An urban Alaskan by any measure, Gilbert “Buz” Daney keeps a connection to rural village life through the three pillars of his days: his music, his family and his Catholic faith. An American Indian of Choctaw heritage, he’s also a lifelong Anchorage resident and veteran of its music scene. Growing up in local Baptist and Pentecostal choirs alongside his parents, he also studied the technical aspects of broadcast by virtue of his father’s commitment to recording their church’s services for television distribution.
Growing up, Daney remembers that Native heritage was an unspoken common denominator among his closest peers. They also shared a Christian faith, and the group’s desire to gather for Bible study somehow created a curiosity about drumming, which they would go on to explore. A 1975 West High School graduate, he flourished under tutors such as school choir director Cam McCarrey and Alvera Voth, conductor of Anchorage Community Chorus. Both musically and civically involved as a young man, Daney participated in prison ministry and fondly recalls being invited to bring potlatches into the church by Deacon William Tyson and his wife Marie.
Before college studies at University of Hawaii Manoa, where he earned a graduate degree in health services, Daney had toured Europe as part of America’s Youth in Concert Choir. He and his wife Linda collaborated on ecumenical music festivals promoting peace, travelling as well as hosting groups in Anchorage. They have three sons. Two were attending Holy Rosary Academy when his own attraction to the Catholic Church began to grow stronger. He cites son Daniel’s enthusiastic devotion as primary in drawing him to the ancient Catholic faith.
“It was a period of searching and exploration for me, and he was so serious, so devout,” Daney recalled.
In a decisive moment which he describes as “being granted a vision, or knowledge,” Daney sensed that his time in Protestant Christian circles had come to an end. After years of being invited to Sunday Mass with his family, he accepted an invitation to join the choir at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Despite having heard stereotypes of Catholics as exclusive, Daney found eager welcomes from priest, deacon and laity at the West Anchorage parish. He found something else: familiar music.
“I follow the songs,” he recently explained to the Anchor from a sprawling glass atrium at Southcentral Foundation, where he oversees its Traditional Healing clinic. “There were Baptist hymns, even a Hawaiian song!”
Among the parish choir members, he recognized traits similar to tribal chiefs he had long admired: upstanding leaders who nurture strong personal connections.
When asked about tension between his ethnic heritage and Catholic practices, Daney shrugs warmly. He knew through genealogical research that every recorded marriage of his ancestors in the southern United States had been in the Catholic faith. Add to that his wife’s childhood experience with priests who were “totally supportive of (Native) dancing,” and he simply mirrored the acceptance and community extended to him during his education and formal acceptance into the Catholic faith. He further appreciated the way clerical authorities considered his entire life story as he sought the sacrament of Confirmation in 2009.
According to Daney, conversion to Catholicism was more of an interior completion than a surrender of identity, and he continues to find similarities in both approaches to spiritual living. Incense and prayers of purification remain a part of his morning ritual, noting that even the traditional Native Four Directions prayer complements the Sign of the Cross.
He’s currently part of three groups, each providing different musical modes for their participants as well as their audiences: Mount Susitna Singers, Cupiit Yurartet (or Chevak Dancers, named for the Southwestern Alaska village in which his wife was raised), and Medicine Dream. The annual culmination of the Archdiocese of Anchorage’s Good Friday Faith Walk features Daney at the drum in dramatic intimacy with the Passion of Jesus, perched above hundreds of people in the downtown Performing Arts Center.
Daney’s drumming group practices weekly on Thursdays at the Arc of Anchorage, which offers visible solace and community to clients of the social service agency.
“Some of them have cognitive limitations which are severe, having been impaired before they were born, and they’re as welcome at the drum as anyone,” he said.
Daney first found this unique fellowship 27 years ago in a men-only drum circle which required sobriety, solidifying a choice to stop drinking which he had already been privately approaching. In tracing the development of drumming techniques, Daney notes that as a composer, his role is one of openness rather than dictation.
“We don’t so much invent as we receive, or translate,” he said of the role of the drummers.
He learned certain aspects of storytelling from Tim Tingle, an award-winning Choctaw author and speaker. Daney is still learning, with Choctaw language courses through University of Oklahoma among his current pursuits. Well into his third decade of drumming, he describes this artistry as being honed as much through mimicry and willingness as it is by his classical training. He speaks of the universal yet deeply personal magnetism of the drumbeat, in echoing every human’s mother’s heart while they were growing in utero. “This was our whole world, for nine months, right?”
Of the cultural and social harm substance abuse and violence has wracked upon indigenous lives, Daney is judicious and optimistic. He cites “many reasons” that Native people may not embrace their heritage in a positive way, such as generations of suppression in order to survive.
“We (Choctaw Nation) were among the first on the Trail of Tears; we were categorized as one of the civilized tribes,” he explained. “We owned slaves, practiced intermarriage, did whatever it took to persevere. In order to protect ourselves from being harmed, we would claim to be Hispanic, or African American, it was a matter of survival.”
Even into adulthood, his own family offered revelations to how deep this sensitivity ran. He recalls travelling to the Deep South with his mother and being shocked to hear her speaking fluent Choctaw once she was surrounded by her relatives. He was equally surprised by her tendency to slip into an Oklahoman accent when she spoke excitedly with her sisters. Daney names Blessed Teresa of Calcutta as particularly inspiring, in her attentive love for “traceless, nameless people.”
Today, Daney enjoys his youngest son’s emerging adulthood and looks forward to evening walks with his wife once they’re empty nesters. He remains active in his parish’s Knights of Columbus council, with a son entering formation for priesthood soon.
Through all the parish and life activity, the drum and his faith remain a constant.
“All these songs are about connection,” Daney said. “We’re all indigenous at our core.”