Violinist, storyteller, educator and motivational speaker Swil Kanim, a member of Lummi Nation, was adopted when he was young by a white family in Bellingham and grew up as Richard Marshall. He changed his name in a traditional ceremony several years ago.
He has been featured on CBS’s “Northern Exposure,” performed in Sherman Alexie’s critically acclaimed film “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” and has performed in Japan, Korea and across the country in benefits for school districts, substance abuse programs, awareness of Indian boarding schools and racism, and at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Swil Kanim created HonorWorks in 2009. The project’s “Honoring Our Heritage” social studies curriculum is used by some Whatcom County school districts and is supported by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant.
HonorWorks hosts a Native American Heritage Day concert on Friday, Nov. 28, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. Here’s more about Swil Kanim, HonorWorks and the event.
Question: What’s the story of your musical heritage?
Answer: My music is a direct product of a well-supported public school music program. It used to be common knowledge that music education in the very least develops an appreciation for high-quality music. Music education in our public school environment planted in me the notion that there is institutional support for expressing my feelings in a healthy and appropriate way.
Despite hearing messages, one way or another, that Indians are not smart enough to play the violin, but with encouragement of special people like my fourthgrade teacher Kathy Dorr and other educators throughout my time in the Bellingham public school system, I sensed that society as a whole would, could and should support fine music.
When I was a kid, playground conversations included things like “dummy Lummi.” Being excellent on the violin was one way to prove them wrong. The temptation was to be violent, but I also knew that I was too small and I had to think of another way that was not destructive to myself and others.
Q: I know Fred Rogers is also one of your heroes; how does his philosophy about feeling special “just the way you are” give you direction in your life?
A: When I was a kid I didn’t really start watching Mr. Rogers until Eddie Murphy did a spoof on him. I wanted to explore the humor behind why they were making fun of Mr. Rogers. I realized in comparing Mr. Robinson (the spoof) and Mr. Rogers, that Mr. Rogers was being authentically concerned about his viewers’ well-being.
As a teenager, he helped me realize that it was OK to feel my feelings in a good way. And the structure of his TV program showcased how adults in the world feel their feelings in a good way. From simply working in a factory or being a classical musician or a jazz musician, people were doing their best at whatever they do.
That process helped me to realize that the things I wear and the things I own are made by people who sometimes think about the people who wear and own those things; that there is a story behind everything I consumed.
When I first told my tree story (the story of how his precious violin was once a tree), I thought about how can I make this story relevant to the young ones.
So what I know is that Mr. Rogers honored all of us with his presence, and forever will affect my intention as an entertainer and a composer.
Q: What have been a couple of wonderful moments in your life so far?
A: Just recently I had the opportunity to play my violin at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Seattle Symphony members and I played my music with in front of an audience that included primarily young children. I got to tell the tree story and the kids and adults loved it. That was a special moment.
When I met my wife, Lori, and realized that I have been blessed to be with the one person who understands and believes in my mission and my journey, without sacrificing what she wants out of life, and yet is willing to be on this journey with me — that was a very special moment.
But really, as I go through my day, I treasure every moment of every encounter I have with another person.
Q: Why did you initiate HonorWorks?
A: HonorWorks is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. It was established to create and ignite the potential for honor among all people. Since its inception, we continue to create opportunities for individuals and organizations, especially those in need, to maximize their potentials through art and education.
One of our projects, the Honoring Our Heritage Curriculum for junior high schools and high schools, examines the heritage of Native Americans in Whatcom County, and explores the issues of stereotypes, cultural perspectives and discrimination between the diverse populations that make up our community.
We believe in the healing power of true and effective communication. My music is one example of that. We work hard to create programs that reflect that vision and mission.
Q: What can people expect at the Nov. 28 event?
A: Guests can expect several professional Native American musicians (Cindy Minkler, Peter Ali and JP Falcon Grady) to share their skills, gifts and talents. They will blend their native sounds with classical, jazz, blues and rock.
By sharing our culture and heritage through music and storytelling, we hope that it will ignite the desire for members of the audience to share the beauty of their own culture. We have an amazingly diverse community here in Bellingham that we want to honor.
Q: What’s on the horizon for you?
A: I am looking for 3,000 people to participate in the HonorCoin Project ( honorcoin.org). With that, we can make the world a better place by recognizing that there is a potential for honor among us all.