By Dara Schindelka
It is a hard thing to “celebrate” Canada Day when our nation is so badly shaken at the news of the 215 graves at the Kamloops, B.C. Residential School last month and the 751 found at the former residential school near Cowessess First Nation right here in Sk. As a writer and musician myself, I have found the past month difficult to navigate. I am a third-generation immigrant to this land. I am here because my relatives benefited from the lands and ways of those who were here before them. I recognize that my privilege has been at the expense of others. I have lived on the lands of the Woodlands Cree, the Plains Cree, the Dene, and the Metis and I have had to reconcile that in my own personal life. As I thought about what to share this month, I looked back to an earlier interview I had. It was an unforgettable interview as I came away with a sense of awe and reverence both for the traditional drumming ways and those that pursue it. I am thankful for women like the Charles’ sisters, and especially Aleisha who talked with me, and honoured to share with you about their music.
The New Dawn Drum Group takes a message of positivity and healing to every aspect of what they do. This all women’s drum group has been drumming together since 2007 when they started their journey with sharing and continuing the practice of this ancient music. Their group has travelled all over Canada performing traditional drumming music across varying landscapes from prairie pow wows to northern sweat lodges and everywhere in between. For these Northern Saskatchewan Indigenous sisters, music is strongly tied to the spirit. As Aleisha, one of the sisters in the group says, “The drum brings people together with their spirits and this is where healing begins”. The four sisters also represent the four colours of the medicine wheel which also ties into wellness and healing.
The girls themselves have an incredible story of healing. Part of their journey influences their desire to see others heal. As young children in the foster care system, and then being adopted by their grandparents music became a healer. As young girls, being taken to sweat lodges was huge in their own individual healing. From that starting point the music came out of them to heal those around them and today it is central in all they do.
The group consists of sisters Margaret Bird, Marcia Bird, and Ariel Charles & Aleisha Charles.
“At first we started singing in the swat lodges and that's how most drumming groups come to be, they start by singing in the sweat lodge. Us, we were adopted by our grandparents and they took us to sweat lodges for about a year, and we were learning the songs in there, as we were earning them and actually getting pretty good at them, our grandparents noticed and invited Robert Ballantyne from Stanley Mission to come and teach us other sweat songs and maybe even teach us pow wow songs, so we started out like that, and then it was 2012 when we had one of our first gigs. We were all pretty young at the time and we were still pretty new. Just us four sisters then our teacher Robert was with us about three years and then we were metaphorically set free to do it on our own.” In 2008, as young girls, they sang an honour song as the Olympic torch came through their town, since then they have sung for thousands of people at public places and spaces but always with the intent to bring healing to their own people. This includes being part of awareness walks such as Idle No More as well as the Happy Charles Awareness and Healing Walk, Sisters in Spirit, and the Women’s Commission Walk. These walks help raise awareness for important issues such as the many murdered and missing Indigenous women, one of which is their mother, Happy Charles.
When asked if they found opposition to being all female drummers, they reply. “If we did our grandparents protected it from us when we were younger. In my late teens that’s when we started getting that opposition. A lot of people telling us that the Cree women shouldn’t touch the drum. There were a few times at sweat lodges where I nearly got my drum taken away from me. But there is different teachings and everybody has their own spirit helpers that they listen to in the sweat lodge and some of them are more strict than others. And that’s just how it is, since Colonization everyone has been all over the place so the teachings are different everywhere.”
Aleisha continues, “One of the teachings we’ve gotten up north here is that women holding the drum first. How that came from the women and the women used these things to heal the people and how the men were falling behind because they didn’t have access to these things so the women gave access to all these things. Women were powerful as we could bring life into the world, like every month we are cleansed and the men don’t have that.”
These Cree women started drumming almost ten years ago as youth that attended and sang in sweat lodges under the guidance and loving care of their adopted grandparents. After attending many of these sweats it was apparent the sisters had a gift and that gift was nurtured and continued to grow under the teachings of Elder Robert Ballantyne. Ballantyne, a Cree drummer from Stanley Mission, sang and drummed with the girls in the early years until he felt they were ready to drum on their own.
“We go these places to places where there is alcohol involved and we don’t usually accept but at times we have been at places there. It brings people close to their culture and accept it again. One thing we’ve learnt over the years is that an intoxicated person has their soul outside their body. That causes loss and they need up to four whole days, when you’re intoxicated it hits you a lot more because your soul is out there. It brings them forward and they usually cry.”
For Aleisha, who also writes the songs for the group, spreading healing in drumming is at the very heart of it all. While many musicians find their venues to be smoky bars and concert halls, the New Dawn Drum Group share their ceremony songs in sweat lodges while round dances and be shared in public spaces for all to take part in. If you have ever had the privilege of hearing these sisters drum and sing, then you will understand the intense emotion that comes with their music. I personally have heard them a number of times and each time I cannot help but give my full attention to the moments and music of their drums and their voices. They can bring an entire festival to a whisper and gather people from all backgrounds together holding hands in a circle and dancing the ancient round dance. To have a music group that brings people to these powerful places is a moving and onerous position but one that the women respect and take seriously.
For many, their understanding of tradition says that the men alone shall drum in ceremony. This teaching is prevalent in the south however for these northern Cree women that was not part of the teachings passed on. For them the women always carried the strength that comes with the drum and they are carrying on that long-lost tradition to see it come back to the feminine. As Aleisha says, they were protected at a younger age by this bias and now they are ready for the challenges that they may come up against.
As a creative being and deeply spiritual, Aleisha has connected herself to the music and is learning how to write music that keeps the tradition alive and accessible to all people. Last summer she found herself travelling south into the United States hitting sundaes and earning the songs and cultural traditions and languages of other Indigenous groups. She met a lot of singers and writers and they showed her how they write. This first-hand experience with other drummers and writers of songs inspired her to continue writing herself. She is one who finds writing comes when she is inspired to write a tune but others may only write during the full moon and are deeply connected with their spirituality and sacred songs. It is a dance with the Creator and that dance brings forth music to share with others. Drumming has the heartbeat of the earth in its bones and to share that with others is a very intimate experience.
As we navigate the nation that we live in, filled with hidden atrocities and stolen children, lifting up the traditional drumming of the First Peoples is a good way to start our healing path forward. Talking to Aleisha and hearing her story of hope is a good way to start that healing path. The New Dawn Drum Group are a force to be reckoned with and their music is part of that force for good. You can find them on their Facebook page and you can book them for events that share music and hope to a nation so badly in need of it.