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When Robert "Bob" Staffanson set out to record the history of the American Indian Institute, a non-profit organization he founded to provide support to a circle of traditional Native Americans, he quickly learned the story he most needed to tell was his own. 

In "Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians," which was published in December by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Staffanson recalls his life in three seemingly dissonant movements. He describes his youth in rural Montana, cultivating a love of family and horses. Here, he sets down deep roots to the land and its people.

But with his heart in music, Staffanson's life would take a different course. He writes about his years as a teacher and as founder of the Billings Symphony before taking the helm of the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts where he would be dubbed the Cowboy Conductor. Then, right before the treatment of a life-threatening illness would take much of his hearing, he gave up the East Coast society life to return west, home to Montana. Here, he would become an ally for Native Americans and fight to preserve ancient traditions. 

"The trajectory of my life is bizarre," Staffanson, now 94, said during an interview with the Chronicle at his Bozeman home. "Nobody has gone through that sort of process."

In each section of the book, and in its title, Staffanson references a spiritual journey, reaching something deeper within the earth and himself. 

"We don't talk about spirit much," he said. "We don't think about it and it's the most important thing in life."

In "Witness to Spirit," Staffanson wrote about participation in gatherings and ceremonies, of participation in a Blood Indian Medicine Lodge summer encampment in Canada, though often leaving out specifics to protect the cultural privacy.

"The motive (behind the institute's creation) was driven by a realization in Canada that the richness of indigenous cultures was not only unknown in the outside world, but also that their oppression was fed by stereotype and caricature," Staffanson wrote in "Witness to Spirit." "So much was lost in translation between parallel worlds. Communication across cultures based on reality, not stereotype was needed. That, I thought, should be the mission of the American Indian Institute."

American Indian Institute Executive Director Eric Noyes explained while the organization supports the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth, established at the Missouri Headwaters in 1977, it does not try to force policy or politics. Rather, it supports the traditional Native Americans in preserving their way of life in a time their wisdom may be most needed in the world. 

"The elders are saying we've lost our perspective on how we fit in with all living things," Noyes said. 

We build structures so we can't feel the wind and the rain, he explained. We've lost touch with the cycles of life, with the seasons. 

"We've sped out of control like teenagers in a new car," Noyes said "...We're crazy, just absolutely crazy." 

Restless in Springfield, this is the knowledge Staffanson has worked so tirelessly to protect through both the institute and now his writing. His hearing may be failing even more with age, but his spirit is as strong as ever. 

"I can see and I can work and I can think and I've got the energy I had 30 years ago," Staffanson said. 

While the first two movements have shaped the life of the Cowboy Composer, it is the third which will be his true legacy. His two circles, the institute and the traditional Native Americans, have now one through one generation. The next generation, he said, holds a lot of promise. Hope now is to continue the work toward equality and a voice for all people. 

"Association with traditional Native people, whom I consider the finest associates I have had, has added a dimension missing in my spirit," Staffanson wrote. "We are still different people: I cannot be one of them and they cannot be one of my people (never-mind the boy at a gathering who told Staffanson he would be his family). We have different genes, different heritage, different life journeys; but we respect those differences in each other and move beyond them to what we have in common: humanity. One people."

For more information on Staffanson, the American Indian Institute and "Witness to Spirit," visit

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Rachel Hergett can be reached at or at 406-582-2603. Hergett is on Twitter at @hergett.

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