Sitting on a recliner in his comfortable home in McMinnville, Native American flutist and Oregon State University music instructor Jan Michael Looking Wolf Reibach contemplates a career that includes 12 albums, two DVDs, and more than 23 award nominations.
“Awards are nice, but they don’t really mean anything,” he says, reaching out his colorfully tattooed arm to stroke the head of his dog, a miniature Chihuahua.
“What I enjoy is living every day, teaching, playing music and enjoying a clean glass of water. That is what life is about.”
Little did he know that in an hour from that moment, he would receive an e-mail where he was asked to perform at the Native American Music Awards, or Nammys, where he was named Flutist of the Year on Oct. 4. And on Sept. 6, he was named Flutist of the Year by the Indian Summer Music Awards.
It was just another honor in a musical career and life that almost was stopped short.
More than a decade ago, Reibach was a highly successful salesman in Portland who thought he had the world at his feet. He said at that time, he rarely thought about how his actions affected others.
“All I thought about was money, and how to get more of it,” he said. “I was living for things.”
Then Reibach started to get tremendous pains in his head. Eventually, he was rushed to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with a rare blood condition called Protein Enzyme C (and S) Deficiency. The condition caused Reibach to have a severe stroke and doctors gave him little chance of survival.
Miraculously, Reibach fully recovered and decided to return to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde community where his father was raised. Soon after, he picked up the Native flute and found that it had tremendous healing power.
“I rediscovered music, and really began to understand the importance of my community, my wife, and my son,” he said.
Now, Reibach is one of the most respected Native flute players in the world. He plays sold-out concerts to thousands of fans. And he continues to evolve as a musician. His most recent album, “The Looking Wolf Project” blends hard rock with Native flute.
Reibach uses his gifts of storytelling and musicianship to make every concert a teaching experience. It was this ability to translate Native music that led OSU’s Kurt Peters, an associate professor in Ethnic Studies, to talk with Reibach about teaching.
“Jan was already teaching classes to adults and younger students at the reservation,” Peters said. “He jumped at the chance to teach at OSU.”
They took the idea to Marlan Carlson, head of the OSU Department of Music, and he was enthusiastic about the idea of starting the University’s first Native music class.
“With his unerring musical instincts, his sense for historical authenticity, and his passion for sharing the music of his ancestors, Jan Michael Looking Wolf has led untold numbers of us into a whole new dimension of the human experience,” Carlson said.
Reibach started teaching Native flute in 2005. The class filled up right away, and has remained full every term that Reibach has taught it. He now also teaches a second class on the history of Native music.
“I think it speaks to his creativity and his interest in teaching and his students that his classes do so well,” Peters said.
Every student who takes Native flute receives a handmade instrument to keep. In addition, Reibach said he uses the classes as a way to break down misperceptions about Native Americans.
“Most of my students are non native,” he said. “A lot of the class is about defeating stereotypes of Native Americans, letting them know we are thriving, and that we are a diverse people.”
Students are enthusiastic about the class and rave about Reibach’s hands-on teaching style. Clarissa Bertha, a graduate student and office coordinator for OSU’s Native American Collaborative Institute, said the class changed her life.
“I thought my graduate school experience was going to be all work and studying,” she said. “Taking the Native flute class, I was able to get more in touch with myself and my emotions. I learned to relax and let things happen naturally.”
Bertha said she never thought she could play a musical instrument. She even made a bet with Reibach.
“He told me he had never met anyone that he couldn’t teach to play the Native flute,” she said. “So I made him a bet that I would be his first that wouldn’t be able to learn to play the Native flute and he assured me that this would be the first instrument I would learn to play and master. I am happy to say I lost the bet.”
Reibach said he is now taking time off from recording any albums to focus on his teaching. He said the class and his students continue to inspire him. Peters said the result can be seen around campus.
“He always looks for new ways to be creative. I can’t think of a better type of instructor to have here at OSU,” Peters said. “I just see more and more students walking around campus with a Jan Michael flute sticking out of their backpacks. It just thrills me.”
~by Angela Yeager
Listen to “Inward” from Unity