Robert Staffanson


Written by Todd Wilkinson author of Ted Turner’s Last Stand

No one I know—or ever met—has undergone radical reinvention the way Robert Staffanson has. But he’s actually done it twice. The arc of his life involves a progression through a trio of distinct movements spread across almost a century, each interwoven and interconnected by the same moral compass, but none serving as a logical, predictable antecedent to the next. To understand what I am talking about, ponder:

• Raised on cattle ranches in rural Montana, Staffanson first identifies as a cowboy.
• Later, he becomes a symphony conductor making a name for himself in the highbrow world of temperamental, classical music maestros on the East Coast and beyond.
• In mid-life, and then spanning half a century, he emerges from a cocoon, completing a metamorphosis, emerging as … are you ready for this … a quiet, self-effacing civil rights activist. Wholly awakened to the struggle of American indigenous peoples—Indians—he says goodbye to his former life and joins a global fight for human rights and justice.

I’ve never encountered another Westerner like him.

Now that I have your full attention, as your thoughts spin just as mine did, allow me to elaborate further on the stages in Staffanson’s enigmatic transformation.

As a native son of the West, he grew up on the backs of horses. He is a product of the cowboy culture of myth and lore, defined by its brawny mystique, masculine physicality, and quiet, hard-nosed stoicism that fits the stereotype most of us carry in our minds. Staffanson wore denim, leather boots with spurs on the heels, chaps on thighs; riding with hands calloused by rope, tack-adorning saddle, and yes, a sweat-stained vaquero hat brimmed just over the brow.

During his coming of age, first along the lonesome flanks of the Yellowstone River near the badlands of far eastern Montana, and subsequently in the Deer Lodge Valley girded by mountains on the western side of the state, Staffanson arguably was headed toward just another bucolic existence.

But along this journey, the rawhide man was summoned to another calling, his ear finely tuned in childhood to an ambient, open-air soundtrack playing in his head. Imprinted on his psyche were the melodies of his father’s fiddle and mother’s singing of prairie church hymns. From his earliest sanguine memories of childhood—in the 1920s and 1930s—Staffanson recalls a close relationship with the violin that he came to know as intimately as a lariat.

This love affair led the sensitive wrangler to attain a college degree in music at the University of Montana. Against long odds and doubts expressed by others, Staffanson founded the first symphony orchestra in Montana’s largest city and, by fluke of fate, attended a national, invitation-only, conductor’s workshop in Philadelphia where the great maestro Eugene Ormandy was presiding.

Totally unexpected, Ormandy took a liking to the young unassuming cowboy conductor and opened a proverbial door, seeing in him promise and spirit. Through that threshold of kismet, Staffanson landed a prestigious conducting post with a renowned regional symphony in Massachusetts. The Springfield Symphony, in fact, commanded a reputation surpassed only by the Boston Symphony.
Under his direction, Staffanson harnessed the talents of an extraordinary assemblage of classical musicians and he met legends like Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein, in addition to other prominent contemporaries in Europe. The kid from the Old Wild West was, in a tuxedo and directing a baton, putting his interpretation on Old World masterworks such as Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 9th, and Puccini’s La Boheme.

This improbable chain of events alone would make for a colorful memoir, but it merely sets the stage for Staffanson’s third and final act.

Something inexplicable summoned him homeward from the Berkshires. While on summer breaks from Springfield in Montana, where he savored the return to cattle roundups and riding with his wife, Ann, he forged friendships with Native Americans. Staffanson, in ways he hadn’t before, saw for the first time, the intense racism directed at indigenous people by his own culture. And he became ashamed.

As he spent more time in the company of Indians from various tribes, often on reservations, he realized his own life wasn’t complete. Far from it. Rising consciousness about the abuses of native people and the suffering they had endured as a result of European conquest left him rattled and unable to feign ignorance any longer.

He told his wife he wanted to quit his conducting career and move back West. In the wake of that life-altering decision, he was beset by sudden tragedy. Complications of an illness would, over time, rob Staffanson of his hearing, the most valuable sensual asset he had. Paradoxically, he says, it forced him to become a better listener.

Again, his life would take another dramatic turn. It was only while attending a gathering of Blood Indians at a remote camp in Canada, that Staffanson heeded a yearning for meaning that had been percolating inside him his entire life. He emerged, vowing to devote himself to being an ally to indigenous peoples. Quickly, he discovered the decision would be met with incredulity and suspicion by distrusting Indians and equal astonishment and animosity from acquaintances in white society who accused him of betraying his race.

