This is a story about a man who was given significant bounty in life.
But what he’s doing with it can change the world.
Today, Paul LaRoche is a husband, a father, a grandfather and musician who leads the contemporary Native American band Brulé.
But that’s not at all how it began.
Paul was adopted at birth 59 years ago and didn’t even know about his biological Native American family until after his adoptive parents died when he was in his 30s.
He was raised in a happy home. It was a fulfilling life. “There was nothing out of place,” he says. But there were signs of this other life.
“In my house that we grew up in, nice little place, perfect little family,” Paul says. “But I always saw these cards on the wall by the phone. These cards stuck up on the wall that said ‘St. Joseph Indian School’ or ‘Feed the needy Indian children.’ My whole life, I saw that and just thought, ‘Oh, my folks must throw a little contribution to the Indian kids.’ The whole time, they were contributing back to the culture where they got their baby.
“It was a glimpse into the future,” he says. “That’s the whole foundation, and it’s a wonderful platform to do this from.”
It was Paul’s wife, Kathy, who discovered his hidden heritage after his adoptive parents died in the same year. She spent five years doing her research before presenting the information to him.
“Kathy was so careful, she did her homework well,” Paul says. “I’ve always trusted her judgment. She has great intuition.”
Paul says if it weren’t for Kathy, he never would’ve “had it in him” to meet his biological family, which are members of the Lakota tribe and live on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
“I was pretty happy,” Paul says. “The reality is that I still carried some sorrow at the loss of my parents, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was look for a different family. I had a family.”
But after a “leap of faith” and an emotional phone call, Paul
was invited to come home to his reservation two weeks later.
“As time goes by, I realize it was quite a spiritual gift,” he says. “And I wish every human being could have a similar experience because I believe that would take care of all the racial problems in the world.
“If you took one person who was from any two cultures on this planet that were at odds with each other, and then plant them in both families, the result is going to be a desire to melt away the differences, and that’s very powerful,” Paul says.
“That’s the kind of stuff where one individual can’t do it, but the concept could change the world.”
Music was a ‘genetic gift’
Although Paul was musical growing up and had been in and out of rock ’n’ roll cover bands, Brulé wasn’t even a thought till after his first traditional pow wow, where the music ignited an idea.
“To my family, it was almost a red flag. ‘Here we go again,’ they probably thought. But I couldn’t help it,” Paul says. “I used to just die for inspiration, I used to try everything, and now I’m sitting there, going, ‘I have this beat in my head!’ ”
Another sure sign that he was onto something was learning of his Lakota grandmother.
“When I was back at the reservation once, I saw a picture of my grandmother on the wall, and I heard a family member say that she used to play piano, and she played by ear all the time in the backyard,” Paul says. He plays by ear, too. “It was a picture of this old Indian woman, sitting at an upright piano in this tall prairie grass.
“That picture, to me, is an inspiration. That’s when I finally realized that the music part is a genetic gift. The reunion is a spiritual gift.”
Brulé is a family band, including Paul’s daughter, Nicole, and son, Shane, and it succeeded right off the bat. Since its inception, they’ve performed at hundreds of festivals, completed numerous tours and sold over a million CDs worldwide. But Paul always chose to be cautious.
“I’m always a little careful how I portray myself as a Native American. It’s a fine line. I am a Native American biologically, but I didn’t grow up that way,” he says.
Paul was told early on that when it came to Brulé’s music, “There’s a line, and you guys have got to push that line, but you can’t break it. If it breaks, you’ll never be able to come back there again, but if you don’t push it, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Paul heeds that advice to this day and concedes he would never have taken on this journey without being accepted into his biological family.
“Without the discovery of an alternate identity and hidden heritage, I don’t think we would ever have tackled this,” Paul says. “There has to be something big that pushes you to want to do that.”
Brulé as a musical influence
At the end of each concert, Paul always takes a few minutes to tell the Brulé story — how they began and how they got to where they are now.
“That has been interpreted over the years as a personal testimonial, and it usually gets a little emotional before the end,” Paul says. Through that storytelling over the years, it became clear that hope, peace and “reconciliation of the cultures” was really their life work.
“But we can’t promote that. We have to just let it happen,” Paul says. “That is the paradox of Brulé. What we really do, we cannot say. The music and the concerts are the medium. But there is always something deeper at work.”
“There is always something deeper at work.”
Paul says he feels like he is “part minister” and remembers the kids fondly referring to him as “Pastor Paul” before they even understood the influence of their music.
“But I got it, because they could see it. It was a little bit of this ‘Field of Dreams’ concept, where people were kind of coming there, and they didn’t even know why, but they had to come back.”
Paul uses the word ministry, because how else can it be explained?
“There is an exchange that takes place during certain concert situations between Brulé and the audience,” he says. “It has to do with the right words and the right music. Not always, but sometimes, when things are just right, there is a ‘spirit’ in the air that we cannot put our finger on.
“We cannot explain it, but it is there, and we respect it.”
As far as Paul’s musical career, a lot has changed in 20 years, and now philanthropy is driving the heart.
“I’m at a point right now where I feel really compelled, and one of the things that’s been tugging at me is for me to get right back to some of these communities where one of two situations exist: First, there’s a community that’s struggling with clashing of cultures.” He recalls the shootings in Red Lake, Minn., 10 years ago last month. “Send Brulé into the war zone, so to speak, and just let us play some music, let us be there to shake a hand, and something will happen,” he assures. “I see it all the time, it’s our little gift. It’s for the reconciliation, you guys! Send us out!
