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Michael Gross tells the story of his heritage in his new album

Gross, who records as Whisperhawk, talks about his new album, ‘Keepers of the Earth Vol. 2′

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Gross, who records and performs under the name Whisperhawk, an Indigenous musician in Utah, at Fort Douglas, on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023.

Like most musicians, Michael Gross — who makes music under the name Whisperhawk — uses his art as a form of storytelling.

“[There] are three things that I care about, which are music, the culture and where I come from,” Gross said. “So, to me, it just made sense to try to combine [them] the best I could.”

Gross is a member of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and half Welsh. His upcoming album “Keepers of the Earth Vol. 2″ is steeped in cultural reflections and, as he put it, “thoughts on events that affect” his tribe.

The album will be released Wednesday, which is the start of Native American Heritage Month. He will perform songs from his album Saturday, Nov. 4, at 2 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Public Library’s main branch, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.

Even Gross’ performance name has cultural roots. “When I was born, my grandmother gave me and the other grandkids our Native American name, and my name is Littlehawk,” he said.

Gross was part of a local indie rock band, The Statuettes, before recently going solo. As he looked for a new name, he decided to go with Whisperhawk because he liked the way it sounded.

As a child, Gross said, he would imitate singers in the shower, recalling the songs that stuck out. When he was around 12, he said, he really started exploring music.

“I had an older brother who was really into music, so he had like a big collection of CDs, and I would listen to everything,” Gross said. “I actually credit him in a lot of ways for my interest in music and rock ‘n’ roll bands and stuff like that.”

As a young adult, he was more interested in sports and athletics, but at age 19, he learned a few guitar chords from a friend. Around the ages of 20 and 21, a few friends joined a band, and he started playing with them for fun. He said he hasn’t looked back since.

Music, Gross said, is important to both sides of his cultural heritage.

“Music is a part of most, if not all, Native American nations — music and storytelling — because, quite frankly, there wasn’t a lot to do traditionally. Every tribe has their songs, dances and stories,” Gross said. “Maybe that’s in my DNA.”

Stripped-down songs

Gross said he recorded the first volume of “Keepers of the Earth” a few years ago, and some of those tracks are featured on the second volume. In between, he said, he went through some changes.

When he wrote the first volume, Gross said he was just getting involved with Native American politics, taking a leadership position on his tribe’s council.

His time in government, he said, “really did expose me to a lot of things that maybe I wasn’t aware of previously. … It inspired me to write some songs that have some themes that dealt with Native American life and history.” It also, he said, made him more of an advocate for Native American rights.

Within the last few months, Gross said, he realized “the original arrangement of the songs didn’t really translate to me playing them live.” So he started arranging them to be performed live, and solo — since the originals featured a full band.

“The original idea was just to make some really stripped down demos of the songs,” he said,” “but when I recorded, I started getting ideas for different elements I could add.”

The resulting tracks are stripped down, with some of the indie-rock flair Gross said he wanted to infuse in the tracks. There’s some light guitar and drums here and there, creating a folk and Americana vibe, like a grittier version of The Lumineers.

Mostly the lyrics — and Gross’ smooth voice — carry the songs. Take, for example, one song that includes the line, “Life’s a gift from your creator … don’t let it pass you by.”

The order of the tracklist is important while listening, Gross said, to get the full story he is trying to tell on the album., Gross said, which is intentional. “Some people spend a ton of time on the track order,” he said. “You want it to kind of flow.”

Heritage and history

The first track, he said, is “just talking about life among Native Americans, right before European settlement here.” That’s followed by “Goodbye Old Times,” a surprisingly upbeat track considering its subject.

“That’s where settlement has been happening and Native Americans see their old way of living starting to disappear,” Gross said. “That led to .. ‘the Indian Wars,’ but many of them weren’t wars at all — they were massacres by the military.”

Gross continued: “You go from just living your normal life and taking care of your family and your people and just surviving, really, and then seemingly overnight, everything’s changed. You don’t recognize anything that’s happening, and then you just get murdered. … Your tribe folk are just murdered in a sneak attack massacre at dawn in the middle of winter.”

The third track, “Bear River,” tells of the Bear River Massacre, in Idaho in January 1863 — when an estimated 400 men, women and children of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation were killed, in what has been called the worst slaughter of Native Americans in U.S. history.

Elaine Thatcher, writing for Utah Humanities’ Beehive Archive in 2013, called the massacre a “turning point” for Indigenous and white relations in northern Utah. As Mormon settlers came into the Cache Valley, Thatcher wrote, Indigenous people that already inhabited the area were pushed out.

In a lecture at the University of Utah earlier this year, Darren Parry, former chairman and councilman for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, said Shoshone narratives often are forgotten when the Bear River Massacre is mentioned.

As Gross sings on the track, “We must not forget the spirits of our dead remain with us today, because we’re still standing here.”

Gross said of the song, “I always start at the Bear River Massacre, because that’s kind of where the story of the modern Shoshone begins. … We were literally without a home after the massacre.”

A handful of Gross’ ancestors, he said, survived the massacre — and ended up joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Eventually, some of his ancesotrs set up a farming community in Box Elder County, where they lived for more than 80 years. During World War II, some members of the family got jobs near Hill Air Force Base. That’s how the family arrived in Clearfield, where Gross grew up, he said.

“We are Indigenous to this area, northern Utah, in Willow Valley — that’s what the Shoshone called it, but we know now as Cache Valley,” he said.

Gross called “Bear River” and the track that follows it, “Sleep,” the album’s “death songs,” which capture the “rough part of history” for his people.

Those are followed by “Party at Promontory,” a harmonica-tinged track satirizing the 2019 celebrations of the transcontinental railroad — with such lyrics as “don’t forget to invite the old Shoshone / not too many, we just don’t have the room,” as well as some soft digs at the way Utah history is taught.

“It’s just funny how history is,” he said. “These people didn’t have any clue that Native people were displaced.”

The album ends with two tracks that have a stark contrast: The haunting, reflective “Easier For You” (which talks about Indigenous people in government boarding schools) and the resilient closer, “We’re Still Here” — in which Gross sings “you are a survivor, your spirit never dies,” before the drums descend.

“After all the trauma and the attempted genocide, Native Americans still exist,” Gross said. “The numbers are a lot smaller, but we’re still here. They weren’t able to get all of us, and we live in different places, but we’re very much still here and we’re very much artists, leaders and great thinkers. … My small part [is] I can keep telling these stories so that people don’t completely forget about this.”

Music, Gross said, is “what I am. That’s what I do. It’s the only thing I really know how to do. … If I’m going to try to tell a story, it has to be the way that I know how to do it.”