Robert Staffanson: The most interesting man in Montana?


In this photo from the 1960s, Robert Staffanson looks on while his wife, Ann, adjusts Arthur Fiedler’s tie.

I have never met Robert Staffanson, but I am prepared to answer “yes” to the question in the headline above.

I base my opinion on having just read his autobiography, “Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians.” His story follows an arc that seems almost unbelievable. 

He was born in 1921 on a ranch near Sidney, then continued his cowboying in the Deer Lodge Valley, where his grandparents had settled in 1872. Somehow, improbably, he became a conductor, the founder of the Billings Symphony and then the conductor, at age 34, of the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts, one of the most prestigious symphonies on the East Coast.

After working and forming friendships with some of the biggest names in classical music, seemingly poised to rise to the top of his profession, Staffanson, barely 15 years later, abruptly quit his career in music to devote himself to the preservation of Native American culture and wisdom.

And now, on top of everything else, Staffanson, who turned 94 last month and lives in Bozeman, has shown the world that he is also an uncommonly fine writer, one of those rare human beings with much to say and the ability to say it well.

The most interesting man in Montana? Hell, he might be the most interesting man in America.

When he decided to tell his life story, he enlisted the help of another Bozemanite, Todd Wilkinson, a freelance journalist who published a biography of Ted Turner in 2013. But Wilkinson said it soon became clear that Staffanson didn’t need a ghostwriter. All he needed was a little coaching and a bit of encouragement.

His writing is good mainly because it is straightforward and honest. In the stories of his youth, I heard echoes of Teddy Blue Abbott, as in this memory of bronc riding: “A broken leg in those days could give you a limp for life. But riding the rankest also brought status in the ranch world. ‘He could ride anything that wore hair’ was the highest compliment.”

He writes affectingly of his love of horses and wide-open country, of his fondness for the hard life of early-day Montana ranchers, and of his awareness, even as a boy, that he did not share the disdain that so many of his fellow Montanans felt for Native Americans.

He is just as good writing about music. There are interesting stories about associates like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler, and some fascinating, instructive tales about how he and his orchestras overcame some horrendously complicated problems, all without missing a beat, literally. These are full of technical details, but told so as to be perfectly clear.

Here is his description of the conductor’s art: “A good conductor can make good musicians play well, a great conductor can make good musicians play ‘over their heads’—that is, with subtlety and expressive power beyond normal capacity. How that occurs is as mysterious as the music itself.”

Layout 1 (Page 1)After founding and conducting the Billings Symphony and then moving on to Massachusetts, Staffanson, with his wife Ann, would come back to Montana every summer to decompress and to reconnect with their roots. In Montana, Staffanson also became a regular visitor to most of the state reservations, where he made many Indian friends.

He was already feeling the pull of Indian culture when, in the late 1960s, Blackfoot friends invited him to a Blood Indian “medicine camp,” where Bloods conducted renewal ceremonies and lived, briefly, in the ways of their traditional culture. “A new world opened to me,” Staffanson writes: “a world of new values, new relationships among people, new relationships to the natural world.”

It was also during the medicine camp that he had his first brush with the supernatural, with occurrences that could not be explained rationally but which the Indian people he was with accepted without a word. That was partly because to them the supernatural was both “natural” and unknowable, Staffanson says: “Talking about it or overanalyzing it weakens it, taking away the power of its impact.”

I should probably have shown the same forbearance; it might be easy to scoff at Staffanson, given my short excerpts, but I dare you to read his own extended descriptions and scoff. One beautiful miracle he describes has to do with a robin that showed up mysteriously inside his home and disappeared just as inexplicably. “I have held something from another dimension in my hand,” he says of that robin. “I treasure it.”

All those influences led to his break with music, at least as a career. It was a hugely difficult decision, so difficult that he developed a kinked bowel—could there be a more apt psychosomatic malady?—that almost killed him. He also took so many antibiotics over an extended period that he lost much of his hearing.

But he made his break and founded the American Indian Institute, dedicated to what he said was “an idea of addressing America’s oldest moral problem: its indefensible treatment of Native Americans.” It was anything but a top-down organization. Instead, he worked patiently for years with Indian elders to let them decide what they would do and how they would do it.


Staffanson, right, was photographed with Ray Krone at Krone’s ranch in Augusta by Look magazine in the 1960s.

He likened these leaders to medieval monks, leaders who “had gone underground, keeping the spirituality, the ceremonies, the lifeways intact, guarding them with intense devotion.”

Their efforts ultimately centered on communication and education, working with indigenous people from all over North America and eventually from all over the world. Staffanson is convinced that the Europeans’ great mistake was not merely subjugating native culture, but refusing to believe it had anything to teach them.

In a world spinning out of control and on the brink of environmental disaster, he writes of the need to learn from the people who were here first. Several times he uses the striking phrase “the only wisdom indigenous to this hemisphere.” That gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “Indian time.”

More than once I wondered how in the world I’d never heard of Staffanson or his organization or its activities, so many of which were held in Montana. Staffanson said it was a conscious decision on the part of the Indian elders not to seek media attention or to promote what they were doing.

Again, they were taking the long view, convinced that slow, solid, organic growth was far more important than passing notoriety. And it continues, in ways that readers of this book will find inspiring and full of hope for the future.

Staffanson recounts many painful episodes in which he encountered naked racism, undisguised hostility and condescension, even from nominal supporters. Nor were his efforts always appreciated by Native Americans, particularly by activists who mistrusted his motives.

He says he lost many friends over his work with Indians, and the blight of racism, though not quite so pronounced, still flourishes. And yet he never writes with any bitterness in his voice. At 94 he knows he will not harvest what he has sown, but he believes there will be a harvest.

In the final chapter he writes of spirit and of love: “Love rescues us from narrow concerns for self and those close to us, allowing us to see ourselves in others and value common goodness above division.”

Speaking of love, earlier in the book he pays a beautiful tribute to his wife.

“Human beings are incomplete as individuals, needing a life partner for fulfillment,” he says. “Ann and I have fulfilled each other to a degree I could not have anticipated. Our love has deepened decade after decade. … Nearing the seventh decade it fills us to overflowing.”

What a life, what a man, what a book.

Details: “Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians” is available on Amazon and so far at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman.

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