Regina Leader-Post


The drum awak­ens the senses and stirs the soul

- By KENYON WAL­LACE Saskatchew­an News Net­work

The drum has been called the heart­beat of Mother Earth, the heart­beat of na­tions, the heart­beat of all life. Its sound evokes nat­u­ral im­agery, awak­ens the senses, and stirs the soul. It’s a sym­bol of life, a sym­bol of hope, a sym­bol of heal­ing. And it’s a vi­tal part of abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture.

“His­tor­i­cally, tra­di­tion­ally, and spir­i­tu­ally, all abo­rig­i­nals talk about a drum that keeps a na­tion alive, that keeps a na­tion uni­fied,” said elder Howard Walker of the James Smith Cree Na­tion. “The first drum beat that we heard was inside our mother’s stom­achs when we heard her heart. From then on, ev­ery time a drum is heard, we feel that com­fort, that sense of be­ing se­cure, that sense of be­ing uni­fied. That heart­beat of Mother Earth re­minds us who we are, where we come from and where we’re at.”

Walker is a well-known Saskatchew­an pow­wow MC. Dur­ing his 64 years, he’s been to more pow­wows than he can count, and is ac­knowl­edged by most drum­ming groups and dancers as one of the prov­ince’s fore­most au­thor­i­ties on pow­wow songs. He said the drum is, be­fore any­thing, a spir­i­tual in­stru­ment that is the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the cir­cle of life.

“It is our be­lief that the drum is round like life. We be­gin from birth, go to ado­les­cence, to adult­hood, and then to el­ders and back to where we started from,” he ex­plained. “It’s all a con­tin­u­ous cir­cle of life. All those stages are wrapped around that drum.”

The pow­wow drum is likely the most widely rec­og­nized abo­rig­i­nal drum to­day. At Saskatchew­an pow­wows, th­ese drums are usu­ally placed on a blan­ket and sur­rounded by the singers. The size of the drum face can vary — some can be up to 100 inches across. Deer and buf­falo hides are two of the most com­mon ma­te­ri­als used to make the drum face. The hide is stretched over a hol­lowed­out log or a large ply­wood ring.

There are many leg­ends sur­round­ing the ori­gin of the pow­wow drum. A com­mon story is that it was cre­ated by an Ojibwa grand­mother who hid with the wa­ter spir­its for four days to save her­self from Amer­i­can sol­diers at­tack­ing her tribe. Leg­end has it that the spir­its taught her how to make a pow­wow drum and taught her pro­tec­tive songs to sing while beat­ing the drum. When the grand­mother re­turned to her com­mu­nity, she taught her peo­ple how to play the drum and sing the songs. The next time the Amer­i­cans at­tacked, they heard the mu­sic and put down their guns and danced.

As a pow­wow MC, Walker is re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the drum ro­ta­tion and the or­der of when each drum group per­forms. He also fills dead air time that may oc­cur dur­ing the pow­wow with jokes, news, and of­ten, re­quests for prayers.

“The drum is there­fore not only a ma­jor part of our cul­ture, but also of our spir­i­tu­al­ity,” Walker said.

Walker said the art of drum­ming has helped many young men make pos­i­tive choices in their lives and avoid drugs and al­co­hol.

“We all have choices in life and we feel grate­ful as el­ders when we see our young men that have cho­sen to have that sense of be­long­ing around the drum, to have con­trol of their lives so that they don’t need to drink or take drugs to have fun,” he said.

One such group of young men is The Wild Horse Singers, a renowned drum­ming group from North Bat­tle­ford. Formed in the mid-1990s, The Wild Horse Singers have taken the pow­wow cir­cuit by storm.

This group of young, as­pir­ing and tal­ented singers have a unique sound that has taken them all over North Amer­ica per­form­ing for prime min­is­ters, dig­ni­taries and even Queen El­iz­a­beth II in Cal­gary in 2005. The group was the 1999 world class singing cham­pi­ons at the Gath­er­ing of Na­tions in Al­bu­querque, N.M.

In 2003 they were nom­i­nated for a Juno Award and, in 2004, the group won Best Con­tem­po­rary Drum Group at the Abo­rig­i­nal Mu­sic Awards.

