Contemporary Legends . . . Knifewing
by Susan Strom-Tsosie
In the Zuni days of old, there emerged a legendary figure known throughout Winter Pueblos as Knifewing; a half-man, half-eagle sort of deity, with knife-shaped feathers, or wings. "You don't talk about these stories in the summertime, or else the rattlesnakes will strike at you," a Zuni elder cautiously relates with a wink, "better to save these stories for wintertime, when story-telling is done."
The Zuni, a Pueblo relative who speak their own dialect dwell peacefully in their small allocated village surrounded by miles and miles of desert terrain in Southwestern New Mexico. The Zuni practice their traditional beliefs ardently, maintain a stronghold on their rebellious youth, and still operate the community by way of an Elder hierarchy.
Enter the famed Knifewing, an ultimate sort of warrior who may whimsically be known as the Great One who comes down from his ethereal plateau to bestow wisdom, strength and courage amongst his recipients, only revealing himself to the warriors who serve as protectors of the village (note the Knifewing symbol emblazoned in the shields of the Zuni Fire and Police Dept.) us his great Mystery.'
Thousands of miles away, unbeknownst to the Zuni clan, young Knifewing Segura, of Chiricahua Apache descent travels in tow with his military family, from the unfathomable continents of far away Europe, to the industrial cities of the U.S. Christened Knifewing by his Father in reverence for the name of the honored warrior, how little did either of them know how worthy this young man would have to prove himself to be in order to carry the weight of his name responsibly.
"I've lived in many countries overseas," Knifewing recalls, with a wistful sigh, "but it wasn't until we returned to America that we began to notice the prejudice, insecurity and violence that befall American people. It struck us particularly hard, not having been accustomed to these traits, and not witnessing them so visibly in the other places we lived. My family returned to the United States at a time when the drinking and drug availability on the reservation (and in mainstream society as well) was so rampant, I considered it the everyday norm. The peer pressure and wanting to fit in was so great that I fell into the patterns myself, as well. That was the beginning of a painful, lengthy education."
Military life was demanding on the temperaments of Knifewing and his family. His Father, a Command Sergeant Major, was gone for prolonged absences, and the void felt in the household as a result of this, coupled with the uncertainty whether Father would return forced the children to delve into their creative juices for distraction.
Knifewing began traditional dancing around the age of sixteen, and took up with the traditional Native Dance circuit until, in 1976 while dancing at the New Mexico State Fair, met his first wife, a woman of the Zuni people. Also of the rebellious, experimental generation Knifewing and his peers hailed from, the marriage was doomed to failure in conflict with the influences involved, but in the midst of the turmoil, his wife bore him two sons, Shilo and Hawk.
When the marriage dissolved, the Zuni government designated that the children would remain on the Zuni reservation in accordance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, and learn traditional values. Knifewing suddenly found himself a permanent resident with a tribe far removed from his own culture in order to participate in the raising of his sons.
"At first I sort of felt like a prisoner with only one ultimatum," Knifewing remembers, " . . . stay and raise my children, or leave and give up my children. Then suddenly, that Zuni Magic came to life, and I began to receive blessings from having made the appropriate choices. Naturally I had chosen to remain, and then, having resigned myself to the assumption that I would be leading this restricted life, phenomenal things began happening to me. I really believe my life began to unfold when I took up residence in Zuni."
Searching for a trade, Knifewing apprenticed with, then formed a brief partnership with Ray Tracey, a noted Navajo jeweler who worked out of Gallup, not far from Zuni. In short time, Knifewing's creations had attracted attention across the country, and awards for these works of art soon ensued.
As the saying goes, "You can't tempt fate," each stepping stone in Knifewing's life has led inevitably to another level of growth; Knifewing inexplicably being the unwitting victim of his own restlessness and spontaneity.
While preparing for a trade show in Arlington, Texas at which he would be showcasing his jewelry, the lead promoter asked Knifewing if, hypothetically, he knew of any musical performers he could refer to them. Apparently one of their leading acts had canceled last minute, leaving them in a predicament. Knifewing pondered the question for a moment, then unhesitatingly announced, "Give me a try!"
The incredulous promoter allowed Knifewing a telephone audition, and although Knifewing had only two days to prepare for this spontaneous assignment, he was hired on the spot, much to the surprise and enthusiasm of the promoter himself.
Since then, Knifewing's music genius has far surpassed his own comprehension, despite his exerted attempts to keep abreast of his ongoing musical education. He remarried a lovely, serene woman of the Navajo people, encouraged her on the keyboards, and formed an all-native band. Ironically, most members of Knifewing's group come from the village of Zuni, although, like Knifewing, hail from diverse tribal origins.
The parallels are uncanny. The Zuni word, a-tchi-a la-to-pa, which is utilized and identified with the Zuni for protective forces, actually translates in English to the name Knifewing. Knifewing himself does not come without a calling.
"I had told my wife, Beverly, about three years ago how I wanted to start singing about the beauty of the Native American culture . . . then the next day I receive a phone call from that promoter in Texas! I think this is what coming full circle is all about: I had made the official decision to walk away from a darker world, and immediately things began to fall into place."
"Warrior of the Past" was the first song Knifewing wrote collaboratively with his wife, Bev, and, as mentioned before, had only two days to complete a series of songs with which to perform for his audition.
