Spirit Wind begins by recounting Chief Tecumseh’s story in a standard swing beat. Then, out of the dark, lead singer Paula Burris bursts into a haunting wail. Drummers Steve Brennan and Stevie Johnson knock out a heavy, combative boom. The song has turned into a war chant.
Forged in peaceful settings with peaceful intentions, this two-year-old band of settled rockers carries Tecumseh’s torch.
Chief Tecumseh was a Shawnee Indian chief who rallied Native Americans to defend northern America against the onslaught of the white man in the early 1800s.
Spirit Wind is a tribe of five musicians, three of them Native Americans, who want to resurrect the spirit of Tecumseh and the vision of a united Native American front.
They incorporate Cherokee, Lakota, Yaquai and other Indian legend into their shows, oftentimes starting songs with a short story. The released their first album Free last year.
In addition to regular gigs at Esoteric and occasional ones at Walden’s, the band performs for young Native Americans in the Reno area. They hope to inspire youth by passing on long-forgotten Indian legends.
Recently, Spirit Wind played at a graduation ceremony for Native Americans of all ages at the Reno-Sparks Indian colony.
“Because of the nature of what we do, we get into some really unusual shows,” said Ken Daniels, lead guitarist and bassist.
Daniels, along with everyone else in the band, has done it all. Country, folk, blues and rock. Spirit Wind is based primarily in rock and folk. It’s only when Burris and Vito de la Cruz (guitar, flute, harmonica and vocals) start playing their distinct Native American flutes, narrating Indian folk tales and unleashing wails and war cries that their modern Native American spirit comes through.
A Cherokee who was adopted by white parents and raised in Oklahoma, Burris said she has always had a yearning to explore Native American heritage. She became dedicated to exploring Lakota Indian heritage 12 years ago when she met her birth mother. Now she regularly studies and passes on stories and legends to people she meets.
“It’s very important for me to keep the ways alive,” Burris said.
At first, Burris focused on recounting the stories to her children and grandchildren. Two years ago, she realized she could teach “the ways” to a larger group. Inspiration hit her when she walked into a bar in Sparks to watch musicians play at a songwriters contest. That was when she first saw de la Cruz.
De la Cruz is a mellow, acoustic Axel Rose. He is half Chicano and half Yaqui Indian. When he plays, he wears leather vests and feathers in his hair.
His look hooked Burris. She saw him play one night, came back a second night and realized that she and de la Cruz could rock together.
“When I saw him … I knew that we would go there together,” Burris said.
For Spirit Wind, "there" is an intriguing place that is constantly being redefined. When they play, it’s as if Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix are powwowing with Chiefs Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. The rage and misery of rock and blues music dance with the horrors and grand legends of Native American lore. The mix was meant to be.