celebrations during that time.

Then, in 1974, Francis Menard, Calvin Jumping Bull, Philip Wright, Jerry Dearly, Henry Green Crow, and Ronnie Theisz became members of the group. That same year, at Ring Thunder Wacipi Days, the drum was given the ceremonial name Oyate Ho Nah’unpi (The People Hear its Voice) and its own drum song by Ben Black Bear, Sr., Matt Two Bulls, Cecil Spotted Elk, and Ben Spotted Elk. Treated as a spiritual being or persona, the drum received gifts of an eagle bonnet, a Sacred Pipe, and an eagle staff. Later, Floyd Hand, Marvin Starr, Ted Means, Marvin Ghost Bear, Delmar Arrow, Leonard Brown Eyes, Lawrence Young Bear, Sr., Mike Hopinka, and a few others joined the group as well. Also in 1974, Severt passed on the role of lead singer to Jim Clairmont as the traveling group began to achieve its greatest successes and popularity, and its reputation grew as it travelled to perform all over the United States and into Canada. In one year, on twenty-four different weekends, it received twenty-four first place awards in singing contests. With Oyate Ho Nah’unpi, Porcupine Singers made many relatives and recorded several popular albums with Canyon Records as well as providing the traditional music for the film “Dances with Wolves”.

Severt Young Bear, Sr., went to the spirit world in August of 1993. During and after that time, several other members of the original traveling group also passed on. Today, of that group only Jim Clairmont, Marvin Starr, Floyd Hand, Jerry Dearly, Lenard Brown Eyes, and Ronnie Theisz remain. Most have retired. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the sons and nephews of some of these traveling Porcupine Singers began to form their own drum group known as Brotherhood Singers. Melvin Young Bear (lead singer), Severt Young Bear, Jr., Red Boy Means, Scott Means, Ted Means, Jr., and Clyde Squirrel Coat formed the nucleus of this young group of singers. With the death and retirement of many members of the older, original traveling Porcupine Singers, and during the funeral ceremonies for Severt Young Bear, Sr., in 1993, the remaining members of the original travelling Porcupine Singers passed on the title and the responsibility of continuing the Porcupine Singers tradition of singing and song making to these young men, now under the leadership of Melvin Young Bear. They were joined by Tom Thunder Hawk, Brian Thunder Hawk, Cedric Young Bear as well as Calvin Jumping Bull and Ronnie Theisz. They also recorded two albums with Turtle Island Records from Canada.

Our 2010 core of singers who are carrying on the Porcupine Singers tradition today and who are performing on the two newly recorded Canyon Records CD’s entitled Lakota Classics. Past and Present are: Melvin Young Bear (Lead Singer and Drum Keeper), Ronnie Theisz, M J Bull Bear, Wesley New Holy, Erik Theisz, Robert Waters, Kristian Theisz, Lawrence Young Bear, Jr., Carl Koch, Jr., Clyde Squirrel Coat, and guest singers Novi Smith and Chubs Smith. In 2009 and 2010, some members of our group also participated in a joint collaborative tour performance with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra called The Lakota Music Project. In the words of Melvin Young Bear, who also serves as the Oglala Sioux Tribal Cultural Liaison, ”Before my father Severt Young Bear, Sr. passed on, he told me to carry on the drum and not to let it die out because he sacrificed a lot to keep up the tradition of our music.” In that spirit of cherishing the age-old Pahin Sinte Hoka heritage of Lakota song and also of carrying on and keeping those traditions alive today, we, the Porcupine Singers, respectfully compose and perform our songs for the present and future generations.

-Mitakuye oyasin!

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