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Native American Music Awards 'Big Alligator' A 'Nammy' Surprise

By Peter B. Gallagher

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - On the most gala night in American Indian music history, Seminole Chief Jim Billie, record company owner Tom Bee, Oneida songstress Joanne Shenandoah, Mohican balladeer Bill Miller and Indigenous were the big winners.

But it was a nameless eight-foot American alligator that stole the show at the second annual Native American Music Association (NAMA) Awards, Nov. 6, before a sold-out Popejoy Hall crowd on the campus of the University of New Mexico.

Billie won a Nammy, as the awards are known, as Debut Artist Of The Year for his stunning 1999 Sound Of America Recording CD release Alligator Tales, and was also presented the NAMA Living Legend Award by singer Rita Coolidge after a short documentary film on his life produced by Seminole Broadcasting Director Danny Jumper. Billie was honored, according to the NAMA program for "his musical works Old Ways and Alligator Tales, and his merits as a tribal Chief who is preserving and maintaining the musical history and heritage of his people."

While the musicians were center stage, it was the thrashing Everglades's gator, trucked in from a geo-thermal San Luis Valley, Colorado gator ranch that inspired the audience to its feet, however. Straining to get a look, the crowd roared as several handlers hauled the angry gator through the audience and onto the stage while Chief Billie performed his signature song Big Alligator. Near the end of the song, the reptile charged toward the stairs leading up to Billie (who was singing on a platform above the stage) but was subdued, with maximum effort, by Colorado Gators owner Jay Young.

The live gator was a surprise, last-minute addition to the tightly rehearsed four-hour program: "When the door opened and they carried that gator through the crowd, I thought 'Oh. No! What is Chief Billie going to do now?'" said NAMA awards show producer Ellen Bello. "All kinds of visions flashed through my mind!"

"All the other performers had their bands with them or some kind of production going on and all I had was just me and my old guitar," said the Chief, one of ten artists who performed songs that evening. "I had to get me some kind of swamp creature up there to make it exciting."

Bee, one of Indian Country's first rock-and-roll stars and owner of the 300-record strong SOAR label, was given the NAMA Lifetime Achievement Award after an introduction by former Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder John McEuen. Bee also reunited with his former XIT bandmates for two rousing songs from their breakthrough 1971 album Plight of The Redman.

Miller was the night's biggest winner, taking home Nammys for Artist of The Year, Best Male Artist, Best Folk Artist and Songwriter Of The Year (Ghost Dance). In his tearful acceptance speech, Miller spoke of the ravages of alcoholism and its effects on his family growing up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. The Artist Of The Year award was presented to him by Dirt Band drummer Jimmy Fadden and John Densmore of the Doors.

Shenandoah, who was he 1998 Artist of The Year, took home two Nammys: Best Traditional Recording for Orenda and (for the second year in a row) Best Female Artist. She seemed visibly moved and surprised at her honors: "I never thought I had a chance. Indian music has come so far - there were so many tremendous artists. I'm forever grateful."

Screams pierced the air at each mention of Indigenous, the four-member native West Coast group currently touring in support of their first album. Though the band was not there, they picked up Nammys for Group of The Year, Best Blues Group and Best Pop Group.

The crowd applauded Billie, Chairman of the Seminole Tribe since 1979, for his comments about Indian language. "You mothers start talking your language to your babies early, when you have them at your breast," he urged.

Absent Band guitarist Robbie Robertson was also a double-winner in two non-presented categories: Best Producer and Best Record (Contact From The Underworld of Redboy), female singer Wayquay beat out Chief Jim Billie's Ways Of The Glades for best music video, while famed Window Rock, Ariz., radio station KTNN, a crowd favorite, was chosen Best Radio Station

The late Country Music legend Hank Williams was honored with a video biography and induction into the Hall of Fame during the show's opening minutes, followed later in the program with a rendition of the hit song Move It On Over sung by his grandson Hank Williams III.

Sac and Fox Tribal member Grace Thorpe presented a film about her father, the great athlete Jim Thorpe, before honoring the national champion Iroquois National soccer team (ranked #3 in the world) with NAMA's Thorpe Sports Award.

Television star Branscombe Richmond, the Native American bounty hunter in the series Renegade was master of ceremonies for the show, which featured a pueblo style stage and backdrop by native motion picture set designer Sky Hunter.

Other performers included folksinger Jack Gladstone (Blackfeet), Canyon flautist Robert Tree Cody (Pima Maricopa/Dakota), prayer singers Primeaux & Mike (Oglala/Yankton Sioux & Ponca Dine), reggae artists Native Roots (Santa Ana Pueblo/Isleta & Dine/Dakota/Jemez Pueblo), singer Wayquay (Ojibway), rap singer Natay (Navajo), diva Arigon Starr (Kickapooo Creek), rocker Jim Boyd and country music singers The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn). Though she did not perform, Oscar winning singer Jennifer Warnes was a crowd favorite as a presenter.

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