HEARTBEAT OF MOTHER EARTH
The drum awakens the senses and stirs the soul
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.”