Anthony Goulet interviews world renowned Native American musician, Kelly Kiyoshk on his journey as a Native American man and what it means to be a “good man”.
Kelly Kiyoshk is a Native American from the Ojibway tribe of Bkejwanong, better known as Walpole Island First Nation Ontario, Canada. When he walks in a room the first thing you notice is that he is always ready to laugh. His laughter fills the room and everyone’s hearts. I’ve met few people in my life who have the ability to make you feel better and want to be better by simply being in their presence. Perhaps the challenging road he walked for many years cultivated a gift that he was fortunate enough to find, and then generous enough to share with us. His road hasn’t been easy, yet his struggles brought forth stories and music that not only saved his own life, but because of his willingness to share, have helped many others look for the gifts and blessings in moments where they can seem so hard to find.
He is a world renowned Native American flute player who has played across Canada, the United States, and Korea. In 2005 he was nominated for a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Best Instrumental Album of the Year for his first album Manido. In 2013 he released his second album Presence of Self.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down and talking with him and it is my pleasure to introduce him to you through the Good Men Project.
Anthony Goulet: First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me for the Good Men Project. Since this interview is for the Good Men Project, what is a good man?
Kelly Kiyoshk: First of all I want to say that I am not an expert of any kind and can only speak of things from my own perspective and understanding. I reflect on what I have been taught and what I have lived to learn. I cannot say that I have the answers because we all have a piece of the picture that we need to piece together as a whole to understand. What I can do is share through stories I have. To answer your question I will share an experience I had with you.
I was at an older man’s funeral. He was a friend of my dad from years ago. On the day before they laid him to rest they allowed his family and friends to speak. They shared their funny stories and parts of their lives that he had impacted. As they spoke I got a sense of the essence of this man. He was a big tough man who had proven himself to be that many times, yet his friends and family only spoke of their memories of his kindness. My friends and I sang some songs for him and the family because that’s what we do in our culture for a warrior who is going home. As I sang, I was thinking of the kind words his family and friends spoke about him. They spoke of all the help he had been to them and the way he had touched their lives. These thoughts reminded me of what I had been told about what a warrior is. A warrior isn’t necessarily a soldier, a veteran, someone who had been wounded in a war or a fighter. It was shared once that our strongest warriors today are our single mothers because they will continue to do whatever they can for their children no matter what the cost is to them personally. It was said that a warrior’s first responsibility is to guard his own mind, to ensure that he only has good thoughts. He should put the love of his children, family, and people in his mind and this will be his strength; because strength is not anger, hate or physical strength, true strength is love. I had also heard that a warrior will also be the kind of man that will make those around him feel safe and cared for. People will never fear that he will harm them, they know he will always be there to help them. This is the way that people should feel around him.
So to answer the question of what a good man is, I would say that a good man is one who has taken steps to discipline himself to be kind. He is not afraid to be vulnerable and recognizes that guilt, shame, and fear are enemies on his path to becoming a kind man. Reflecting on the life of this man who had impacted so many people I can see that he had struggled with himself to be kind to those around him and to be a helper in their lives. Yes, he had lived a hard life and had done things that some people would call bad but he still carried on to become a man who was considered kind, caring and nurturing. These traits can be viewed as weaknesses by so-called manly standards, but in reality they are real strengths. They help us as men to carry out our responsibilities, obligations and loyalties.
Personally, I had struggled many years and continue to struggle to become this kind of man. It’s a path that I think has no end. I don’t think that there is a destination. In my past I had thought that if I can live up to certain so-called manly standards I would feel some fulfillment as a man but that didn’t happen. There are enemies that we must face along the way. There is a process of sorts that we must go through. Letting go of the past, letting go of our egos, and always being aware that what we do in a selfish way will not matter in the long run because we aren’t on a road with a clear destination. Life is the same for us all. We will be born and we will return to the source of life. We are simply spirits having a physical experience. I don’t think there will ever be a time for us as men to always be good or always be bad. I think there is only a path that we will walk and it becomes narrower as we travel as it is filled with more and more responsibilities. We all have choices every day and we must learn to choose in a way that that is impeccable and realize that what we choose to do will have an impact, either on ourselves or those around us.
