Grammy-award winning artist shares his story of dealing with racism during Gateway event
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Grammy-award winning artist shares his story of dealing with racism during Gateway event

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Bill Miller has led a successful life. But it hasn’t shielded him from the racism directed at Native Americans such as himself.

This week, as part of Gateway Technical College’s Diversity 365 program, the college brought Miller, who said he is half Mohican, to Gateway’s campuses in Kenosha, Racine and Elkhorn to share his music and his story.

A member of the Mohican tribe from northern Wisconsin, Miller, 64, grew up amid the streams and woodlands of the reservation. He said he grew up the oldest of nine children of an abusive, alcoholic Mohican father and German-American mother.

With just a high school degree from Shawano High School (he later was given an honorary bachelor’s degree by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) Miller became an award-winning Native American recording artist, performer, songwriter, activist, painter and expert native flute player.

He has produced more than a dozen albums, received three Grammy awards and eight Native American Music Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award); recorded soundtracks for HBO, Showtime and Disney; and led the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra.

“As a man, as a Native American, I’ve held back too much,” Miller told an audience of about two dozen people inside the Garden Room of Gateway’s Lake Building on the Downtown Racine campus on Tuesday. “All my life I’ve been told to shut up, turn around, be quiet, don’t wear your beadwork, cut your hair.”

“I deal with that at truck stops. ... They say, ‘Hey Chief, what’s up?’ ”

Miller said he’ll respond with something like, “I don’t know Pilgrim, how are you doing?’… every day, I get that racism.”

Despite that, he said, “more people of other races have helped me than Native people. I’m being 100% honest.”

“What happened was: I learned from other races through my music,” Miller said. “I’ve worked with so many different artists.”

Miller said Carlos Santana approached him after he received one of his Grammy awards, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “I believe in you.” Bonnie Raitt told him the same thing, he said.

Music a ‘sacred thing’

Miller spent part of his time Tuesday playing his electric guitar and playing American Indian flutes, including the V-shape drone flute. He sang in English at times, Mohican at others, and demonstrated the ululating Native American singing.

“Music to me is still a sacred thing,” he said.

He finished with a story about meeting Leonard Cohen, then sang a beautiful rendition, true to Jeff Buckley’s cover, of Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah.”

Miller is currently working on another album with Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, as producer.

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