In this space, we’ve previously shared interviews with Native musicians, including the Hawaiian Swing band Kahulanui and Grammy award-nominated Joe Tohonnie Jr. (White Mountain Apache and Navajo). This installment will focus on a rising star, Noelle Zeller, of Red Lake, MN.
Noelle has been singing since she could talk and now at 16 years old, she’s a seasoned performer. One of her biggest fans is her grandmother, Linda McGraw-Adams, assistant executive director of the Red Lake Reservation Housing Authority. I had the pleasure of speaking with Noelle recently and would like to share her story with you.
The first time Noelle’s talents brought her recognition was when she was in second grade at St. Mary’s Mission School in Red Lake. The school hosted a talent show of kids from first through sixth grade.
Noelle explained that there were many different acts: jump ropers, singers and others, and most of the performers were much older than she was. She sang “Awesome God.” She didn’t realize she won the competition until a few weeks later when her teacher handed her an envelope with $75 in it and told her the good news. She bought a purple bike with her winnings.
Since then, she continued practicing and performing and is now a junior at TrekNorth High School in Bemidji, MN. She is an alto singer in the varsity choir, which hosts four concerts a year, competes against other schools in competitions and is often invited to perform at community events around Bemidji.
“We always get superior ratings,” Noelle said about competitions, and the choir also performs at Neilson Place in Bemidji. Neilson Place is a skilled nursing facility where elders live, and its residents are treated to an hour and a half performance each month.
“We do it because they like it,” Noelle said.
The choir is currently performing “Circle of Life,” (the one from “The Lion King”) which was composed by Elton John. It’s Noelle’s favorite song to perform with the choir so far this year, but they also typically sing ballads, folk songs and at least one song in a foreign language.
“[The Circle of Life is] a really cool piece because there are a ton of parts,” she said. “The harmonies are beautiful. It’s just a really fun song.”
She said another favorite memory was when she sang in a TrekNorth talent show while her grandfather, Terry Adams, played guitar. They performed “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry.
“I was relaxed. I wasn’t nervous at all,” she said. “The applause we got was wonderful. It was a really good feeling.”
At her last concert, she sang “A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri while her friend played the piano.
“I made people cry in the audience,” she said. “That was a really good feeling.”
Noelle said she enjoys singing because it brings her mood up when she is down, and it’s always been a big part of her life. She shares her talent with one of her nieces, Hailey, who is going to turn three soon and enjoys singing songs from the movie “Frozen.”
“She’ll probably be a little singer when she gets older too,” Noelle said.
Noelle is dedicated to singing. Choir practice runs an hour each day, and she often practices a few hours on her own at home. She fits choir in between her studies at TrekNorth, where science is her favorite class. She has dissected squids, frogs, worms and sharks.
“It kind of stunk, but it was fun learning about everything,” she said. “I really enjoy school a lot. I’ve always been a really good student.”
Her taste in music ranges from R&B to country, everything from Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Miranda Lambert to The Band Perry. She also enjoys playing basketball at the Boys & Girls Club in Red Lake.
In addition to singing, she has two other talents that are related to her culture. She has attended the annual Minnesota Indian Housing Conference since she was young, and she has opened the conference with a prayer she taught herself in Ojibwe. She also enjoys dancing the jingle dance at powwows and was a member of the Sah ka tay dancers, a dancing and drumming group that RLRHA organized as an after-school activity for students.
“The jingle dress dance is a healing dance,” Noelle said. “I went to a powwow a few years ago, and there was a lady who had hurt her ankle. And she danced like she had never hurt her ankle.”
She made her last jingle dress with her cousin, mom and grandma, and it was light blue, lavender and silver. It was a lot of fun to make it, Noelle said, but she’s outgrown the dress, and the group will make her a new one this year.
In her junior year, she’s been thinking of her life after high school. She wants to be an elementary school teacher.
“I love kids. Teaching is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I love kids, so I thought I’d put them together,” Noelle said. She’d like to teach first grade.
She is considering attending Bemidji State University for her initial classwork and then may head to another college farther away.
No matter where her talents take her, Noelle is a rising star and has a bright future ahead!
Thanks for sharing your talents with us, Noelle!