Oren Lyons, a renowned leader, activist, and elder in the Onondaga Nation (one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy) and who today has a close bond with Staffanson, told me, “At first, we didn’t know what to make of Bob. An indication of his character is not that he sought to somehow gain or establish himself as a self-righteous do-gooder, but it is what Bob gave up that demonstrated his intention was sincere. This is what earned him trust and credibility. What he gave up was everything—his career; his power; his prestige and standing; and having to explain it all to his dear partner, Ann.”

In the quest to confront 500 years of genocide committed against the oldest people on the continent, Staffanson and traditional indigenous leaders founded the American Indian Institute and originated an unprecedented concept called the “Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth.” It has opened lines of communication among indigenous cultures globally in ways that never before existed.

As Staffanson explains later in these pages, “The core of the Circle is about 50 leaders from the four directions who hold gatherings called Councils each year in a different part of Indian Country in North America. In each place, they meet with between three and five hundred or more people; so over the years the number associated with the Circle, while not quantifiable, is huge. Their mission is to sustain and build the moral base that has sustained their people over time, and through which the heritage will survive.”

Worldwide, native languages are vanishing rapidly, and with them, Lyons and Staffanson say, is a profound understanding and orientation, perfected across thousands of human generations, that offers insight to the secrets of existence—for all beings on sacred earth. Today, at a time of climate change (which was prophesied by native shamans centuries ago), rising unsustainable growth in human population, loss of species, nuclear dangers, and culture clashes born by the destruction of natural systems, heeding native wisdom to avert calamity isn’t a mandate; it is a choice.

~ • ~

Oblivious to Staffanson and what he and the Circle had done, my introduction to him came in the form of an old-fashioned letter he penned that arrived in the mail in 2013. He sent it from across the same small town, Bozeman, Montana, that we both share in the northern Rocky Mountains. Immediately, within the first few lines, he apologized for not phoning me directly. Mr. Staffanson was nearly totally deaf, a man now in the early years of his nineties. He had just read an environmental biography I had written about the American “media mogul” and environmentalist Ted Turner, and he inquired if I might help him tell his story.

After the book on Turner appeared in print, I had received numerous solicitations. It was only in my own ignorance and lack of time that I initially shrugged off Staffanson. Based on his persistence, he and I agreed to a meeting. We were able to communicate verbally because Bob had learned to read lips and from his own lips he shared an anecdote.

Earlier in the year, he and a visiting Pueblo Indian friend named Jose Lucero had driven out to watch bison at one of Ted Turner’s ranches in Montana. The animals were somewhat skittish, Staffanson said, but as soon as Lucero began to sing a Santa Clara Pueblo buffalo honoring song in his native language, the bison—mothers and calves—drew near and surrounded him. Watching it was emotional for both men.

“If you think it’s strange, even unbelievable, that this happened and you have no interest in talking with me further, I understand,” Staffanson told me. “But if you are willing to continue, there are other stories like this I can share—lots of them. They didn’t start happening until I began working with Indians.”

I was curious, intrigued, and suspicious. Not long afterward, Staffanson shared correspondence that he exchanged with the great essayist, poet, farmer, and conservationist Wendell Berry. “Now that I have you on my mind,” Berry wrote to Staffanson, “I have a question for you. For quite a while now I have been thinking that our use of the word ‘wild’ is most often used wrongly. From my observation of the so-called ‘wild’ creatures, I conclude that they are all going about lives for which the only accurate term is ‘domestic.’ That is to say that they are making homes, raising young, carrying on a kind of economic life, and, far more than most people suspect, enjoying themselves. And so I ask you: Do the Indians of your acquaintance think of the native creatures of a country as ‘wild?’”

Now you, reader, like me, may not have ever heard previously of Staffanson or the American Indian Institute; but I subsequently learned he has interacted with political, business, and spiritual leaders around the world who have been in positions to make a difference for people who have lived closest to the Earth longest. “Native people from this continent are beloved around the world and it’s something most Americans don’t realize or bother to wonder why,” Staffanson said. “I have seen the interactions in Japan, Russia, European countries, and Africa. There is also a mutual recognition of indigenous peoples.”

Staffanson and I began to meet regularly and only then did my appreciation of the profundity of his journey deepen. My conversations with him were analogous to the kind of discussion that writer Mitch Albom had with Morrie Schwartz presented in his brilliant book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Great Lesson.

With Witness to Spirit: My Life With Cowboys, Mozart and Indians, the book now in your hands, Bob Staffanson speaks in his own voice. And let me assert that he did not need me to be a translator or ghostwriter. He is an insightful, articulate, and thoughtful author who only needed a little gentle coaxing to put his remarkable story down on paper.

Witness to Spirit is not a mere memoir. It is an important, unforgettable book full of wisdom that, once read, will leave you changed in the way you think about America. It is a reminder for us all of the spiritual transformation that can only happen when we have the courage and moral conviction to open our minds, ears, and hearts.