“We’ve spent too many years being a band for hire when really, the whole time, it’s been a band that’s out ministering. Send us out there.”
Another area where Paul feels called to action is reaching out to the poor communities.
“They don’t have a budget for entertainment, but yet the kids need to be inspired,” he says.
Then he pauses, and his voice lowers to almost a whisper. His demeanor is changed.
“This is way down on my list of things to say, because I’d rather be proactive,” he says, “but the tribal communities of South Dakota have the highest teen suicide rate of any county in America. And more than that, do you know where the poorest county in America is? It’s Pine Ridge.
“One of the things that really alarms me,” he continues, “is that all these people we see go over to Haiti or other Third World countries to help kids … We’ve got a Third World country right here in America that has not been tended to. How can we sit here? Why don’t we fix that?”
Paul recalls the commercials for outreach in Appalachia. “Yeah, I agree with that. My heart bleeds like anyone else, but are you proud to be living in the state with the poorest county in America?”
Paul notes that these statistics are based on per capita, and they do shift from reservation to reservation over the years. But even so, outreach is needed right here, too, in the OTA states.
“I’ve been groomed to do this job and have been given the tools — the story, the reunion, the culture — everything has happened in my life so that I can go back into the war zone,” Paul says. “Let us go in front of these kids that are on their last leg, and let us inspire them.”
Paul knows outreach is difficult. “Oh, it’s got resistance all over it,” he says. “But one indicator that’s really helped me in life is that when resistance becomes the strongest, you’re on target. When you have the least resistance, when mediocrity sets in, you are not on track.
“To stay on track and find your true calling, to find your right path — when it becomes really hard, that’s when you’re on the mark.”
Lakota has a philosophy called “Following the Red Road.” It is a positive notion of being on the right path — “You’re living right, and you’re doing right,” Paul says.
He recalls an elder, however, who had a different perspective. “ ‘It’s not really a road, you know,’ this guy says. ‘It’s the Red Line. No, I take that back. It’s a string.’ Then he says again, ‘I take that back! It’s so narrow that you can hardly see it.’ And then I knew what he was telling me.
“The Red Road is so difficult to stay on defined, and it’s so narrow, we can only think of it as a string line,” Paul says. “That’s how hard it is for any human being trying to walk a proper path in life. We’re walking on this tight rope and we’re trying to stay balanced, but we’re going to slip all the time, you know? We can’t stay on it continually.
“So you just have to keep yourself in check. That’s always kind of helped me, their concept of a proper way to live.”
‘Isn’t it amazing who you can connect up with?’
Kathy also is there to keep him in line. Above all, she is the stable influence in his life. They married at just 19 years old, and “she is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Kathy was brought in at just the right time to carry our journey through,” Paul says. “When I was 18 years old in a rock ’n’ roll band, it was a wild life. But she kept me off the streets, so to speak. And the fact that Brulé came out of it is really kind of amazing in itself. Kathy pulled me through it.”
He pauses. He’s thinking. “Out of all the people in the world, the billions of people, isn’t it amazing who you can connect up with? There’s got to be something to it.”
In Lakota, the saying is Mitakuye Oyasin, meaning “we are all related, and we are related to all things.”
Paul says it’s a very fundamental philosophy. “It’s so basic, but it’s so powerful that if we would just listen to that, it changes almost everything,” he says. “That’s where the tribal communities learned stewardship of the land. They didn’t have a big bible to follow that was supposed to be the right way to go, or they didn’t have the Ten Commandments, but they were spiritual people.”
Paul wishes more people could embrace Mitakuye Oyasin and concedes to the eternal conflict — within cultures and within his heart.
“Think of that struggle internally! I’m an American!” Paul says. He begins to sing softly, “ ‘I’m proud to be an American, where’ — Oh, hold it. I’m a Native American. Maybe I shouldn’t be singing that song, but hold it. I’m proud of both! I think I’m just a living example of reconciliation.
“If I don’t speak about reconciliation, it’s all kind of a waste.”
“If someone asked what’s at the core, what’s the main thing, I would say it’s so I could show the world that human beings are supposed to be getting along, and we are really all connected.”
Paul won’t talk about it much, but spirituality plays a role in his story.
“I grew up in a strong religious family. I was a Catholic kid,” he says. “But once I attended my first traditional Native American ceremony, I came back realizing that in all that religious upraising, I’d only been shown a little sliver of what the spiritual part of being a human being is all about.
“Very few people go there, but there is so much more.”
Paul fears that we ignore so much of our spirituality, that we are out of balance.
“We have to be careful not to be over-balanced when it comes to religion and when it comes to spirituality,” he says. “Human beings have always been spiritual creatures,” he says. “But today, I believe, that we’ve almost completely made the world void of the spiritual part of the human being. And the consequence of that is what’s happening now.
“In a perfect world, it’s balanced out perfectly,” he says. “I don’t know where it’s all going, but I hope there’s more in life, as we move on to the next realm. Whatever that is, nobody knows, but I certainly hope it’s as interesting as this one’s been.”
Perhaps Paul’s purpose was written in the stars long ago. Perhaps even when he didn’t realize it, his heart knew that a ministry would triumph. And in the very beginning, his heart sang about it.
In Brulé’s debut album in 1996, “We the People,” the final song on the album, “Lakota Forever,” reaches out with these words:
“If I could talk to my great grandfathers,
I would say the old times are gone, so much has changed.
But love, like the wind, is still here. When all else fades away,
faith, hope and love will remain. Those feelings that are
so strong, so mysterious, will always be with us.
I think of you, my relatives, and I thank you.
“I thank you.”