Hand-drum virtuoso’s talent bridges worldsBy Carol Schmidt
MSU News Service
montana.edu/news According to maps, the distance between Montana State University and the Rocky Boy Reservation is nearly 300 miles, but for students from the close-knit community, especially those steeped in the traditions of the Chippewa Cree, the distance can seem even greater. One MSU student has bridged that distance between the two different worlds with his voice. Chontay Mitchell Standing Rock is a 24-year old MSU sophomore studying music technology in the College of Arts and Architecture. In that respect, he is like hundreds of other MSU students. What sets him apart, however, is a soaring voice that seems to come from an ethereal place and his virtuosity singing with a Native American hand drum. Those who frequent Indian Country’s powwow circuit likely have known for some time about Mitchell Standing Rock, who has won several singing competitions, including the one-man hand drum contest at Crow Fair. A YouTube video of his championship round in 2015 has been viewed 35,000 times. PBS’ Backroads of Montana featured a profile of him that included his original take on Native music. Talking about his accomplishments isn’t something that is comfortable to Mitchell Standing Rock, who pauses to think before he answers questions and speaks softly and directly. “I was taught to be humble,” he will answer simply when asked about recognitions that he’s received. But those who have heard him sing his praises.
Chelsey Wilson, MSU student engagement and leadership adviser, said she first heard Mitchell Standing Rock sing at an MSU Council of Tribal Elders event held at the home of MSU President Waded Cruzado in October. “His music was so inspiring and moving that I got lost in his songs,” Wilson said. “The only word that came to my mind was ‘community.’ His music made me feel like I was in a place in which I belonged.” A member of the committee that planned the Bobcat Birthday Bash to celebrate MSU’s 125th anniversary, Wilson recommended Mitchell Standing Rock to open the ceremonies with a traditional song in respect to the Native peoples who once lived in the Gallatin Valley. Since then, Mitchell Standing Rock has been asked to open a number of other MSU events, including the recent Diversity Summit. “Chontay’s voice is powerful and moving,” Wilson said. “When he is singing and drumming … you forget everything. His music is full of emotion. No matter who you are or where you have come from, you are able to connect with his music in a way that is meaningful and powerful to you.” Mitchell Standing Rock may becoming recognized in Bozeman, but the people of north-central Montana have known about his abilities for some time, perhaps since he began singing with his family -- a family of singers and dancers -- when he was about 6 or 7 years old. His recalls one of his first times singing solo at a round dance ceremony when the stickman gave him sticks, which was his cue to sing. “This was my first time receiving the sticks at a round dance,” he recalled. “Before I sang, my grandfather, Douglas Standing Rock, said a few words on my behalf, to introduce me into the round dance circle. He encouraged me to keep going and not to give up. “That was a very good day.” He said he has what he calls a “compassion” for his music, and sings both traditional (in his Native language) and modern (a mix of Cree and English) song styles.
Mitchell Standing Rock came to MSU, where he is also minoring in Native American studies, after he graduated from Rocky Boy Community College in 2015 to be with his companion, Connie Brownotter. She is a human development and family science major and Native American studies minor and a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota/Dine nations from Standing Rock, South Dakota, who transferred to MSU from Cal Poly-Pomona. Mitchell Standing Rock said he enrolled in a music technology because he loves music and one day would like to have his own recording studio where others could also record Native music. He enjoys his studies, “which (were) a little rough at first, but that is to be expected.” He said that having Brownotter here also helps him with the stress that all students, but particularly Native students, encounter in the university culture that is so different than the smaller, family-centric communities from which they come. The quiet, yet thoughtful, way that Mitchell Standing Rock has navigated through both traditional and university worlds has earned him respect, according to JoDee Palin, director of external relations for the College of Arts and Architecture. Just last week, for instance, Mitchell Standing Rock was asked to speak to students at St. Stephen’s School on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservations about the realities faced by Indian students including ranging from managing money to study requirements. “I have great respect for Chontay; he is a strong leader and is an inspiration to all of us and his tribe,” said Palin, who leads a support group of Native American students and staff members. “He is a very gifted and experienced singer that together with his hand drum will stop you in your tracks.”
Mitchell Standing Rock began work in November on his second album, “Sing It,” which was completed this month and will be available at this weekend’s 2018 MSU American Indian Council Powwow. The name is taken from advice given to him by his father, Robert Mitchell, who died in December. “I didn’t know what to name my album at first until I remembered what my father has always told me. He’d always tell me to ‘sing it’ because he was so proud of me.” The album was recorded at the Rocky Boy Native American Church. Fellow music technology student Noah Jackson helped him mix it, Karl Benjamin helped with graphic design and music instructor Jeremiah Slovarp of Bozeman’s Jereco Studios helped him master the album. Mitchell Standing Rock often jumps in to sing with the Bobcat Singers. If so, watch for the tall, slender man with the stirring voice that bridges many types of music. “Every time he blesses our community with his talents I get goosebumps,” Palin said. “There is something very sacred about it.” MSU News Service shares stories about Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, and the accomplishments of its students, faculty, alumni and staff. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.