One thing led to another . . . while Knifewing was successfully performing at the Texas Indian Market, he was observed by the Public Relations people of Michael Martin Murphy's West Fest Organization, and thus was invited to tour with the West Fest circuit. Knifewing was chosen as opening act for the Highwaymen, then was invited to perform at Farm Aid VI with the Grandaddies of them all: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and others. At the conclusion of Farm Aid VI, Knifewing was given the opportunity to headline for the Native American Music Festival in Atlanta, Georgia.
Knifewing finds his accelerated success overwhelming and astonishing, but speculates cautiously that this may be mysteriously conjured by some higher power to serve a more elevated purpose; something of higher moral value than his own personal quest for self- fulfillment.
"My wake-up call came one day while out on the reservation I witnessed officials pulling dead children from a demolished vehicle where the parent had been drinking and driving. I couldn't digest the reality of it all. Talk is one thing, but to witness a tragedy - a totally unnecessary tragedy such as this, changes your life forever. It was devastating! Those could have been my children!"
When Knifewing returns to these past experiences, you can visibly see the shadows of pain cross his face; the creasing of his brow, as if that invisible third eye is the epicenter for all the world's ills. This man clearly carries the burdens of many on his shoulders, and his heart truly on his sleeve. ". . . and the suicides. Our people have a high suicide rate, gang infiltration," Knifewing gestures frustratingly, ". . . you could just see what all the drinking and the type of music they were listening to did to accumulate feelings of uselessness and despair, particularly with our young people."
Instantly, perception comes to light as to what Knifewing's mission is potentially destined. An adamant non-drinker, it is his dream, Knifewing proclaims, to utilize his gift of music ability to help heal the wounds of abused and abandoned children, to help heal the memories of a devastating historical past, to bring cognizance to the dominant society who impose their beliefs and judgement systematically, and songs to honor past ancestral leaders. Through his music, Knifewing wishes to rekindle pride in being Native, and reinforces the value of this pride every time he is invited to perform at a school or youth organization.
Using traditional elements in his music, Knifewing includes the Native American flute, traditional bells, rattles, and one of the country's largest traditional drums among his repertoire. The combining of these sounds converge a blend of the soothing aspects of Nature's rhythms with lyrics only one deeply connected with his roots and the roots of all people could be capable of creating. To describe the music would have to be in parables, it is so subtle; the incorporation of earthy tones, romance, and lofty spiritual incantations, likened to the sound of an echo from deep within the hollow of the deepest forest. It offers a haunting quality that remains with you long after the last chord has reverberated through your veins and threatened to jump into the next dimension.
Knifewing's sound is a sound that is unduplicatible and thus has cultivated almost a cult following. It is this unique sound that also earned Knifewing the coveted Native American Male Vocalist Award for 1995, and the Native American Music Pioneer Award, where the group was flown to Atlanta, Georgia, to receive their honors along with artists among the ranks of Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Joanne Shenandoah and Andrew Lacapa.
Knifewing will always counterbalance praise with the emphasis that any musical blessings bestowed upon him are granted only by the grace that he be heard throughout the Indian Nations and all Nations of his messages condemning the use of drugs and alcohol. He is constantly asked to speak at forums and schools on the evils of substance abuse and past experiences that have changed his life. Knifewing also endorses physical fitness and has held the New Mexico State Middleweight title in kickboxing.
Knifewing is careful to diversify his performances to suit a range of audiences from primary school to university status, State Fairs, Arts and Crafts Exhibitions, to major concerts and Nationally Televised productions.
As well as an award-winning jeweler who still exhibits and markets his unique, ethnic designs, Knifewing has accomplished many roles as entertainer, musician, father, husband and role model. Additionally, Knifewing has also made appearances in film as Chataw, a Lakota Sioux in the movie Jonathan of the Bears, which was filmed in Russia (his music was also featured in the film). This feature film is already cultivating favorable notice in the European countries.
From watching with awe as a young man his musical heroes; Willie, Waylon and the Boys filling the auditoriums with their countrified charisma, to actually participating on-stage with these legends of Country Music, Knifewing is destined to become a legend himself for rewriting the book on musical style. He has also proven to the public that a performer can succeed in business without the enhancement of drugs, alcohol or self- destructive behavior. The fact that this performer can use his musical ability to create a bridge of cultural awareness, a reverence for the Native Culture embraces him within the structure of struggling families who are so desperately attempting to send their offspring down an honorable path. These spiritual messages are brought forth, timed by the chord of the guitar or the rattle of a gourd to soaring heights, like a feather captured by the imagination of the wind; Knifewing's own hallmark.
His music has given life to the Legend.
Written by Susan Strom-Tsosie - Free Air - Fine Art Gallery, Santa Fe, NM. (505) 983-8843, email
103340,firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was printed in NEECHEE CULTURE MAGAZINE, 273 Selkirk Ave.
Winnipeg, MB, Canada, R2W 2L5. (204) 586-3667, Fax (204) 586-5165. Publisher: Richard
Grouette. General Manager: Ron Scherza
Knifewing is the founder and chairperson for NAPA - Native American Performing Arts (505) 863-0644
Knifewing is the founder and chairperson for NAPA - Native American Performing Arts (505) 863-0644