By Todd Wilkinson
EBS Environmental Columnist
This spring, Robert Staffanson received huge news: He was informed that his book “Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Indians and Mozart” won the memoir category in the National Indie Excellence Awards competition.
It’s epic not only because it speaks to the quality of Staffanson as a writer in telling his story, but he is 94 years old.
Here, however, it is important that you, as a reader, reflect on your own biases which Staffanson challenges in this remarkable tale.
If you are a “native Westerner,” ask yourself this: What are young cowboys supposed to become when they grow up?
Staffanson knows his way around a horse. Early in his childhood on a ranch near the badlands of eastern Montana, riding became cemented in his identity. Today he can still talk tack and saddlery and hold his own with the most learned wrangler discussing the finer points of working cattle.
Once upon a time, Staffanson, who graduated from the University of Montana, was profiled in the pages of “Look” magazine as a man who reached the pinnacle of high society but never lost his love for down-to-earth people.
He also rubbed shoulders with composer Aaron Copland and maestros Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. Yet it was fellow “fiddle player” Eugene Ormandy, leader of the vaunted Philadelphia Philharmonic, who bestowed Staffanson with a nickname that has lasted more than 60 years: “cowboy conductor.”
While Staffanson’s journey from being the son of modest ranchers to classical music conductor back east is extraordinary, it’s what he did next, in his third act as he entered middle age, that will turn heads.
Unsatisfied with the power and prestige he accrued, Staffanson gave up his career. With the blessing of his wife, Ann, he returned home to the West and allied himself with Native Americans confronting a still-pervasive problem: racism against indigenous people and 500 years’ worth of unreconciled civil rights abuses.
Staffanson was greeted with distrust and hostility from Indians he thought he was helping. Much of that has been overcome. Even now, however, he still encounters condemnation from whites who tell him that by forming an organization devoted to preserving native cultures, languages and knowledge he was betraying his own race. He has been chastised by former friends for allegedly not being a “good Christian.”
This is merely the backdrop to “Witness to Spirit.” Just as stunning is that Staffanson, who makes his home in suburban Bozeman, is a nonagenarian.
To address ignorance, Staffanson and a noted group of traditional indigenous leaders from across the country founded the American Indian Institute, originating a novel concept called the “Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth.” It has opened lines of communication between indigenous cultures globally in ways that never before existed.
Worldwide, native languages and knowledge are vanishing rapidly and with them ancient wisdom about humankind’s relationship with the Earth.
“Native people from this continent are beloved around the world, and it’s something most Americans don’t realize or bother to wonder why,” Staffanson said. “I have seen the interactions in Japan, Russia, European countries and Africa. There is a mutual recognition of ‘knowing’ among all indigenous peoples.”
“Witness to Spirit” commences as a cowboy story that will leave readers of any age inspired. Staffanson’s enigmatic life is really about the power of discovery in the quest for personal meaning.
It challenges deeply engrained notions of “Western” identity and asks, “What does it really mean to be devoted to the principles of liberty, religious freedom, private property rights and status accorded to those who dwell in places for a long time?”
Adherents of the “Cowboy Code” may pause as Staffanson discusses his own settler heritage, which not only blazed the trail of cowboy culture but rationalized genocide against native inhabitants and still carries on a war against native wildlife.
“Witness to Spirit” is important because it breaks the mold of what you think a true cowboy is supposed to be. For baby boomers the book offers this insight: It’s never too late to make valuable contributions to making society better and more just. The book imparts this lesson to those in their 30s and 40s: If you feel stuck, don’t continue following the same old script. Write a new one.
Finally, and most importantly, Staffanson leads by example in giving this hopeful encouragement to young people: Never be afraid of reinvention or taking a stand on behalf of your beliefs.
Staffanson’s trek may have begun in the 1920s aboard his first horse, ironically named “Injun,” but it’s a ride that has taken him to higher heights.
Look for “Witness to Spirit” at your favorite local independent bookstore and if it’s not there, ask for it. It’s well worth the effort. It will leave you inspired.
New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly. Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine now on newsstands.