"Return of White Buffalo Woman"
Original art by Jim Berenholtz

Buffalo Nation
An American Musical Epic

“Buffalo Nation” is an intensely dramatic opus for musical theatre that synthesizes traditional Native American and classical European styles of music through a modern lense. As a work that is almost entirely sung, it is essentially a contemporary opera. The show consists of two acts with six scenes each, plus a prologue and epilogue. It runs approximately two and a half hours. It has a cast of sixteen members, plus musicians. Both the music and libretto are by composer Jim Berenholtz.

“Buffalo Nation” tells the story of the conflict between the Lakota Nation and the United States between the years of 1875 and 1890, with Sitting Bull as the central character. It chronicles a tumultuous history from an indigenous perspective, from Custer’s Last Stand to Wounded Knee.

Sitting Bull

Research and composition for “Buffalo Nation” was begun in 1971,when the composer was fourteen. It was then entitled “Winter”. It was first performed in its entirety in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, with the help of a grant from the American Music Center. The following year it was performed by NYC’s Native American Theatre Ensemble at the first Indigenous People’s Theatre Celebration in Toronto, Canada.

After a ten year period of dormancy, “Winter” was revised under the new title of “Buffalo Nation”. It was performed by a multi-racial cast on a Malibu hilltop as part of “Circle the Earth”, a gathering of over three hundred people to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre. This event was also organized by the composer. As a result of the tremendous audience response, “Buffalo Nation” went on to become part of the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s New Play Festival in 1991. In 1992 it was again performed, this time for the second “Circle the Earth”, to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the European invasion of the Americas.





First People / Last Stand

“First People, Last Stand” is an orchestral interlude from the first act of “Buffalo Nation”. The march to battle with which it climaxes was composed and orchestrated between 1974 and1977. Twenty-five years later, the orchestration was revised and new introductory music was written to feature soloist Viviana Guzman on both Native American cedar flutes and classical transverse flute.

“First People, Last Stand” programmatically portrays the arrival of various Native American peoples into the valley of the Little Bighorn, as they build an enclave of armed resistance to further encroachment of their lands by the United States. This is followed by the music (which in the opera would also be sung) where Sitting Bull shares his mystical vision -
“From above a voice came down to me with a vision of our victory. The voice cried out, ‘I give you these because they have no ears’. Then I looked up and saw the soldiers with their heads pointing downwards. They were falling right into our camp.”

Finally we hear the music that accompanies the march of Custer’s army, the Seventh Cavalry, to the valley of the Little Bighorn, and unknowingly to their defeat.

What conductors have had to say about “First People, Last Stand”:

“It is a very dramatic and powerful work . . . (and) was a great success with the audience. . . One board member said every person in the audience was just on the edge of their seat through the whole piece.”
- Joyce Johnson-Hamilton, conductor of the Diablo Symphony.

“The audience was spellbound”
- Gordon Johnson, conductor of the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra.

“First People, Last Stand” was premiered by the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra in 2002 in Montana, the same state where Custer’s Last Stand occured. In 2003 it was performed by the Diablo Symphony at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California. The score and parts for “First People, Last Stand” are available from the American Composers Alliance in NYC, or directly from the composer. It is an ideal work for inclusion in orchestral programs that feature the flute, that concern Native American culture, or that more generally deal with American history and American composers.


Composer flanked by Joyce Johnson-Hamilton (conductor), and Takeshi Tanemori (survivor of Hiroshima and subject of the "First Light" musical).