Michael Martin Murphey's connection with Amarillo Kwahadis is as personal as it gets
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
For at least a decade, iconic Western singer Michael Martin Murphey has brought his Cowboy Christmas Ball to Amarillo's Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian for one elemental reason.
His bass player asked him to.
"That's real personal," Murphey said in a recent telephone interview. "If you don't have a bass player, you don't have a band."
Murphey's bass player is an Amarillo native and former Kwahadi dancer, Gary Roller.
"He's the one who made me aware of (the Kwahadi museum) originally," Murphey said. "His brother, Tom Roller, got involved in the building of the museum and continuing the tradition of the Kwahadi dancers in Amarillo."
The Boy Scout-affiliated dance troupe, according to its website, dates back to 1944 when an assistant scoutmaster, Dr. Charles E. Colgate, taught a troop a Native American dance for a talent show. It was a hit, and the troop began dancing for other community events and, hundreds of members and 70-plus years later, has performed in at least 38 states and several foreign countries.
The Kwahadis' mission of keeping Native American traditions alive is particularly appealing to Murphey, whose own mission is to honor the traditions of the American West — and not just its cowboys.
"I believe that putting on the Cowboy Christmas Ball is telling the story of the American West, and a lot of Indians were cowboys, so we're also honoring the Indian cowboys," he said.
"I'm an adopted Native American in the Lakota Nation up in Pine Ridge, South Dakota," Murphey said. "I've always been interested in Indian rights and their place in the universe and what happened to them in this country — and how we can get back to a place of respect because we need to pay attention to many of their ways and ideas."
Murphey will bring back his Cowboy Christmas Ball, which will feature Kwahadi dancers, for a 7 p.m. Dec. 14 performance at the museum, 9151 E. Interstate 40. An optional catered dinner by Cowboy Gelato begins at 5:45 p.m. Tickets are $45 or $35 for general admission for ball, plus $25 for dinner; reservations required. Call 806-335-3715.
The Christmas ball is a tradition dating back to 1885, when it was launched on Christmas night in Anson. The South Texas community revived the tradition in 1934 and has held it annually since then.
Murphey started his traveling version of the traditional ball in 1993, touring the Southwest and reminding ball-goers that the history of Texas music originated with the state’s first cowboys.
But before he began touring with it, Murphey said produced his first Christmas ball in Amarillo, featuring cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and singers Don Edwards and Chris LeDoux.
Not only does Murphey incorporate several of his most famous hits, including "Wildfire" and "Long Line of Love," into the show, but he also brings in one of the oldest Christmas songs written in North America — the Huron Carol, believed to have been written in 1642.
"'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
'Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.'"
He sang the verse to a tune that sounded almost like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but instead was a traditional French song adapted by Jean de Brébeuf, the missionary credited with bringing the song to the Huron tribe in an effort to teach them about the nativity.
"I think that's an interesting thing, that somebody got the (Christmas) message through in terms that that culture could understand," Murphey said. "They didn't know anything about camels, about an inn in the desert and being no room there, or even a stable. This was before they had any stables in that part of the world."