Unique Chapel Uplifts & Inspires

Native American speaker challenges students

By: Becky Beddoe


Gene Tagaban

Those attending chapel on May 15 were privy to a unique spiritual experience.  The School of Social Work sponsored Tuesday’s chapel, and their choice was enjoyably unconventional.  

In stark contrast to the typical chapel speech, the presenter did much more than simply speak.  He sang, he played native instruments, and he danced.  He made people laugh, he made people participate, and he made people think.

Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit Cherokee Filipino raised in Alaska, began his presentation with the rapt attention of every single person in the room.  Not a paper rustled, not a cell phone beeped, not an eye blinked.  

One long, mournful note sang from his Native American flute.  A pause.  Tagaban waited as the echoes faded into the silence.  He smiled and nodded in approval.  Another long note, another echo, another smile and nod.  “That’s all I know how to do,” Tagaban joked, “but I’m reeeeal good at it.”  

The main focus of Tagaban’s presentation was to follow your heart; to tell your story.  “We all have a story,” Tagaban said.  “As Native Americans, we don’t just say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe, I’m an accountant.’  No!  There’s so much more to who we are.”

Tagaban shared a story about the forest animals getting together for a meeting.  Interrupted by the rabbit singing a song and beating a drum outside their meeting place, they end up taking away his hands, a foot, and finally his head to get him to be quiet so they can have their meeting.  

When that was done, however, they could still hear him singing, softly, and beating his drum, quietly, because the song was coming from his heart.  And no one could take that away.

Tagaban insisted that everyone is a storyteller.  We are all telling a story, he said, it’s just a matter of what kind of story we want to tell. He made his point by quoting his father, who once told him, “You are a story, son.  Before you were even born your story was there.  Now tell it!  Tell your story!”

At one point, Tagaban had five students join him on the platform.  Each one received a Native American instrument, and were asked to play them in an easy beat.  The audience joined in with two fingers on their palms.  

With the rhythm beating steadily, Tagaban donned his raven garb, including wings and a raven headpiece complete with beak.  Then he moved to the beat, demonstrating the song that is in his heart, the dream he has had since he was five:  To be the raven dancer.

Following one’s heart is an important and necessary part of life, according to Tagaban.  God gives us the song that is in there, and we should listen to it, even if it isn’t easy.

“I knew in my heart what I wanted to do, and I followed that,” says Tagaban.  “I ran into walls.  Big walls.  Mountains.  But I knew in my heart that I was going to be the raven dancer.  Now I am the raven dancer.”

With that, Tagaban encouraged everyone to tell their stories, to listen to the song God has put in their hearts, and to be that raven dancer.  “I’m going to sing my song and tell my story,” declared Tagaban.  “What story are you going to tell?  What song is in your heart?”

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