Mallets bouncing off hand drums, fourth-graders at Lincoln Elementary learned to play a syncopated rhythm. As they drummed along with music teacher Erik Smith, they sang a song honoring the spirit of the wolf: “Wu Hu Hu Whey Yahtay, Yahtay, Yah.” The hand drums, made of elk and deer hides stretched to a percussive tautness, honor the animals from which they originate and give them a new voice.
For fourth-grader Nazsier Feathers, playing the hand drums has an emotional effect. “I feel happy,” he said. And his favorite part of the experience? “Everybody playing with me.”
Classmate Mason Sickenberger agreed. “It feels like something special’s going on,” he said.
Soon every student at Lincoln will have a chance to experience that feeling, thanks to the school’s partnership with All-Saints Episcopal Church and the Traveling Day Society. The latter is an intertribal and multicultural musical group that earned a grant from the Clark County Arts Commission to purchase 28 hand drums to share with the school.
The Traveling Day Society and All-Saints also have personal connections to Lincoln Elementary. Teacher Jennalee Garcia Montero and her mother, paraeducator Mona Pocha, are related to All-Saints’ Reverend Joseph Scheeler, who is the Traveling Day Society’s drumkeeper.
“Music in our culture has a really big role. Lots of ceremonies are surrounded by drums, singing and dancing,” said Pocha. For her, the drum lessons have created a dialogue as well as an opportunity to share aspects of her family’s Native American culture. “When Native people take an animal’s life, we pray over that animal and thank them for giving us their life,” explained Pocha. “And also we use every item that we can of that animal. Drummaking is just one of the things we do.”
Said Garcia Montero, “Drumming is something that’s mainstream culture, and we can build a bridge to Native American culture.” As part of the experience, students also learn about potlatch celebrations in the Pacific Northwest.
On Nov. 23, the experience will culminate in drum performances by the Traveling Day Society and storytelling. The latter was made possible by a grant secured for Vancouver Public Schools by Wendy Thompson, a teacher at Lake Shore Elementary.
Smith hopes that students having had some firsthand drumming experience will help them connect with the performance on a personal level. “The kids are now going to be able to see it, and hear it, and go, ‘I know what that feels like. I know what they’re doing. I know why they’re doing it,’” he said.
And learning about Native American and indigenous cultures will continue long after the assembly. “We’re really trying to expand our understanding of culture and representation in our school and across the district. Making sure that everyone’s aware that these people, these ancestors, are here and present still, is important to us,” said Garcia Montero.
She sees echoes of her own childhood reflected in her students’ drumming experience. “Hopefully it will be one of those things that lasts a lifetime, that they’ll remember.”
Photos by Cheryl Boatman.