Kevin Locke — renowned hoop dancer, flute player and educator of Lakota language and culture — died suddenly Friday at the age of 68 after suffering an asthma attack.
Those who knew and loved him say Locke spent a lifetime working to preserve his people’s cultural practices and beliefs and leaves behind friends and relatives across the world.
“He’s loved throughout the world,” said his son, Ohíye S’a Locke. “He’s a legend among our people. He’s going to be remembered forever.”
Born June 23, 1954, in Los Angeles, California, to Patricia and Charles Locke, he was raised by a mother who was committed to education and who fought for the development of tribal colleges throughout the country, Ohíye S’a Locke said.
He spent time in Alaska and Colorado before moving to the Standing Rock Reservation, where he began learning to speak Lakota from elders whom he interviewed. Eventually, he became nearly fluent in Lakota, despite it being his second language.
Locke was Hunkpapa Lakota, Ojibwa and Mdewakanton Dakota, as well as Irish, Scottish, and English.
He attended the Santa Fe Indian School and Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. He later studied at Black Hills State University, the University of South Dakota and the University of North Dakota.
He served as a principal at Standing Rock Grant School for two years.
As a young man, Locke attended a performance by flute player Richard Fool Bull. After the presentation, Locke spoke to Fool Bull, asking him who else knew how to play the Native flute. “No one,” Fool Bull replied.
“Someone should carry this on,” Locke told him.
“You should carry this on,” Fool Bull responded.
And so Locke did just that, mastering the flute by practicing every day before dawn and recording numerous albums of his music.
Kevin Locke is seen playing the flute during a performance at the Fort Sisseton Historical Festival in South Dakota in June 2007. Photo: Nicholas Brandsberg
In the 1970s, he met a couple in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Diane and Gerry Hendrickson, who taught Locke about the Baháʼí faith. Locke immediately began to follow the Baháʼí ways, including performing three pilgrimages to Haifa and serving on the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States.
Throughout his life, Locke traveled the world, having visited every continent and more than 237 indigenous homelands.
He was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship and a Bush Enduring Vision Award. He also won Native American Music Awards for his flute albums.
And he worked tirelessly to revitalize the Lakota language, attending nearly every Lakota Summer Institute at Sitting Bull College and assisting others seeking to preserve the Lakota language.
But he likely will be most remembered for his work as a hoop dancer.
He learned to hoop dance from Arlo Good Bear, an elder from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. But not long after beginning his lessons with Good Bear, Good Bear died, leaving Locke to teach himself how to hoop dance, his family said.
Kevin Locke is seen during a hoop dance performance in Sarawak, Malaysia, in July 2018. He represented the United States as part of his visit to Malaysia during the Rainforest World Music Festival. Photo: United States Embassy Kuala Lumpur
Ohíye S’a Locke said his father learned many moves from dreams that he had of Good Bear. He said his father would wake up some mornings and immediately begin writing down moves he had learned from his dreams.
After some six months, Locke visited Good Bear’s mother to demonstrate his progress. She burst into tears at the beauty of what she saw.
“This dance, it’s yours now,” she said.
Locke eventually decided to step away from his education work and take up hoop dancing and flute playing full time.
Whitney Rencountre, chief executive officer at the Crazy Horse Memorial in Black Hills of South Dakota, was a longtime friend of Locke’s.
He said he became close with Locke after traveling to Suriname, South America with him to teach hoop dancing and flute playing to school children there. Rencountre danced and sang while Locke played flute and hoop danced.
He said the two men shared their goals with one another, and Locke shared his experiences with Rencountre.
“After that, he would always reach out to me with any opportunities and asked me to help him connect with people in the Black Hills area in South Dakota,” he said.
"Sensitized as they are to the importance of harmony and the fruitlessness of conflict, the followers of…
Kevin Locke on Facebook: facebook.com/kevinlockeeducator
Rencountre said he last saw Locke the day he died, Friday, September 30, at the monument, where Locke had been performing. Rencountre said Locke was in good spirits and seemed healthy.
He said Locke’s audience that day included local Native elders and a group of First Nations people from Canada.
“That kind of inspired him to share some of the older songs that he doesn’t usually share,” Rencountre said.
He said Locke talked about the COVID-19 pandemic and how human beings must face many different diseases throughout their lives.