We can create the life we want to see. We can choose to act or we can react to people, places, things or circumstances. I had heard it said that a warrior’s life is lived impeccably. He chooses his actions as though they will be his last actions on earth. In my own understanding, a life lived this way is a life lived by laws, values and standards that are tied to the natural life, to a spiritual life outside of ourselves. If our worldview is making us feel and act in a negative way then we have a responsibility to step out of that worldview to create a new life and let the old life die. Many times in our lives our understanding will change, the stages in life will bring us to new realizations and outlooks on things. As men we can no longer look at the world through a boy’s eyes, we only see through a man’s eyes. The question I ask is, what do we see? I personally think that how we think about the world is how we will act or react and then choose to be.
Anthony Goulet: How can men guide boys in some of the understanding you just shared? How can men guide boys to be good men?
Kelly Kiyoshk: There is a young man who I have worked with over the years on his music. As an accomplished musician I have taken what I learned and shared it with him. I took the time to meet with him at his house and show him what he needs to build his own studio. I did this to help him do what he likes and possibly make some money along the way, but it was mainly done as a way to build a rapport with him. It gave me a chance to sit and talk with him. I had told him in the beginning that I would not help him if he was going to write songs that degraded women or promote violence. I spoke to him about writing music using his own story. I told him that those are the kinds of songs that touch people’s lives and become real. I asked him who his influences were and he talked about Tupac Shakur being one of the best rappers he knew, so I told him that a lot of what Tupac Shakur shared was his life, his story, and that’s what makes his music good. He listened and he teetered back and forth with the way he wrote his songs and I never tried to sway him in what he was doing because he was now on his own path with his music. I didn’t want to get in the way of the young man’s life experiences. I don’t think that trying to dictate anyone’s life is of any use to them. If I had thought that he was putting himself in any kind of danger I would have spoken up.
This young man has taught me a lot. I made this endeavor to help this young man to be a good man in kind of tricky way. I used the time we were spending on music to speak with him. I’m not sure if he would have listened to me if I had just came out and said I am going to talk to you about becoming a good man. As a young man myself once, if I had heard those words I would have immediately taken it as preaching. I am not a preacher or a social worker or psychologist of any kind and I didn’t want to come across like I was trying to be one. I simply listened and shared as we worked together. I realize that this young man’s life is his own and he will choose for himself. I thought by building a relationship with him on his ground, and his terms, it would help a dialogue, which it did. Over time he became inquisitive and started to ask questions and I helped where I could. If I didn’t know the answer I would simply be honest and say I don’t know. I think that helping a young man is first built on respect. I don’t know if I would say trust, because trust is always conditional. I did what I could to show him respect and act in a way that would earn his respect. At times, he also taught me, which is part of respect, being willing to learn from our young people.
In helping this young man I tried to keep certain things in mind. I recalled things that I had found helpful in my life and shared those things. I come from the same kind of living as this young man. We have a lot of the same experiences of social ills, poverty, alcoholism, drugs, abuse, and violence, so we talked a lot about those things. I shared some things I had come to understand about our experiences and about our culture. He has always been respectful and leaned towards our culture, as this is our identity as Native people. I know from listening to elders that we all have what is called the 3 B’s – belief, belonging, and barriers. The need to have a belief, to belong, and a need for barriers. I had shared what has happened to us as Native people since we had come into the process of colonization. During the process of colonization, we as Native people had our identities disturbed, and an attempt was made to remove it from our minds and lives. I shared with him that having an identity was very crucial. We cannot get that from someone who is trying to control our lives. These 3 B’s that the elders had spoken of to me and that I passed onto the young man, were and are found in our cultural identity. In order to get him to understand this I talked about how the mainstream system works and controls everyone’s lives, which is a contrast to what we as Native people had before our lives were put on a path of assimilation. I have always thought that in order to learn we cannot have half of the picture, but we need the whole picture, so I did my best to talk about the picture that I have come to see and understand. He is an intelligent young man and understood clearly.
I speak of this young man and what I have learned from that relationship is that a relationship to remove ourselves from oppressive living. It is not only the young who have come to live in confusion, but ourselves as adults as well. I have learned a lot from the relationship with this young man. He has shown me that by helping him he is also helping me, because I can see the change that I have wanted to see. It helps me to have a greater sense of belief, belonging and barriers. I can see that now because they are held within our cultural identity and walking within those cultural ways will help me to become that way myself. By being kind, generous, honest, and doing all that I can to stay strong in our cultural ways I become what I want to be as a man. I was told that we become what we think about and that the way to change is brought about by thinking about it, talking about, taking action – living it, and then you are walking it. Most times I think that talking to people about our problems helps all of us to bring change. I don’t see young men’s problems separate from older men’s problems. We are all interconnected. In helping young people we are helping ourselves and steering younger ones into the future in a good way.
