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Conversations with Brulé’s Founding Member, Paul LaRoche

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Written by Philomena Dorobek, Brand Storyteller
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center
 

I had the opportunity to speak with Brulé’s Paul LaRoche, the founding member and “Father” of the cultural rock group before their 7:30 p.m. performance at the Fox Cities P.A.C. on Saturday, September 17, 2022. To read even more about my other conversations with Paul about Brulé, take a look at the Fox Cities Celebrates Indigenous Peoples and Their Identity blog on our website.

While Brulé features traditional aspects, its performances showcase that modern Native American spirit. To understand how and why Brulé came about, it’s important to go back to Paul’s origins. Adopted at birth, Paul grew up in Southwest Minnesota. He was one of many Native American children brought up in a non-native upbringing. However, he was not made aware of his biological lineage and history until much later in life. Paul stated, “I was never told of my true Native American heritage. It was taboo to have Native American blood in the family tree. Nobody said anything.”
 
At the age of 37, Paul lost both of his adoptive parents. His wife, Kathy was going through paperwork after their passing and discovered a letter detailing Paul’s adoption. Kathy continued her search for Paul’s family history without telling him. And finally, in 1993, just two weeks before Thanksgiving, her efforts paid off; she had located Paul’s brother on a Reservation in South Dakota.
 
From there, Kathy revealed what she had learned to Paul. Paul then had a 4-hour phone call with his brother. After living their lives apart for so long, there was much to catch up on. Paul learned that he was of the South Dakotan Lakota tribe. With the holiday season coming up and the desire to connect with family established, Paul was invited to spend Thanksgiving in South Dakota on the reservation. “It was amazing to meet the elders and other tribe members.”
 
Paul commented, “I always saw myself as this, rock n’ roll, rebellious kid growing up in Minnesota.” While Paul may have felt that he didn’t have the right inspiration to make good music in his early days, he now had a story he felt was worth sharing, a story of family, belonging, acceptance and the traditional and contemporary side of Native American culture. This was the catalyst for Brulé.
 
Just two years after discovering his true heritage, Paul started Brulé in 1995. “At that time, no one was doing what we were doing. Now 27 years later, and still, no one else is doing this. We are an underdog story, a group that is pioneering one of the last musical frontiers,” Paul remarked. Audiences seem really interested in what Brulé has to offer: a story told through instrumental music and dance about the modern day Native American celebrating their traditional roots. “We like to express these things in a modern format.” Paul mentioned that many people still have the stereotype of Native Americans living in teepees, and while that may be true for some, it is not for the whole. He wants people to see that Native America is more than just its history, that many don’t know what the contemporary Native America looks like.
 
Audiences can’t seem to get enough of this group. I asked where people can experience Brulé in the mainstream setting, and Paul remarked, “Even the music industry doesn’t seem to know what Brulé is doing”. There is nothing on radio, TV or the Grammys® that recognizes traditional Native American music. With so much support from audiences, the interest in traditional and contemporary Native American culture is growing across the globe.
 
When I asked Paul to elaborate on the regalia that Brulé’s performers wear, he stated, “We tell people that our performers are not in “costumes”. Performers will wear costumes to change their identity. We wear regalia, and it is an extension of who we are. We are NOT dressing up, just being who we are… regalia as a dancer is a part of a calling. It’s who they are meant to be. Our culture is being who we are, and audiences embrace that.”
 
Audiences are also drawn into the theatrical component, the storytelling through instrumental music. Paul explained that when the group tells stories without using words, it’s almost easier. “I’m just guessing, but if we used regular song lyrics, I don’t think we’d still be here,” Paul thoughtfully noted. “When I started producing music without lyrics, I realized it was just as powerful as music with lyrics.”
 
To better illustrate the ways in which Brulé is different from other Native American performance groups, Paul explained that many Native American performers are trying to find their niche. They find themselves falling into two categories: 1) Mainstream performers and 2) contemporary Native American performers; Brulé falls into the latter. Paul also expressed how performances spark the movement to make room for Native American culture in the mainstream circuits.
 
Paul shared some final thoughts: “Brulé focuses on reconciliation and reunion.  There’s phrase that Lakotan’s use, and it’s, “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.” This means, “We are all related.” And that is Brulé’s message. We focus and celebrate the spiritual part of being human beings. Coming to and performing at the Fox Cities P.A.C. is a wonderful event for us. This allows us to share our story.”
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