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Twentieth Annual Little Elk's Reatreat Powwow honors the drum

Observer Staff

1/25/2005 12:00:00 AM

It's been described as the "heartbeat of a nation."

This year's theme for the 20th Annual Little Elk's Retreat Powwow is "Honoring the Drum." The drum symbolizes the very essence of the Native American culture while fulfilling an equally important role.

"The drum teaches you respect for life," stated Steve Pego (Saginaw Chippewa). "It also teaches you everything you wanted to know about the culture."

Pego, 51, has been drumming most of his life. He reminisced about the early 1970s when he, Paul Johnson, the now late Moose Pamp and John Bush were part of a drum called the Great Lakes Indian Youth Alliance. Pego said the formation of the drum group was inspired by the events in 1969 when a group of Native Americans claimed Alcatraz as Indian land with the hope of establishing a cultural center and education complex on the island. The effort lasted 18 months and drew thousands of supporters. In June 1971, federal marshals removed the remaining Native Americans from the once-prison island.

He added the drum not only represents the heartbeat of the people, but the voices of that drum from the singers that sit around it. At about the same time of the Alcatraz incident, the American Indian Movement was being established.

"We learned a lot of political songs," explained Pego. "We were not only fighting for our rights, but to bring back our culture, our religion and our language that was taken away from us. The drum was a big part of that."

After the youth drum group disbanded, its members branched out to form other drums. Pego stated the cultural revelations were explained in the Seventh Fire.

"The teaching of the Seventh Fire is where we as a people would lose everything and there would come a time to where we would gain our identity and our language back.

"If the Eighth Fire is going to be lit, all of these things need to come back and I see that is happening. The children want to learn how to dance. They want to learn how to sing. They want to learn all about the drum. It just shows you what one drum has done to bring back the culture."

Pego said when you join a drum, it is a commitment. He was a longtime part of High Spirit and is now an Ogitchedaw singer as part of a Three Fires Midewiwin Society Lodge.

"To me, the biggest honor in my life is when that Ogitchedaw Drum was lowered to me," he said. "From that drum comes healing. It makes me humble. I'm glad the children are taking up that drum and are learning."

Thirty-one-year-old Jefferson Ballew and his wife, Elizabeth, cultural teachers at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy have assisted with the development of a youth drum at the school called Mkinaakoonsag (Little Turtle).

"Formation of the youth drum has largely been a family affair with the help of Jerry Pigeon Jr., as well as Adam Pigeon," he stated. "Recently, Kendal Kingbird and Dan Jackson have been instrumental in the progress of the singing."

Jefferson (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians) said Mkinaakoonsag has been around for about four years. He added the drum is a symbol of pro-creation and a vital part of the culture.

"The way that I was taught about the drum from this general area is that it is representative of a grandmother and we are to treat it as such," he said. "It has a spirit of a grandmother who is caring and loving. It is the heartbeat of our nation. Without that drum and without those songs, our people won't have the strength to persevere."

He said it was important with the youth drum to teach basic concepts. The songs the youth know were taught to Jefferson by two separate drum groups-Red Eagle and Two Hawks Singers.

"We wanted them to know that each and every young man that sat on the drum were brothers, whether they were blood relation or not," he explained. "That was your family. Your drum family. The young women who stand behind you and sing with you are your sisters and you treat them as such. You protect them and they'll protect you.

"We wanted them to get that understanding and connection that this area has with the drum and the importance of it. The kids were so interested in it. They wanted it and they needed it."

He also said more male drummers are needed to help these youth achieve the next level. Ballew can be reached at (989) 775-4453.