Boulder Songwriter Silent Bear Sings Out Against Dakota Access Pipeline

On September 13, Colorado singer-songwriter Silent Bear found himself singing a new song to a group of Dakota Pipeline protesters in front of the Boulder County Courthouse.

“I ain’t gonna work on Kelcy’s pipeline no more,” the song begins. “They’re protectors of the water, they’re protectors of the land, they’re protecting the rivers from the desecration of man.”

Set to the tune of “Maggie’s Farm,” by Bob Dylan, Silent Bear’s “The Dakota Access Pipeline Dirty River Blues” is an explicit condemnation of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline, which continues to pose an environmental threat to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

“We don’t want your dirty crude oil anymore,” the song continues. “I ain’t gonna work on Kelcy’s pipeline no more.”

The “Kelcy” in the song is Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company heading up the pipeline project. Warren also owns the record company Music Road Records, which recently produced a Woody Guthrie tribute album featuring Pete Seeger. The hypocrisy of an oil company exec honoring pro-environment folk luminaries threw Silent Bear for a loop. After all, Guthrie practically invented the modern-day protest song, and Seeger was adamantly anti-fracking.

“I was like, what the hell is going on?” Silent Bear says.

Upon further research, Silent Bear learned that Music Road Records also put together a Jackson Browne tribute album, so he wrote a letter to Browne’s manager, informing the singer that he’d made — perhaps inadvertently — a very strange bedfellow. Two days later, Browne issued a statement denouncing the company, and promised to donate all proceeds from the tribute album to the Native American tribes opposing the pipeline.

Although Silent Bear is not of Native American descent (his sister dubbed him Silent Bear during a road trip and it stuck), he works with many Native peoples and has been a longtime advocate for their civil rights. Whether he’s playing shows in Boulder, Denver or out of state, he uses his music to expose hypocrisy, fight for the disenfranchised and rally others to his cause — and he’s been doing it for over twenty years.

Originally from New York, Silent Bear picked up a trombone in elementary school, then traded that in for a guitar so he could sing and play simultaneously. Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen dominated his playlist, their social consciousness touching a nerve. As Silent Bear grew as a player, he began tracking the musical influences of his favorite artists. Soon he was listening to singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lead Belly.

“Once I discovered that lineage, I started writing more consciousness-type songs,” Silent Bear says. “Songs about issues.”

In college he majored in philosophy and began reading the great thinkers. He even took a course called “Philosophical Poetry of Bob Dylan,” during which the teacher asked him to play Dylan songs for the class. Afterward, they would analyze the lyrics.

Upon graduating, Silent Bear decided to leave New York. Despite his appreciation for its cultural diversity, the city began to feel claustrophobic. “After a while, you go over the bridge and see all those big buildings, and they look kinda like tombstones in a graveyard,” he says.

His sister had gone to college at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Silent Bear had visited more than once. The omnipresent nature and openness of the land provided the perfect counterpoint to New York, so in 1993 he moved to Boulder, where he started playing steady gigs, mostly in the burgeoning coffeehouse scene.

It was around this time that he began frequenting Boulder’s Beat Book Shop to read up on Native American spirituality. An employee took notice of his interest and invited him to a sacred sweat lodge ceremony called Inipi. There he learned about mitakuye oyasin, a Lakota phrase meaning “All are related.”

“That means, generally, that we’re related to every single living life on this planet,” Silent Bear says. “What you do to the earth, you do to yourself.”

The more he explored Native American spirituality, the more it influenced his music — music that would soon be aimed toward a cause.

By the late ’90s, Silent Bear was attending many Native American ceremonies, where he noticed that many of the attendees’ cars bore bumperstickers reading “Free Leonard Peltier.” Peltier, a Native American civil-rights activist, was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during the 1975 Pine Ridge Indian Reservation conflict and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. The conviction generated enormous controversy, with doubts raised over the fairness of Peltier’s trial. Silent Bear read Peltier’s book, Prison Writing: My Life Is My Sun Dance. It ignited a righteous anger in him on behalf of the author, and it wasn’t long until he’d penned a brand-new song, “Peltier.”

Like many supporters, Silent Bear believes that Peltier is innocent of the crimes attributed to him and wants him freed.

After writing “Peltier,” Silent Bear became heavily involved in efforts to pardon the political prisoner. He even went so far as to contact some of his folk heroes in the hope of organizing a benefit concert. To his surprise, Pete Seeger responded.

Over the next few years, Seeger and Silent Bear worked to orchestrate the “Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012” concert held at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Aside from Seeger, the concert included such notables as Jackson Browne, Harry Belafonte, Common, Mos Def and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

While the fight to free Leonard Peltier is not over, the situation in Standing Rock is currently taking up much of Silent Bear’s focus. He’s been watching the story develop since the beginning, when there was just a small camp of pipeline protesters, and looked on aghast as construction workers began bulldozing the Sioux’s sacred burial grounds.

“It’s like bulldozing the Arlington Cemetery and selling the bones to the Smithsonian,” he says.

While Energy Transfer Partners is using bulldozers and a team of lawyers, Silent Bear is using what he’s always used to fight back: music. While he is still thinking of how to use the song to help the protestors in practical ways, he does hope that it will innervate people to stand up and do something.

“I believe in the power of song,” he said. Then, quoting Seeger: “The right song at the right time can change history.”

If you're interested in learning more about Standing Rock, please visit these websites:

Silent Bear
Friday, October 7, License No. 1, 2115 13th Street, Boulder, 303-443-0486; at A Tribute to Bob Dylan, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 9, Gold Hill Inn, 401 Main Street, Boulder, 303-443-6461, $12.

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