WORTHINGTON — Love, loss, redemption and personal discovery were all aspects of Paul LaRoche’s personal story that he shared Saturday in front of a crowd gathered in downtown Worthington for the annual King Turkey Day celebration.
Raised in Worthington by his adoptive parents, Irma and Clarence Summers, being KTD’s guest speaker was a bit of a homecoming for LaRoche. He now travels internationally with his award-winning Native American musical group, Brulé.
“You couldn’t find a better community, a better city or a better time in America to grow up as a young kid,” said LaRoche, now in his mid-60s, of his love for Worthington.
What LaRoche called his "early years" produced some of his fondest memories — from chasing his love of music to marrying his high school sweetheart, Kathy (Frisch) Summers.
Life became more difficult after the couple left Worthington in pursuit of a career in music.
It was enduring the lowest times — which included financial hardship, loss of loved ones and depression — that eventually brought LaRoche to an unexpected twist-in-his-life story. Life as LaRoche knew it changed shortly following the deaths of his adoptive parents he adored in the 1980s.
Sorting through their belongings, LaRoche's wife, Kathy, discovered an envelope containing information pertaining to his adoption. Still in his grieving process, LaRoche didn’t take immediate interest in the newly discovered contents.
Kathy took it from there.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving in 1993, LaRoche received a call.
“On the other line was a gentleman that introduced himself as my biological brother,” he said. “His first words to me were ‘Hey bro, you’re a Lakota.’ You can imagine hearing that for the first time.
"We went on to share life stories. To say it was a life-changing moment in time is an understatement of the greatest magnitude.”
LaRoche’s adoption was never a secret to him. However, as a Native American child removed from the Indian Reservation system, he never received the complete truth until he was nearly 40.
“It was taboo back in those earlier days to openly proclaim that you had Native American descent and lineage in our family tree,” LaRoche said, adding that the Worthington of his childhood wasn’t booming with the cultural diversity that it has today.
With an open invitation extended by his biological brother to “come on home,” the LaRoche clan headed west to a small Sioux Indian Reservation, where for the first time, he discovered truths about his Native American heritage.
“In the blink of an eye, we became part of a new family,” he said. “We became part of a new culture and part of a new community and, in fact, part of a new world. (We) clashed and collided over and throughout America’s growing pains, and in fact, had yet to heal from the wounds of the past.”
LaRoche was encouraged to pursue music again, this time representing his newfound culture. Thus, Brulé was born.
The group has enjoyed many successes, including 23 recorded albums with more than one million copies sold worldwide, numerous awards, the RFD-TV television show “Hidden Heritage” and performing at the renowned Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Although unpredictable, LaRoche's journey wasn't without any direction. He followed the seven directions, a Native American spiritual philosophy he learned along the way.
Choosing to travel north, south, east or west is innate from birth, LaRoche said of the philosophy. As someone matures, they make a conscious decision to travel in two other directions, above and below — the positive or negative.
The seventh and most important direction, LaRoche said, is the one from within.
“It’s that inner voice that we all have — that little voice that attempts to tell us right from wrong,” he said. “When a human being learns to listen to that voice and follow it and apply that while making the decision to follow the other six directions, it’s then you as a human being have got the ability to walk the red road. In Native American culture, that's the good way to live — it’s the good way to go, the good way to treat other human beings."
That philosophy birthed the foundation, Following the Seventh Direction. With that foundation, the family plans to focus efforts on American Indian youths.
LaRoche said American Indian reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota have the highest teen suicide rates per capita of anywhere in the United States. He wants to give the children hope again.
“We know the healing power of music,” he said of his goal to put on workshops and performances for tribal youths. “That’s our hope and dreams for the future.”
Today, LaRoche has an equal amount of pride and love for both families and both cultures. It’s led him to learn one universal truth in life: that regardless of skin color, political or religious boundaries, human beings are closely connected.
He invited those in Saturday's crowd to take in the special moment of being all together.
“Remember when we stood and sat here side by side as brothers and sisters, one heart, one mind and one body,” he said. “All of us in search of that one thing that we call the Creator and for the greater good of other human beings.”