Kevin Locke chatting during filming of "Wish You Were Here with Eliza Blue" in Tuttle, North Dakota. (Photo by Christian Begeman)

On the last day of September, South Dakota lost a great artist and human. Kevin LockeTȟokéya Inážiŋ, (“The First to Arise”) was a preeminent player of the North American Indigenous flute, a traditional Lakota storyteller, culture bearer, recording artist, and educator. He was perhaps best-known for his traditional hoop dance, The Hoop of Life, but more than an internationally renowned hoop dancer, more than a leading reviver of the Indigenous flute, Locke’s calling was to share a message of unity to the world.

As he taught: When brought together in love, the various “hoops” that make up the peoples of the world create a “hoop of many hoops…There are no corners, no dark place, no back row…we are all there, shoulder to shoulder…”

Kevin was also my friend and collaborator. We’d recently started working together on a project called the “Kithship Collective.” Kithship (as opposed to kinship, which implies a genetic component) is a relationship built on a shared knowledge of place and the collective’s origin story commenced when I hosted Kevin last year on my PBS show. I was totally starstruck during filming, so nervous I had to white knuckle my way through the performance, but afterward, he called me on the phone and told me how much he appreciated what I was building. “Keep going,” he told me. “You are bringing people together. It is important work.” 

I decided if Kevin Locke thought I was on the right track, it must be so! Over the next few months we exchanged emails and texts and my idea for the collective began to take shape: this would be an organization whose goal was a celebration of our kith here on the grasslands–human and non-human family members with whom we share the literal soil we stand on, and whose well-being is inextricably intertwined with our own. I asked Kevin and Chuck Suchy (another musician who lives on and loves the prairie) if they would be founding members along with me and we started laying plans together. We scheduled a filming date for a two-episode arc and we set up our first show at the Matthews Opera House in Spearfish, South Dakota. It felt like a dream come true.

On the way to meet Kevin and Chuck for that day of filming, I found out Kevin had passed away in the night. How was it possible? I’d been texting with him just a few hours before. The loss has felt incalculably, almost insurmountably vast. 

At his funeral, Kevin’s wife Ceylan shared a beautiful thought with us. We all knew Kevin loved this land but did we know the land loved him back? She had seen it many times: the way the songbirds shared their songs to inspire his flute, the way the wind wrapped around him when he walked through the tall grass as though in an embrace. I knew exactly what she was talking about because the week before his death I’d been listening back to recordings we’d made during a rehearsal and my ears were suddenly awakened to a conversation I hadn’t known was happening at the time. When Kevin spoke, birds in nearby trees trilled responses. When he told a story the wind rose up to set a wind chime ringing in agreement. I’ve spent almost a decade writing love songs to this place, but never once stopped to consider that the relationship could be reciprocal. 

Today, I sat at my desk writing and I could hear two blue jays shouting in the tree break. They felt like emissaries, so I stepped outside to see what they wanted. I only caught a glimpse of their shadows as they flitted away, but as I watched them, a soft breeze brushed across the grass, jingling the wind chime, and on a whim, I glanced up. Above my head, so high it was barely distinct from the bright blue sky, a single eagle circled slowly, rising until where there had been the distinct shadow of a bird there suddenly was simply more sky, infinite, beautiful, and full of grace.

Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.

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