- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Something spiritual comes over members of the Medicine Woman Singers when they perform.

Before the men start singing, before they start pounding on a handmade drum, they pass a bundle of tobacco clockwise around the circle. Each accepts the sacred herb with his left hand, the one closer to his heart, and prays.

Someone lights dried sage, which is also considered sacred, and waves it around to cleanse the drum of negative spirits.

“We take the drum very serious, so we try to honor it the best we can,” said Chad Roop, who has been member for five years.

Roop and four fellow drummers performed recently for visitors at the Chief Richardville House on Bluffton Road as part of Miami Indian Heritage Days.

Local artists, performers and speakers are scheduled for every Saturday through November. Admission includes a guided tour of Richardville’s house, which is considered the oldest Native American structure in the Midwest.

Jean Baptiste de Richardville was the son of a French fur trader father and a Miami Indian mother and an important liaison between his tribe and U.S. government leaders.

Rhonda Nicholson visited the historic home on a recent Saturday, her first exposure to Native American drumming.

The Huntington woman was struck by watching the drummers try to put into words the spiritual experience they have while drumming.

“What I see is a parallel with Chief Richardville, who had a foot in two cultures,” she said.

Jerry Anders, who keeps the drum for Medicine Woman Singers, has performed with the group for about 10 years. He has Miami heritage, as do two others who performed this weekend.

Roop has Cherokee ancestors. Jeffery White Elk, who wears an eagle feather in his hat, is part of the Seneca tribe. Gary Shoemaker is descended from the Miami tribe. Jay Hyland has both Miami and Cherokee ancestors. The latter three have each been with the group for about 20 years.

Even so, Anders said Native American ancestry isn’t required to be part of the drum circle.

“You know how a person gets called to be a pastor or preacher?” he asked. Becoming the member of a drum circle is similar, he said. “You just feel it.”

Hyland grew up learning about his Cherokee culture from age 3, when he started learning native dances. Eventually, he learned to drum, too. But it’s not a skill you pick up in a weekend.

“It takes a lot of patience and a lot of practice,” he said. “None of this is written down anywhere.”

Some of the songs have lyrics that can be translated into words but many others include what are called vocables - sounds that don’t have meanings like words do. They’re passed from one generation to the next.

The only way to learn the syllables, Hyland said, is to sit and listen. The group practices for about three hours every week.

Some of the songs are prayers, others are about healing or travel. Some people make a living by drumming, traveling from one powwow to another. Columbia City hosts such gatherings.

The drum they play is 28 inches across with elk hide stretched over the top and deer hide over the bottom. Leather laces hold them in place. The wood is cedar.

At least four drummers are needed any time the instrument is played, White Elk said. The represent the four directions of the compass.

Women are life-givers, generally considered too powerful to sit at the drum, Roop said. The few exceptions are when it’s a family drum played by all family members or when a group of all women plays the drum, he said.

The men use leather-covered sticks to strike the drum, often starting rather softly and building in intensity. One song can last 10, 20 . even 30 minutes if audience members feel moved by the music. The results, they said, can be exhausting.

“The harder you hit the drum, the harder you sing,” Anders said.

“And the harder the dancers dance,” Hyland said.

“The spirit,” Shoemaker added, “comes over you.”

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Source: Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, https://bit.ly/1ESy9qY

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Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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