Issue 9.5: October/November 2006

Roots of Rhythm

story by Lynn Cook


photo Courtesy Suzanne Westerly

It begins with a crack and a rumble, a single stick striking a piece of buffalo hide stretched taut across a carved wooden base. Take that sound and multiply it by ten players, all striking the same skin in unison. The vibration is so intense it’s nearly tangible. But beyond hearing or feeling this sound, we all know it innately: It’s the rhythm that inspired all the world’s earliest forms of music. It is a heartbeat. It is the drum.

Anyone who’s ever driven down Honolulu’s King Street in early October will certainly have heard the drum—it’s at the core of the annual Intertribal Powwow, which has been staged at Thomas Square for more than thirty years now. Many, no doubt, will also have been surprised by the sheer number of Navajo, Cherokee, Lakota, Sioux, Cree and members of other nations who live in the Islands, not to mention the hundreds who are drawn each year to the annual Island powwows, which also take place on Kaua‘i, Maui and the Big Island.

For Native Americans, “drum” has many meanings: It is, of course, the name of the musical instrument. But it is also the term for an ancient song, a link from past to present. What’s more, it describes the group that gathers to sing this song: Singers drum, making music; a drum is a band of singers. There is no separation between the two, and without the drum—instrument and musician—there is no dance, no heritage. No powwow.

It wasn’t until I talked with Jorge Lechuga that I began to understand what a drum really is. Jorge is the leader of the Wildhorse Singers, the head drum—the “headlining band” if you will—for this year’s Honolulu powwow. He lives in California, but his drum has strong ties to the Islands: Wildhorse has been coming to Hawai‘i since the early 1990s, and one of its singers, Owen Moore, is the collections manager at Honolulu’s Doris Duke Museum (a.k.a. Shangri La). Jorge’s daughter, Shandlin, is a traditional “fancy dancer” at powwows, and when in Hawai‘i she often dances with Cady Schofield-Ching, a Punahou student and daughter of Wendy Schofield-Ching, who owns Native Winds Gallery in Kaimuki.

And this is why I wanted to talk to Jorge: I was curious about how Native American and indigenous Hawaiian traditions fit together, to perhaps gain some insight on what it means to be native to one place but living in another—and particularly in a place like Hawai‘i, which has its own deep-rooted indigenous practices. The answer is at once complicated and simple: It is the drum. “The drum is always the method,” says Jorge. “The way of exchanging energy and knowledge between the tribes. It honors people, places, history and feelings.”

To understand what he’s talking about, witness Jorge’s first trip to the Islands, when Wildhorse attended a Big Island powwow at the invitation of Buttons Lovell, a retired Waimea-area policeman of mixed Hawaiian and Cherokee ancestry. “We took them to Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park and to Pu‘ukohola Heiau, which was built by Kamehameha the Great,” Buttons recalls. “The protocol was presented and we sang to all our ancestors: There was an ‘awa ceremony with hula, chant and their native drum. It was chicken skin.”

But that first trip’s cultural exchange extended far beyond traditional protocol: At an anti-drug benefit performance in Kona, famed Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole called Jorge and the drum onstage. “He hugged me,” says Jorge, his voice breaking as he recalls how Iz told the crowd that they were alike, working to help their “dysfunctional brothers.” Kamakawiwo‘ole died in 1997, but Wildhorse continues to honor him. “He said to keep on and we never forgot that: Our second CD includes a tribute to that Hawaiian superman.”

As with other traditions that have arrived on Hawai‘i’s shores, the powwow scene has been subtly influenced by Island culture. In addition to Wildhorse’s Iz tribute, there is another drum song that is now played at every Hawai‘i powwow. Owen Moore says it never fails to grab local crowds when, during the second or third “push up” (verse), they hear the word “aloha.”

Owen’s own journey to the drum was a serpentine one. “My great-grandmother was from West Africa,” he says. “But she wasn’t a slave: She was educated, lived in New Orleans and worked as a nanny for a Frenchman. She married one of the brothers of Chief Black Hawk, a Sauk and Fox of the Western Cherokee nation.”

Now in his mid-fifties, Owen was raised in New York City, and though he often heard stories of native culture from his grandmother, it wasn’t until 1972, when he hitched a ride to the Dakotas and was “adopted” by a Lakota family, that he began a return to his ancestral roots. And it wasn’t until twenty years later that he was captured by the drum.

“In 1980, I went to Africa to work on clean water projects,” he says. “While I was there, I saw firsthand my African cultural connection—but in California I heard and felt my Native American roots.”

That was in 1992, not long after he finished a master’s degree at UCLA. “The first time I heard Wildhorse, I couldn’t move. After the performance, I walked right over and asked if I could learn—and I’ve been part of the drum ever since.”

Owen and Jorge share the drum long distance, practicing “together” via recordings and phone calls. Owen lives not too far from the grounds of Shangri La; to reach his cottage, I wander down a long drive and into a tropical garden. As I approach, I can hear Wildhorse playing over the stereo, mixed in with a speaker-phone conversation between Owen and Jorge.

Pausing in their rehearsal, the pair explains how best to experience a powwow, and how to understand a small bit about what is going on with the drum. “The songs are started by the head singer,” says Jorge. “Then a second singer takes a lead line; then everyone joins in, drumming and singing at the same time. That lets the dancers know the story and the beat—a loud beat during the song is honoring the drum.”

And there is much more: Dance categories range from traditional “old time Sioux” to the nearly hip-hop style of Mike Running Wind, a Seneca-Apache who makes his home on the Big Island. … Grass dancers are fast; fancy dancers are very fast; jingle dancers’ costumes make a beautiful sound, with decorations originally made from rolled up tobacco-can lids. … During competitions, a drum can try to trick a dancer by speeding up or stopping. … If one drum has members missing another drum can move over to “fill up the sound.” … If only one drum comes to the powwow, they have to sing all day, or until their voices give out. … On the continent, the powwow can last late into the night and is often more formal than at the Hawai‘i events. … Women don’t drum, but they can sing in an outside circle, behind the men.

“Well,” Jorge says, “except for the all-woman drum called The Man Killers.”

This year’s Honolulu powwow is going to be a challenging one for Wildhorse: Two of Hawai‘i’s local drums, Red Thunder and Wild Rice, will both be absent this year, owing to the fact that several of their members have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. To help fill the void and pay tribute to those who are missing, Mike Running Wind (himself an ex-Marine) will travel from Hilo with his drum, Hunter’s Moon. In the process, Jorge, Owen, Mike, Buttons, Shandlin, Cady, Wendy and anyone else who attends the Hawai‘i powwows will be participating in a ceremony that, while deeply rooted in indigenous traditions, ultimately crosses all national and ethnic borders.

Or, as Jorge puts it, “The drum brings the heartbeat of the earth for all to hear and feel: The drumming brings everyone back into balance.”

The 32nd Annual Intertribal Powwow takes place at Thomas Square in Honolulu on October 7 and 8. For information, call (808) 734-5171. The Kaua‘i Powwow takes place October 13 to 15; call (808) 828-1294. As of press time, other island powwow dates had not been confirmed. HH