The Colgate Scene
November 2004

Native connections
Student helps prison inmates explore their identities through the music of their heritage

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Susan Taffe '06 spent her summer in prison — or part of it, at least — on a research project of her own design.

The music and Native American studies double major introduced nearly 90 adult male inmates housed at two penitentiaries in her home state to an ancient musical instrument, the Native American flute. Traveling once a week to the Waymart and Retreat State Correctional Institutions in Waymart and Hunlock Creek, Pa., she spent half-days behind the walls of each facility teaching prisoners involved in Native American Circle organizations how to play the six-holed flute, which resembles a whistle.

"It was an amazing summer," said Taffe, who is a Lenape Indian from Dushore, Penn. The project was the brainchild of her uncle, East Delaware Indian Nation Chief Mike Medicine Shield Taffe. The elder Taffe serves as a Native American prison chaplain, and runs Waymart and Retreat's Native American Circles, which serve as spiritual and therapy groups for the inmates. The groups' members hold Native American ceremonies, tell ancient stories, and sing and play music.

Taffe's uncle asked her to take part in the circles' singing, dancing, and drumming rituals, and to show the prisoners how to play the instrument. His niece had taught music lessons before (she also sings and plays classical piano and concert flute), and had "picked up" the Native American flute while participating in Colgate's Native American Study Group in Santa Fe, N.M., in the fall of 2003.

"I figured it would be a great thing for her to do," explained Mike Taffe. "She's a fantastic flute, drum, and piano player, and she's really connected to her Native American roots. I felt that Susie — through her music — could help the inmates do the same." He said that he and his niece had worked together on a similar outreach initiative with the Head Start educational program, and had found that the sounds of the Native American flute had a calming effect on the children involved. They hoped it would be similarly therapeutic for the members of the Native American Circles.

Taffe discussed the idea with Sarah Wider, professor of English and head of the Native American Studies department, and then proposed it as a summer research project. It was quickly approved.

"Given the importance of music within native cultures and the power of music to connect people, Susie's work seemed vital — something that should be done," said Wider. "She is at ease with music, both from her long years of study and through her lifelong participation in the songs, so I felt she was perfectly placed to start up a program for the prisoners. Fortunately, Colgate's financial support literally made this work possible. It would have been exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for Susie to have pursued this work had she not received a research grant from the university." Taffe's project, explained Wider, was subsidized through the summer research program; out of 18 who submitted proposals, Taffe was one of five students whose work was supported by the Division of University Studies.

Each week throughout the summer, Taffe followed the same routine: She rose at dawn, loaded up her car with her drums and flutes, drove several hours from the Hamilton area to Pennsylvania, underwent a lengthy security check at the entrance of one of the prisons, and made her way through the institution's general population to play for the Native American Circle. She would repeat the exercise at the second facility in the afternoon.

The first time she visited one of the prisons, Taffe admitted that she felt nervous about meeting the inmates, but any hesitation quickly melted away once she focused on her goals. She wanted to provide the prisoners with three things, she said: a therapeutic and artistic outlet to express themselves; a way to connect to their own inner faith; and a sense of belonging to a community other than the correctional system. A loftier goal was to ultimately help stem recidivism among her pupils.

"Unfortunately, prison strips you of your identity, and when you're stripped of your culture and being, you're basically an empty shell," explained Mike Taffe. "This is one way that Susie helped the inmates find their identities again."

"I think, in general, that history and culture is really important to people as individuals," added Taffe, who plans to earn her Ph.D. in Native American ethnomusicology. "If I helped my students strengthen their ties with their heritage and identities, maybe it will help them follow better paths in the future."

While the project has clearly been rewarding for her on a personal level, Taffe admitted that it hasn't always been easy. The Native American flute can be somewhat difficult to play, she explained. The instrument is pitched based on a non-Western scale, and is played alone, which makes group teaching situations challenging. As well, many of the inmates did not read music, and had never played an instrument before joining the Native American Circle.

Susan Taffe '06
  • Activities: University Chorus, Native American Student Association, Women's Chamber Ensemble; takes voice lessons; plays the piano.
  • Sponsored by Colgate to attend "On Our Own Ground: Mapping Indigeneity within the Academy," a commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Harvard University's Indian College in Cambridge, Mass.
Of course, there was also the daunting task of spending long periods of time inside the minimum-to-medium- and medium-to-high-security prisons.

Taffe said she had no knowledge of her pupils' criminal records, and had no desire to learn about that part of their lives. "I wasn't there to make judgments," she said. "For me, it's all about the music; it's all about the spirituality."

At the end of the summer, Taffe and her students were able to demonstrate their newfound spirituality and talents at a traditional Native American event called the Green Corn Festival ceremony, which marks the start of the harvest season. Both prisons celebrated the occasion with feasts and performances one weekend in late August.

The inmates, said Taffe, seemed to enjoy learning the Native American flute and practiced as much as they could for the Green Corn Festival. "They got really excited about it," she said. "It's been really great for me to see the difference I made in their lives." And the ceremony, she was proud to add, went off without a hitch: "The feast was wonderful, and the performances, as well as the food, were really spectacular," she said.

Mike Taffe agreed. "Everyone involved absolutely loved Susie. They would look forward to her coming, and they can't wait to see her again."

Taffe's return to the penitentiaries could be a long time coming. During the school year, Taffe said her coursework at Colgate will likely prevent her from making the trip to Pennsylvania on a weekly basis. But once she settles into the new school year and completes her final paper on her experiences this summer, she said, she may have a better idea of when she can resume the project. (At press time, Taffe was just beginning to write up her research on Native Americans in the U.S. penitentiary system, the roles of music and spirituality in prison life, the Native American flute, and her approach to teaching the instrument to the inmates.)

Still, Taffe said she plans to visit the Waymart and Retreat facilities during breaks, and is talking with administrators at a prison in nearby Norwich, N.Y., about getting involved with that institution's Native American Circle.

"Once I learned to play the Native American flute, I knew I wanted to share the experience," she said. "As with any instrument, I am continually learning more and more as I spend time teaching it. There is always room for learning, and I think I will have learned twice as much as my students have by the end of this project."

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