When 10 sticks strike the big drum, it sends a heart-pounding message to those who hear it.

“A drum is a powerful instrument. It has its own spirit,” said Steve Wood, one of the original members of Northern Cree, arguably the best big drum and hand drum group in the world.

Northern Cree will be the host drum for the first Two Cultures, One Community Powwow Feb. 23, 24 and 25 at the Pendleton Convention Center.

A nine-time Grammy Award nominee, the group will travel to the Eastern Oregon community from their headquarters in Saddle Lake, near Maskewich, Alberta, Canada.

The Northern Cree drum includes three teachers. Wood recently retired as a middle school administrator.

“We want to ensure what we call balance. Young people need to balance their lives between our own identity culturally and the need for a colonial education to survive,” said Wood, one of four brothers that started Northern Cree more than 40 years ago.

“In life today, we are building relationships with others,” Wood said. “We want to send a message to our young people, that anything is possible.”

Thousands of people are expected to participate and attend the powwow, organized by volunteers from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), which is the major sponsor of the event. Additional sponsors include Amazon Web Services to the Port of Kennewick, Wash., and Travel Oregon, the state agency that promotes tourism.

More than 30 vendors, from as far away as Colorado and Minnesota, have committed to attending the event.

Pendleton Mayor John Turner proclaimed the days the powwow will take place as “Two Cultures, One Community” weekend.

A powerful awakening

Pat Beard, manager of the Pendleton Convention Center and Two Cultures, One Community Committee Chair, initiated the idea for the powwow after CTUIR dancers and singers performed for city and county managers at the state convention in July.

Beard asked Fred Hill Sr., a tribal language instructor and vice-chair of the Two Cultures, One Community committee, to bring singers and drummers to entertain convention guests and share their traditional lifestyle.

“It was a powerful awakening for all of those attendees,” Beard said. “Each of them told us it was their favorite part of the convention.”

Last summer Beard and Hill started “bouncing ideas around” for a powwow this winter at the Convention Center.

Hill said Beard came up with the “Two Cultures, One Community” name.

“What does it really mean?” Hill asked. “I asked an elder who said we are all tananawit – people, one village, one dwelling place. This place is known as Tile’epe: ‘place of the small cliffs’ and we all reside here.”

Beard said the name “really encapsulates what he and I wanted to showcase. The Confederated Tribes have been here for more than 10,000 years and that is one of the real reasons Pendleton is such a unique and special place.”

Across Indian Country, celebrations – or powwows - are always open to the public, but non-Indians often shy away, unsure if they are welcome at the cultural events.

Hill said many people from this region have never seen a powwow. He noted that it will be the first powwow experience for Kara Woolsey, director of Travel Pendleton.

“For many it may be their first experience,” Hill said. “There’s that uncertainty. Some may feel powwows are off limits, but I hope people come out. It’s going to be interesting to see how we interact as Indians and non-Indians.”

Wood understands the “astigmatism” of the powwow, which, he said, got its name from Buffalo Bill Cody, the wild west entertainer in the mid- to late-1800s.

“We call them celebrations, a gathering of people who can enjoy songs, dancing and storytelling,” said Wood, the middle brother among five.

Anyone can attend a celebration.

“If people want to go, go, you don’t have to ask anyone. It’s about bringing people together.”

Drummers and singers with the award-winning group Northern Cree. Left to right, back row: Randall Paskemin, Johnboy Moosimin, Penny McGilvery, Marvin Deschamps, Marlon Deschamps, Steve Wood, Jordan Fiddler, Marcus Denny, Dezi Chocan, Jayzer Littlewolfe, Shaina McGilvery, Emerson Samson, Jamon Paskemin. Front row, left to right: Jonas Tootoosis, Joel Wood, Leroy Whitstone, Kyle Pasquayak. All of the Nehiyaw (Cree) tribe, except Marcus Denny, Menominee.

‘Where is it? In your heart and in your head.’

Northern Cree, a nine-time Grammy nominee, has won Native American Music Awards, Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, Aboriginal Peoples’ Music Choice Awards/Indigenous Music Awards, and Indian Summer Music Awards. The group also won a 2017 Juno Award, which is presented by the Canadian Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences. They won the Juno, singing “Going Home Star,” for Classical Album of the Year – Large Ensemble.

As a hand-drum ensemble, the group has performed all over the world, from Mexico and Morocco to Greenland and across Europe. The group performed in front of 50,000 people at Trafalgar Square in London and was invited to perform “Cree Cuttin” live on the pre-telecast portion of the 60th annual Grammy Awards in 2017. The performance was streamed worldwide.

Northern Cree has performed with rock bands and other artists. In 2008, rapper M.I.A and hip-hop star Santigold sampled Northern Cree’s music in the single Get It Up, and in 2017 Pharrell Williams, record producer and songwriter, sat in on a drum circle while the group was performing in North Dakota. The group also provided music in the film Grey Owl (1999) and was featured in the song and music video “Indomitable” by DJ Shub, which won Best Music Video in the Native American Music Awards.

The Canadian crew routinely performs as the host drum at two dozen celebrations a year, many in the round-dance style, which is different from the powwow dancing of the Pacific Northwest.

The 15-member group (10 people drum and sing at a time), with drummers from across Treaty 6 zone in Alberta and Saskatchewan, has produced 51 albums, mostly recorded live at powwows. However, their last album, “Oskimacitahowin: A New Beginning,” was recorded in-studio at the National Music Centre in Calgary.

The inspiration for Northern Cree started in the 1960s when people from the Saddle Lake community would meet in a small log home to practice their traditional songs.

“Sometimes our uncles would visit and pull out a drum and sing,” Wood said. “Sometimes we danced in the living room, and it was pure magic. We learned about our language, our songs, our history. We came across many great singers that sat in on our circles who passed on songs and stories.”

The music of First Nations, the official name describing natives in Canada, is not recorded on paper or in books, and members of the group can’t read the music.

“Where is it? In your heart and in your head. It’s amazing the different songs we remember.”

Wood said the group can hear a song and repeat it.

“We’re at the point where we don’t have to practice it. Not many groups can do that, but we all speak the same language. It’s a feeling that gets your heart racing, your palms sweating.”

Wood said Northern Cree tries to explain the meaning of songs.

“We take time to translate all the songs,” he said. “We put the translation on our CD jackets. We learn and promote the language at the same time for our people and others.

The power to bring people together

Today, Northern Cree, and other big drums, have an obligation to honor the protocols set out by their ancestors.

“A drum is not just a drum. It’s something we share with others. It has the power to bring people together.”

Wood has the original decades-old Northern Cree drum, which has been retired from celebrations. He has another half dozen drums that are used individually in their current performances.

Wood explained how each drum has a life of its own, borrowed from those who helped build it.

That includes the animals and plants responsible for the leather stretched over the wooden drum frame.

“Somebody gave their life for the head of the drum,” Wood said. “Look at the animal. From our perspective the head of the drum is alive, with a spirit, the same way we have relationships as humans.”

The rim of the drum is made of wood.

“A tree can teach you a number of things in life. You can’t see it, but a tree has a relationship with every other tree in the forest, no matter if they are different kind of tree,” Wood said.

Beard, at the Pendleton Convention Center, encouraged the city and reservation communities to join in more activities like the powwow.

“I love what the partnership with CTUIR does for Pendleton,” Beard said. “The community welcomes everyone and makes them feel at home.”

Lead image: A flyer for the Two Cultures, One Community Powwow, which will be held at the Pendleton Convention Center on Feb. 23, 24 and 25.

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ContributorWil Phinney has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years at newspapers in Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. He recently retired after 24 years as editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal,...