Colin Stonechild, 29, is a found­ing mem­ber of The Wild Horse Singers. He at­tributes the group’s suc­cess in such a short pe­riod of time to the drum.

“Our drum has taken us a lot of places. And that’s where it starts with us. Our drum is No. 1. We take care of our drum and it takes care of us,” he said.

The group’s drum is made with buf­falo hide stretched over a ply­wood frame.

“Peo­ple use dif­fer­ent hides like horse hide, steer, or what­ever hide is avail­able,” ex­plained Stonechild. “A lot of the time our in­stru­ments are made with what­ever is avail­able to us. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are very re­source­ful.”

Stonechild said that on a good week­end, the group can win any­where be­tween $5,000 and $7,000. And some­times, you strike it re­ally lucky. At the last world cham­pi­onship en­ti­tled ‘Schemitzun,’ the east coast’s largest pow­wow cel­e­bra­tion, held in Mashan­tucket, Conn., the group came home with $56,000.

David Ka­plan, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of mu­sic at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an, said no other in­stru­ment in the world has been en­dowed with such a sa­cred value than the drum has.

“Go­ing back thou­sands of years, the drum has al­ways been a sym­bol of at­tach­ment to an in­ner peace or ul­ti­mate cre­ator,” he says. “A lot of peo­ple don’t re­al­ize how rit­u­al­is­tic the process of pre­par­ing the drum for a pow­wow is and how im­por­tant the drum is to the spir­i­tual life of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples.”

For Stonechild, the ef­fects the drum has on him are more of a mys­tery.

“You don’t know how it makes you feel the way it does. When you hear that drum beat it makes ev­ery­body feel good and does dif­fer­ent things for dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” he said.

Stonechild said that be­fore The Wild Horse Singers per­form, the group of­fers their drum some to­bacco, says some prayers and usu­ally does a smudge cer­e­mony.

Most peo­ple are born with a voice for singing but don’t know it, ac­cord­ing to Stonechild. He said it’s just a mat­ter of find­ing it and learn­ing how to har­mo­nize with oth­ers.

“It’s like a golf swing,” he said. “You never al­ways have to­tal con­trol of it. It took me a long time to find my voice when I first started.”

He said the best way to find one’s voice is to just keep singing.

“As you sing more, the bet­ter you get. That’s how it is.”

Last year was The Wild Horse Singers’ 10th an­niver­sary.

To mark the oc­ca­sion, the group put on a grass dance spe­cial at the Fed­er­a­tion of Saskatchew­an In­dian Na­tions (FSIN) pow­wow in Saskatoon.

“We play for the peo­ple, that’s what we’re about,” said Stonechild. “We let our singing do the talk­ing for us. We’ve never re­ally had to talk for our­selves, we just let the singing do the talk­ing. Just make mu­sic. That’s our motto.”

And Stonechild said the group only in­tends to keep go­ing.

“The sky is the limit un­til we get too old to do this,” he said. “As long as peo­ple con­tinue to en­joy our mu­sic, we plan to be here.”

Stonechild hopes his own kids will fill his shoes in the fu­ture. Walker smiles when he hears words like this. Af­ter all, that’s part of what pow­wows are about — mak­ing mu­sic and pass­ing the torch to a younger gen­er­a­tion. Walker said pow­wows are im­por­tant be­cause they are a place for dif­fer­ent na­tions to come to­gether, share sto­ries and re­new friend­ships. “Pow­wows are an in­vi­ta­tion to come and join us. Let’s be­gin to share our ex­pe­ri­ences in­stead of cod­ing our dif­fer­ences, be­cause at the pow­wow, there are no rules or reg­u­la­tions of any kind that say this is only for First Na­tions peo­ple,” he says pas­sion­ately. “It is a lodge for all na­tions.”

 ?? KENYON WAL­LACE/Saskatoon Star-Phoenix ?? The Wild Horse Singers, a drum­ming group from North Bat­tle­ford, has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for ex­cel­lence on the pow­wow cir­cuit.
KENYON WAL­LACE/Saskatoon Star-Phoenix The Wild Horse Singers, a drum­ming group from North Bat­tle­ford, has de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for ex­cel­lence on the pow­wow cir­cuit.

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