“But he said his teachings were that the biggest disease that we face is that we lack faith,” Rencountre said. “We lack hope. We lack love and we don’t include prayer enough in our daily lives. Most importantly, we don’t treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity like how our ancestors treated one another.”
Toward the end of Locke’s final performance, he began lamenting the lack of young people in his audience. Rencountre said Locke always enjoyed seeing children in his audiences, as he always tried to pass along his knowledge of indigenous history, beliefs and practices.
Before Locke finished up that day, Rencountre said, a bus full of youth from the Oglala Nation arrived at the monument to see Locke’s final performance.
“His eyes really lit up,” Rencountre said. “It just changed the whole course of his performance and presentation. You could just tell that did something for him, to be able to teach students.”
The next morning, Rencountre’s wife told him that Locke’s son had announced on social media that his father had died the night before.
“I was taking it kind of hard that morning because I was thinking back at just how inspiring he has been for our people and for all people,” he said.
Ohíye S’a Locke described his father as a deeply spiritual person who prayed every day and believed in the oneness of all people.
“He just had a very good spirit about him and people were attracted attracted to the light that he illuminated,” he said. “I’ve always admired admired him, always thought he was just my superhero.”
He said his father had returned to his hotel room in Hill City, South Dakota, on Friday. But he suffered an asthma attack and asked the clerk at the front desk to call 911. Although he had a pulse in the ambulance, he died before he got to the hospital, Ohíye S’a Locke said.
Locke was very health conscious, ran three to four miles a day, didn’t smoke and drank water constantly, his son said.
“His passing, it was sudden,” Ohíye S’a Locke said. “Nobody expected it.”
He said he got the opportunity to speak to his father just two hours before he died. Locke was taking a walk in the Black Hills and was talking to his son by video phone. He told his son that the Lakota people believe the Black Hills are sacred and that the Creator lives there.
Because of that, Lakota people don’t like to stay in the Black Hills because it’s too close to heaven, Locke told his son.
“He said if you died, you didn’t want to get distracted,” Ohíye S’a Locke said.
Locke leaves behind many adopted relatives, including Elliot Bannister, who was an adopted, or Hunka, relative to Locke. The English-born man first met Locke in 2015 at the Lakota Summer Institute at Sitting Bull College. Both men were passionate about revitalizing the Lakota language and worked together on several language projects over the past seven years, said Bannister, speaking from Locke’s home in Wakpala, South Dakota, this week.
“He had an incredible gift of being able to communicate across cultural boundaries,” Bannister said. “Shoot, you can name any language in the world and he probably knew a few sentences in that language just to help break down those barriers and really connect to people as humans.”
He said Locke’s family and community were struggling with the news of his death.
“It’s very hard at the moment because it was so unexpected,” Bannister said. “He was a healthy vibrant athletic person that could at the age of 68 easily outrun me at the age of 30.”
Smithsonian Folklife: Native Hoop Dance by Kevin Locke
He said Locke took it upon himself to carry forth the traditions and language of his people and to pass that knowledge onto young people. He said he most enjoyed working with young people.
“To have him gone from this world so soon is giving us all pause to reflect about the responsibilities that we have now to to live up to those values that he exemplified,” Bannister said.
He said Locke was a deep spiritual thinker who often would remark that everything in this world is a “physical representation of a spiritual reality.”
“Even though his physical presence is no longer here, all those values that he exemplified and that he practiced in his life, those will endure,” Bannister said. “In the years to come, we’re going to be learning more from him.”
Locke was a longtime sundancer, having danced at Green Grass, Sitting Bull’s camp and Fort Robinson.
He leaves behind his wife Ceylan Isgor-Locke; his children, Kimímila, Ohíye S’a (Samantha), Waníya, Patricia, Maymangwa, Hepȟáŋna, Áŋpaó Dúta (Eli), Innael, Elsa, Will, Ainslie, and Campbell; and many grandchildren.
His funeral service will be held at 10am Friday at Eagles Landing Lodge in Custer, South Dakota. A meal and 2:30 p.m. burial at Bell Park Cemetery in Rochford, South Dakota, will follow.
“The message that he shares and that’s important to him — the hoop dancing and these songs and the language, the arts — made it to every corner of Earth and that’s something that I’m so appreciative and proud of,” Rencountre said. “It was a passion of his to do this, to live this way of life.”
“Its a very, very huge loss for the world.”