Shelley Morningsong Reclaims her Tribal Heritage
Shelley Morningsong, a Native American contemporary singer and flute player scheduled to perform at the Autry’s American Indian Arts Marketplace on Nov. 6 and 7, grew up in a musical
family: her grandfather played the banjo, her grandmother taught piano, her mother played piano and accordion, and her uncle played the trumpet. But it took marrying into another family of music makers to awaken her true voice as an artist.
“When I got to know my husband, I developed so much respect and appreciation for him,” said Morningsong, who is Northern Cheyenne and grew up outside of Los Angeles. “He really helped get me back to my traditions.”
As a teenager, Morningsong joined a country rock band called Hearts of the West that at one point opened for acts like Charlie Daniels and Juice Newton, when they played at the Sweetwater Cafe in Redondo Beach. But that wasn’t her ultimate path.
About ten years ago, Morningsong was one of several performers who auditioned for Music from a Painted Cave, the 2000 PBS special featuring the Native American songwriter/flute player Robert Mirabal that was later released as a CD. That was where she met Fabian Fontanelle, a Zuni and Omaha Indian who works as an educator, historian and consultant to museums and movies. Fontanelle comes from a family of Zuni dancers. It wasn’t long before they married.
Morningsong, who recently released her latest album, Full Circle, on Deer Star Records, said she learned a lot of what she knows about music, and about Native American traditions, from Fontanelle.
“He’s a really traditional man and a man of prayer,” Morningsong said. “He has been such a great teacher for me and a mentor. I have lot of respect for him, and I thank him all the time. He teaches me things I should have learned growing up.”
Morningsong’s parents divorced before she was born, and she grew up with her mother, who struggled with alcoholism. It’s a problem that also bedeviled her father, as well as Fontanelle and his family. But how each has dealt with the problem has been instructive for Morningsong.
“A lot of Native American families on and off the reservation are really sick with alcoholism,” she said. “It’s a tragedy and epidemic among many Native American families all across the United States. I think it’s sad because the federal government is not really taking any action to help people with this.”
Morningsong said her mother’s problem meant she was not able to learn more about her own Native American heritage.
“A lot of things get lost and are not taught to the next generation,” she said. “We’ve had some really beautiful moments, but there have also been some very dark and sad times in our lives.”
But when she visited the Zuni pueblo with Fontanelle, she was amazed to see how vested that
community was in its roots.
“Almost everyone who lives in Zuni speaks Zuni,” she said. “The children speak it too.”
She was so impressed that on her first album, Out of the Ashes, she sang in the Zuni language. It was among the first recordings of music in the Zuni language, she said, and now the pueblo’s radio station plays those songs often.
The couple’s collaborative style is both intense and laid-back. Morningsong talks about how, during a moonlit drive to Montana, Fontanelle helped her develop lyrics to a song about “grandmother moon.”
“We had full moon and it was so bright you could turn the headlights off and drive,” she said. “I was talking to him about how I’d really love to write a song about the moon, but I was not sure how to do this…. He started telling me about what the moon means to his family. It was an awesome conversation about the power of the moon over the earth, and the tides.”
The result was the song “Sweet Protector.”
Now, Morningsong and Fontanelle work as a team out of their home in Albuquerque, N.M., where they own a Native American music and arts shop, Elk Dance Music and More. They manage it between gigs across the West that feature just her, just him, or more often, the two of them together. The shop is one of three Native American-owned businesses in the historic district of the city.
“We are doing awesome business,” she said. “This is real Indian stuff, not things made in China. We’ve made so many friends and met wonderful people. People are really looking for an authentic Native American experience. Even if they’re outsiders, that is what they want.”
Here are Morningsong and Fontanelle performing together in Albuquerque: