New book weaves themes of extraordinary life

Story and photos by Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor

BOZEMAN – A new book written by Renaissance man and Montana native Robert Staffanson is more than a memoir penned with the wit, humor and knowledge inherent in those who have lived fascinating lives. It’s an evolutionary tour de force.

“Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart and Indians” follows Staffanson from his parents’ ranch along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, to the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts, and back to The Treasure State where he founded the American Indian Institute in Bozeman.

The book’s title, Staffanson says, was a group effort between his daughter Kristin Campbell as well as film producer Pam Roberts, a close friend and creator of Rattlesnake Productions in Bozeman.

“It’s about the spirit in vastly different environments,” said Staffanson, who turned 94 last November. “And I was there. I was the witness.”

The book is divided into three sections called “movements,” which highlight three major themes: Cowboys, Witness_to_Spirit_coverMusic, and Indians. And these three movements in Staffanson’s life are nothing less than inspiring, according to Bozeman writer Todd Wilkinson, who wrote the book’s introduction.

“What Bob has done is led by example on how to live an ethical and meaningful life; how to stand and act on one’s own convictions,” Wilkinson said. “If you look at the arc of his life … there’s nobody who has lived a life like that. In that sense, he’s an original American.”

“Witness” opens with Staffanson learning to ride his first horse as a 4-year-old cowboy in eastern Montana, and about the stories of Native Americans that older cowboys told in the late 1920s.

At a young age, Staffanson became enamored with the American Indian way of life. Indeed, it would lead him back to the Montana of his youth in what would become the third movement in his book.

While attending the University of Montana School of Music, where he studied classical conductors including Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, Staffanson married Ann, his high school sweetheart.

In 1950, the couple moved back to the eastern part of the state, where Staffanson taught music classes then founded the Billings Symphony before moving in 1955 to conduct the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts.

To Staffanson the writer, music acted as the thread to connect the varying movements, and was, as he calls it, “fulfilling.” In the book’s second act, Staffanson writes of this critical component in his life.

“I believe great music is a primal force. It takes us beyond the confines of our world into realms of pure spirit: a harbinger of what may be ahead for us.”

What lay ahead were profound changes sparked during summer return trips to Montana. During these vacations, Staffanson began forming strong relationships with American Indians, as well as a deepening interest in human rights.

In 1970, after deciding to leave conducting and big-city life for a return to Montana, Staffanson suffered a kinked bowel related to stress from the fraught decision. Strong doses of antibiotics caused him to lose most of his hearing. Music would never be the same for him.

José Lucero (at left), longtime participant with the American Indian Institute, and Todd Wilkinson, who wrote the introduction to “Witness to Spirit,” wait to introduce Staffanson to a full house.

José Lucero (at left), longtime participant with the American Indian Institute, and Todd Wilkinson, who wrote the introduction to “Witness to Spirit,” wait to introduce Staffanson to a full house.

The next year, Robert and Ann moved to Helena with their daughter Kristin. In 1977, the Crow Nation hosted a meeting at the headwaters of the Missouri River, and the American Indian Institute joined with the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth to form the Two Circles.

The Bozeman-based nonprofit aims to celebrate American Indian heritage and bring about a greater understanding of America’s native peoples.

Less than a mile east of the American Indian Institute, at a Bozeman Public Library book reading on Jan. 22, Staffanson signed copies of his book for fans, and answered questions. Wilkinson was the first speaker to introduce Staffanson, and spoke about helping the author put the book together.

“Here’s a 94-year-old guy being recognized in front of his community for living an extraordinary life,” Wilkinson said. “This is an honoring ceremony for the most remarkable man I’ve ever met.”

After introductions by Wilkinson and longtime American Indian Institute affiliate José Lucero, Staffanson rested his arms on the podium, and his piercing blues eyes gazed out over the full house.

Staffanson delivers.

Staffanson delivers.


He read excerpts from his book, entertaining the crowd with witty prose and raising more than a few comments from the spiritual context of the reading. One line in particular, one that opens the prelude to “Witness,” unearths a deeper context of Staffanson’s story:

“A friend asked me, ‘Did you choose your life?’ My answer: ‘No, life chose me.’”

Staffanson just decided to write it down.

Visit two circles.org for more information on “Witness to Spirit” and the American Indian Institute.