Anthony Goulet: How did the culture help you to develop as a man?
Kelly Kiyoshk: In my young days I had come to depend on alcohol and drugs for some sense of happiness. I don’t recall being sober for very many days in between binges. Where I grew up, alcohol had become a normal way to socialize and relate to each other. I began to see this as some kind of identity as a Native person. I thought that a Native man was tough, could drink all night and days on end, and would never take any crap from any white man. I later came to see the outcomes of this confused identity and its toll on my mind, emotions, body and spirit, because I came to point in my life where I cried. I couldn’t figure out how to change my life. I didn’t have any kind of hope or foresee any good coming and I was bleeding inside.
One day I went to woman’s home, who I later came to know as a Medicine Woman. I was visiting with her and thinking out loud. I was saying that maybe I should go to a treatment center for my drinking. The next thing I knew, I was in the office of the alcohol and drug counselor signing up to go away for treatment for my alcohol abuse. I spent 12 days in treatment and was thrown out because I had scared a female client by speaking about how I felt I could get violent. My life had been totally ripped apart because I was dealing with some very old abuses and choices I had made in my life. Because it was the first time I was honestly looking at the abuses I endured and choices I had made, I wanted to commit suicide. It was right at that moment, the same girl who was afraid of me because of some things I had said, came and apologized to me and gave me her eagle feather. Being given an eagle feather is a high honor in our Native culture, and my feelings of suicide immediately went away. I was then told by the daughter of the Medicine Woman, who also went to the treatment center with me that her mother told her before we left that I would be taught our ways from the elders. In the moment when I wanted to commit suicide, I received and eagle feather and was shown a way to go when I thought I had nowhere to go.
Since that time I have continued on with my ceremonial life and lived it as best I can according to the teachings that were shared with me. It has never been easy but I find it easier than the life that I had lived before. I now see that the hard road is the easy road and the easy road is actually the hard road. It’s hard to live a good life, having to discipline myself to live by rules that I don’t control, and it’s easy to live a life of doing whatever I want to do, yet having to pay the consequences of those decisions and actions.
For me today, I find that life is simple and I don’t have to worry about what darkness is looming over my tomorrows. I have come to have a belief. I don’t need to look within for faith in something that I cannot see because the Creator that I have come to understand is all around me and I can see that Creator in the spiritual laws all around me. There is no one who can stop the wind from blowing, the trees from growing, and the animals from living by natural laws. All of creation is a part of the Creator and the way that He/She created this world is the way it will always be. Some things will change and some things will always be the same. This is the way I now see things. No longer do I listen to those voices who tell me lies about how to be a real man. I now know that a real man is a natural being and spirit, and stepping out of that natural way will only cause confusion which is all around us today. It is so much easier to relinquish control than to try to have power over natural laws and beings. I understand that having humility is a good thing, humility to know that I am only a part of creation and that I don’t have dominion over the earth and all the creatures of the earth.
Our Native culture has taught me about so many things, too many to talk about in this short interview. It is more than what we do, it’s what we learn from what we do, and how we live according to what we understand from what we do. The items that we use are more than just objects, they have a spirit because they are created from beings who held a spirit. All life has spirit and we use their being to help us connect to spirit. This is the way that I have come to understand as our way, as who we are.
Years ago I was told that when we use our items they help and work for us to have a good life. As long as we take care of them they will take care of us. There are those of us who have spiritual experiences using our items. I myself am a flute player and that has helped me in my life. At times it has given me a sense of serenity that is very hard to describe. And like I was told, if I take care of the flute it will take care of me. I make music with the flute and record it and it has helped me financially and showed me that it is really helping me in my life in spiritual ways.
Over half my life was spent walking in pain and confusion and now I am happy and content in my identity as a Native man. I don’t have to worry anymore, because I know everything will be alright as long as I am in contact with the one who created me, and live by the ways given to my people. It’s not easy but it’s easy.
To purchase his CDs or to contact Kelly Kiyoshk for concert bookings, flutes or speaking engagements please visit his website at: Kelly Kiyoshk
Check out Anthony Goulet’s interview with Tara Pretends Eagle Weber: A Voice of Advocacy, Hope and Healing