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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 23, 2009
Cracked flute brings couple together, they heal through stories and music
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT In American Indian tradition, the flute plays a pivotal role in courtship. A young Indian man would compose an original tune on his flute, which he would play outside the lodge in which his chosen girl lived. If the girl liked the song and by extension the boy, she would come outside to listen to him, signaling the return of his affections.
For Dawn Standing Woman and Eric Marczak, the flute, a sacred object in its own right, has extraordinary and magical significance of its own. It had a hand in bringing the two together.
While in Arizona where Standing Woman had been learning from teachers of American Indian history and traditions, she had been given a flute. Years later, her grandson managed to get a hold of the flute and he cracked it. Standing Woman, who knew Marczak by repute as a master instrument maker, approached him at a powwow and showed him the flute.
“He looked at it and asked me who made this flute,” recalled Standing Woman. “I said, ‘You don’t know him; his name’s Hollis Little Creek’ and he said, ‘Yes I do. He was one of my teachers.’”
Marczak fixed the flute and the two eventually married. It is, for him, just another example of the circle of life.
Since then, Marczak and Standing Woman of Knox have been performing together she telling stories and he interweaving her words with music from his handmade instruments. While some performances such as the upcoming one in Altamont’s Orsini Park are purely for entertainment, many of their engagements have an element of healing.
“The effects of what we say,” says Standing Woman, “fan a spark for people whose spirits have been dampened. The spirit needs fanning to come to life to feel good.”
Marczak described a series of visits the pair made to Grout Park, a school in Schenectady for special-needs children. He had spent his five days at the school teaching some students, including an autistic boy who did not speak, how to make a flute out of PVC pipe,
“At the end of the five days,” remembers Standing Woman, Erik played a song to the boy and he picked up his own flute that he’d made and played the song back.”
“To live lush”
Although Standing Woman is a descendant of the Mohawk Indians, her stories span many tribes. Some of the stories focus on American Indian history, some are creationist, and others are meant to give life lessons to children. There is even a Lakota story she tells about how the first flute came to be, involving a lost boy, a woodpecker, and an auspicious gust of wind.
Standing Woman’s passion for American Indian traditions and ceremonies started as a child. While other elementary-school students drew pictures of themselves as nurses and teachers, Standing Woman says she always drew herself as an Indian. The name Standing Woman was not given to her by her teachers until the early 1990s, when she went on a vision quest in the Catskill Mountains.
During that first vision quest, which took a year to prepare for, she stayed on a blanket in the hills by herself with no food or water for three days, during which time she prayed for guidance and direction. A vision finally came to her, which her teacher helped her to interpret.
“I was on the edge of a cliff and one side was lush and green and the other was burnt and barren and I was standing there with a deer,” said Standing Woman. “I knew I needed to live lush.”
Together, Standing Woman and her teacher interpreted the vision and its symbols. The barren region was where she had been living: with a husband from whom she had just separated, and with alcoholism, from which she had suffered since she was a teenager. She knew she had to continue down the lush path of finding out who she was.
Coming full circle
Marczak, who is Polish and Ukrainian, grew up in Cohoes acutely aware of the fact that the ground there was sacred to American Indians. He remembers a local archaeologist showing him where the longhouses had been on Peebles Island. His early memories of growing up along the Mohawk River are of his anger at seeing how the local factories were spewing pollution into the river.
While he played music on the weekends, Marczak spent 34 years at a day job with the state’s health department and, in 1974, became part of the team that started testing the Mohawk for PCBs and other chemicals. He describes the gratifying revelation of realizing that, as a grown man, he was fulfilling what he had wanted to do as a child, which was to clean up the river another example of full circle.
Marczak said that, despite being raised Catholic, he was always drawn to Native American traditions and the values that the traditions uphold.
“This old culture, the reverence for the land…without the land we don’t live healthy,” said Marczak. “The Native American solution is, if the mother is not healthy, we’re not healthy,” he added, referring to the earth.
Marczak’s interest in making instruments stems from self-sufficiency and curiosity, manifested through the years into expert craftsmanship. He makes the holes in his flutes with stone tools just as they were made hundreds of years ago, and he can even make the stone blades (called flint-knapping) so well that they look exactly like tools that have been around for centuries.
Hundreds of the bone whistles that Marczak has made are reproductions of original American Indian bone whistles. The whistles were part of former state archaeologist William Ritchie’s collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Marczak refers to Ritchie’s book on the archeology of New York State as his bible.
When handling ancient flutes such as his 700-year-old flute made of a duck’s wing bone, he said he tries to connect with the people who made it. When he is playing the flutes, he thinks something different.
“I try to think I’m the vehicle, that the music comes through me and I ask the creator to use me,” he said. “My lungs that the air passes over, that’s the creator giving me a resource.”
Dawn Standing Woman and Eric Marczak will perform together at the gazebo in Altamont’s Orsini Park on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. All are welcome and there is no charge for the event, sponsored jointly by the Altamont Free Library and Altamont Community Tradition.