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Native Women Revive Tradition Through Drum Beats and Song

By Kaomi Lee

On a recent afternoon, about a dozen Anishinaabe women and girls assembled at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to sing old and new songs.

"Way hai way hey-yo way hai-ya," the women's voices belt out in unison over a steady beat.

They call themselves the Oshii Giizhik ("New Day") Singers in Ojibwe, and create music by singing and using a hand drum, Nitaa-Nagamokwe ("Lady Who Knows How To Sing"), or Lyz Jaakola, explained.

"I encourage students and community members to come and use their voice, especially those who seem to not be heard. I don't know if it's my own personal thought of people being heard or if it goes back to my Anishinaabe roots, or even my Finnish heritage about including everybody's voices," said Jaakola, who is a music faculty member at the college.

Ojibwe music centers on drum and song. The drum symbolizes a human heartbeat, while the female voice signifies a mother's voice.

"It comes from the root of who we are," she said.

The longstanding tradition of women singing in a drum circle while using hand drums was captured by ethnomusicologist Frances Dunsmore at the turn of the 20th century. But over time, Jaakola said the practice of women singing and drumming largely fell out of custom.

Pow wows today often feature men at large drums leading the symbolic beats, while women are more often seen dancing or watching from the sidelines, she added.

But Jaakola and the group are trying to revive the tradition where women's voices can also be heard. "Everything we do, we try to follow protocol as best as possible. We talk to the elder women singers a lot. In fact, we intentionally gather once a year and invite them to come and keep us moving in the right direction," she said.

Jaakola first came up with the idea of singing with a hand drum from a dream she had. She went to an elder figure to ask her what the dream meant. "She told me, 'You know what this means, why are you asking me?'" Jaakola chuckled.

The group intends to record songs in a new CD entitled, "Anishinaabe State of Mind," a project funded from a grant by the First People's Fund. The CD will contain songs in the Ojibwe language.

Even without a CD just yet, the group is already having an impact.

"Drumming and singing kind of found me, " Waabishke Gwanebiik, or Shania DeLille, said. A recovering drug addict, she grew up on the Fond du Lac reservation and at one time had lost her way. Now sober for two years, she said the drumming has moved her.

"It's something I've never felt before, the power of 13 drums, 13 women, 13 women beating as one? It does something," she said.

This story was published September 10, 2019.

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