“Aleut Wind,” a track by Native American flute player Mary Youngblood off her album, “The Offering,” is a solo instrumental that carries the listener through a story. The notes intone a strong, wise and encouraging narrative that sounds as though it were thoughtfully crafted for a person on a long journey.
It’s a song that makes sense coming from the accomplished Youngblood, who recently received two nominations for the 2009 Native American Music Awards, or Nammys, and already has two Grammy’s and one Nammy under her belt.
The track is from her debut album, written well before her music awards began piling up and Youngblood’s music career was assured. But the track is still relevant to a newcomer to Youngblood’s music, and continues to be a musical expression of the arc of the artist’s life.
“Aleut Wind” was the culmination of two intertwined personal journeys for Youngblood. Together, they tell the story of how she became one of the world’s premier Native American music artists. One of those journeys was a search for an understanding of her roots and identity, and the other a reaching out for her future as a musician.
Youngblood grew up noticeably different from the other children in her school, she said. Hers was the only brown skin in a sea of white faces, she said, and sometimes her peers could be cruel to her about this difference. Youngblood had been adopted shortly after her birth by white, non-Indian parents. She said her parents provided for her classical training in music, particularly the flute, early on, which she realizes now was a privilege. It was also a means to cope with her situation, she said.
“In the mid-1970s, when kids were experimenting with drugs, I delved into the arts,” Youngblood said in a telephone interview. “Part of the reason, was because it was so painful being brown in an all white high school. The boys wouldn’t date a brown girl. The way I handled that pain was through the arts.”
At the time, Youngblood didn’t know a lot about who her birth parents were, or what exactly her ethnic heritage was. But when she got older, she got more curious about where she had come from. When she was married and had her first child, she felt the urge to know her roots grow more pressing, she said. As a new mother, she felt especially curious about her own birth mother.
At the time, she had very little information to go on. But she embarked on a quest for information. She joined groups that help adoptee search for their biological parents, attending regular meetings and learning how to improve her query letters to agencies and organizations.
When she received an envelope from the Chugach Corporation in Alaska, Youngblood was at a critical time in her life. She was 26 years old. Her husband had got caught up with drugs and alcohol, she said, and left her with two children. Her music had taken a back seat to the survival demands of providing for her young ones. A number of times she’d had to hawk her flute to a pawn shop, and a number of times she pulled out of financial crisis and saved it at the last moment.
What Youngblood found in that envelope was more than she could have hoped for. Inside was a whole family tree, delineating her biological mother’s family, and a place to call her ancestral home: the village of Port Grahm, Alaska.
It was 1986 that Youngblood first made contact with her birth mother, as well as the siblings she had never, until that time, known.
Youngblood’s music web site lists what she now knows to be true: she is Aleut and Seminole. Her journey to find her roots proved successful in her search for her father’s side, as well, which is Seminole from Florida.
Having a newly strengthened connection to her roots invigorated the young future Grammy winner.
“I got involved in my community after I found my birth mother in 1986,” Youngblood said. “I got involved in an Indian community in Sacramento, I was on the board of directors for a local Indian clinic, and a member of a women’s Native group.”
And all the while, Youngblood kept the dream of being a musician alive in her heart and, especially during those hard years, in a story idea she wrote about a woman like herself. In her story, the main character, a single mother in dire financial straits, successfully overcomes the challenges in her life to become a successful musician and eventually win a Grammy.
“I was writing my way out of my situation,” Youngblood said. “I think that’s a powerful tool for us as human beings, and especially as young people, to write out our dreams.”
It wasn’t until Youngblood was in her early 30s that she first picked up the Native American flute. Having been trained from childhood on the classical flute, Youngblood had a great deal of musical training to draw on already. She felt drawn to it, and eventually made a demo that attracted the interest of record labels. Her first album, “The Offering,” which contains the track “Aleut Wind,” received acclaim, her second album, “Heart of the World,” picked up a number of awards, and by her third album, “Beneath the Raven Moon,” in 2003, Youngblood had landed her first Grammy.
Shortly thereafter, Youngblood visited and performed in her mother’s village of Port Grahm for the first time.
She arrived in a twin-engine Cessna in the middle of a storm that whipped the plane around as it landed on the gravel runway of the village airport. A group of people ran after the plane down the runway: a half sister, a niece, an uncle, a cousin, and other relatives Youngblood would meet for the first time were ready to greet her by the time the plane came to a stop.
“I was sobbing,” Youngblood said. “I thought, ‘This is where my mother grew up. And this is where she played. This is where our ancestors our from.'”
Youngblood’s family put on a potluck of traditional food for her, she said, and played a concert for them, including her song “Aleut Wind,” which Youngblood told them she plays in honor of her people.
Now, Youngblood said she wants her life to provide a role model for young people, especially those who are struggling in life and aren’t sure how to make their dreams a reality.
“If you visualize your dream and the things you want in your life, you can make it happen,” she said. “It’s important for young people to never let go of that dream and that vision.”
Mary Youngblood was nominated for “Best Compilation Recording,” and “Flutist of the Year,” in the Native American Musica Awards, held Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009.