Summit Right Brain: Musician and storyteller Breana Halime McCullough blends Western music with Native American traditions
Special to the Daily
A creative epiphany occurred for Breana Halimé McCullough while sitting in her high school German class in Bozeman, Montana. An aspiring classical musician and student of the viola, McCullough is the daughter of a German mother and a father who is part Irish and part Native American. Why, she suddenly asked herself, was she spending all her time studying a European language and musical tradition, while completely ignoring the Native American part of her heritage that was much closer to home?
As a high school student McCullough held leadership roles in orchestra and band, and performed with the Bozeman Symphonic Orchestra and Choir. Upon entering Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, she became a founding member of the Campanile String Quartet and a principal of the Concordia Orchestra.
It was not until transferring to University of Colorado at Boulder that McCullough, now 20 years old and pursuing a degree in performance, was able to come back to that question of how to give equal time to her Native American roots. Could there be a point of intersection where classical western music and her Karuk tribal heritage might meet?
McCullough connected with UC Boulder music professor Charles Wetherbee and Native American musician Leon Littlebird. Wetherbee and Littlebird are collaborating on an innovative theatrical performance that will include music composed for string quartet, as well as Native American flute, storytelling and dance. McCullough has now provided the missing piece for their performance — that of Native American storyteller.
On Feb. 3 and 4, McCullough will perform “Anthem for the Ancestors,” with Wetherbee and Littlebird at the UC Boulder campus. Littlebird is in discussion with the town of Silverthorne about bringing the performance to the Silverthorne Pavilion this summer.
I spoke to McCullough about her journey of creative self-discovery:
Summit Daily: Tell me a little bit about your family background and the early steps along your creative path.
Breana Halimé McCullough: My mother is German and my father is Native American and Irish. My grandmother on my father’s side is Native American — Shasta and Karuk. When I was little, my great grandparents who lived on a reservation in California would come visit and we’d all speak Karuk around the table. So I had a kind of split personality.
Growing up I listened to a lot of different kinds of music, to world music. I primarily grew up in my mother’s household, which was Western, but had a yearning for Native American music.
In 7th grade I got involved in studying and playing classical music. Still, there was some part of me that wanted to be involved in my own culture, preserve that history and language.
SD: Tell me more about that “ah-ha!” moment in high school, when you knew you wanted to focus more on that Native American side of your heritage.
BHM: Suddenly I was asking myself: Why am I spending four years learning German when my culture’s language is dying? Why can’t I learn my own language, the one that is not being preserved like these languages in school? I knew that I needed to be more engaged with this other part of me, and I felt this transformation. That yearning to learn about myself, my people, that was the moment when I began to feel whole.
SD: You’ve made the comment that you hope to create awareness of “intersectionality” and diversity within the realm of Western art music as a Native American artist. What does that mean for you?
BHM: It is isolating when you can’t expand in your own culture. My goal is to create a community in the Western art music world that recognizes people of different backgrounds and cultures. Western music is looked at as very elite. A lot of people of color, of different classes, feel they can’t experience the arts. I hope to create a community, a realm of recognition of intersectional aspects of music.
To me, intersectionality means to intersect and meet where you are able to thrive and to be recognized. I am hoping to create this possibility for all people — people of color, LGBT people — and to lift people up.
SD: Tell me about your role in the upcoming performance at UC Boulder.
BHM: I’ll be speaking in Karuk, telling a story called “The White Man’s Gift.” The general idea is that it is the first interaction between Karuk Indians and Westerners. It’s meant to be lighthearted: The Karuk Indians are nervous at first because they’ve heard bad things about the white man. Then, the white men end up giving them gifts, first gold coins that the Indians think are flat rocks and skip them across the river. Then bags of flour that they dump out and use the bags to make dresses. And so on.
The story will be the centerpiece of the performance, with the other performers reacting to the story.
SD: What will you hope to communicate to your audience?
BHM: Especially during this time when everyone is so split, I want people to take away how we can live in harmony, care for each other, care for the elders, the younger generation, for ourselves and the world.
SD: What does this performance mean to you, personally?
BHM: It is possible for things to come together, and that I should never personally limit myself while trying to expand all different parts of who I am. And I hope to have some sort of impact on the world, by being a part of something that is combining new things, creating new ideas.
SD: What is next for you?
BHM: I want to go deeper into educating myself on the problems and issues we all face and how to solve them in a way that everybody wins. I want to make a difference. Every day, every goal that I have is connected to succeeding in a way where everybody wins.
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