It’s a Tuesday evening in late March, and the cold still clings to the air: all of Toronto is bursting with impatience after a long winter. Tucked into a quiet, warm space in the heart of Kensington Market is the Red Pepper Spectacle Arts headquarters, separated from the busy side street only by a wall of glass. Inside, steps down from street level, Veronica Johnny talks to the circle of 15 women, who each hold a drum in their hands.
“I’m so happy you all came,” says Johnny, her long greying hair framing an open face and wide smile. “Because if you didn’t come there would be no circles; it would just be me.” The group erupts in laughter. “Which would be fine but not as good!”
The room is an explosion of colour and dimension; painted wooden masks of different types of animals, including an intricately carved beaver, stare down at the circle, as do passersby on the dark street who peer in, curious why so many women have gathered with deer- and moose-hide drums and long skirts or scarves tied around their waists. These skirts are a sign of respect but are not required to be a part of circle. In fact, not much is required. “All I ask when someone enters the circle is they come with an open heart and a good intention,” Johnny tells the women. “It’s all about how hard you try. It’s not about how good you sing or perfect your rhythm is; it’s about the energy you’re putting in.”
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They are all here to participate in a hand-drumming circle organized by the non-profit Native Women in the Arts. Johnny, of Cree and Dene descent, is from Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories; she’s a contemporary and traditional Aboriginal hand-drummer and leader. She is tall and bright in spirit, commanding the room with a loud voice and natural charisma. She is telling the circle of how the song they are about to sing came to be. It was many years ago — in 2009, she thinks — and she was visiting her home in NWT to meet with a group of youth. The community had experienced a high death rate that year, and Johnny asked them if they wanted to “catch” a song in honour of the dead. (A song, she says, is never written — it is received by spirits who give it life.) They called it “Young Light.” Johnny began thumping her drum with her mallet as she stood, the rest rising to join her. The sound of 15 drums fills the small space and vibrates through hands, arms, and chests.
“Eh hey ehey-ya. Waya heya ehey-ya!” they sing, quiet at first but getting louder as the song repeats over and over and the beats become more confident and bodies loosen. Some in the circle close their eyes while others rhythmically shift their feet. Johnny cuts the tempo and now pauses between thumps, catching some off guard, though they soon join in again.
“Way ya-way hey hey-ya,” they sing, swaying slowly. The pace picks up again and they are again chanting the faster verse, and the women begin to smile.
Hand-drumming circles come together regularly in Toronto; on any given night there’s a circle somewhere in the city. Drumming, singing, and dancing have been intertwined with the social and political fabric of Indigenous communities in Canada for generations before European colonization, and they remain an essential part of Indigenous life today. Circles and events that centre around the drum bring people together to celebrate a history and culture that has withstood persecution, genocide, and a near-erasure of knowledge and a way of life.
“From a traditional perspective, for a lot of women in our community, when we get together it’s because we’re healing past trauma,” said Ghislaine Goudreau, health promoter at the Sudbury and District Health Unit and a member of the Algonquin of Pikwàkanagàn. “I think it’s given us a lot of our voice back, and I think a lot of us feel more empowered since we’ve been doing that. We feel strength in being able to help our communities.”
Many nations believe song and dance are sacred, and the drumbeat itself is often referred to as the heartbeat of Mother Earth, or as humanity’s common pulse. There are at least 70 First Nations across Canada, each with its own stories, songs, and traditions reflecting their histories and beliefs. It’s impossible to accurately describe the function and importance of the drum for every community, as language and music style varies wildly from one region to the next.
The two common drums that are used by First Nations people today are the small frame hand drum, and the large powwow drum that’s played by several people in a group. Both are often handmade with deer or moose hide and wooden frames, and are sometimes painted or decorated with sacred items.
Many Indigenous stories, though not all, tell some variation of the drum being given first to the woman by the Great Spirit, who is told to share it with men to create peace between warring nations.
“Anyone around the world who picks up a drum will connect with that drum because it’s a memory,” said Gourdreau. “That’s the first sound that you’ve heard as a baby in your mother’s womb.”
Despite a respect for the drum and its feminine spirit, though, the woman’s place at the drum continues to be challenged. Some groups believe the powwow drum should be played only by men, and that a woman’s place is to stand behind the men and sing. Many attribute this attitude to the time of European contact, when traditionally equal Indigenous communities were taught that women deserve fewer rights and less respect. The hand drum is more commonly used by women, but there are still some communities — especially in more remote regions — that disapprove of women playing any drum at all.
Gourdreau, whose master's thesis at the University of Alberta looked at the health benefits of drumming for women, didn’t know about the gender issue until she began her research. “I thought it was something we always did, but when I looked into the history further I realized it was sort of like we just started picking up the drum in the last 20 years.”
Starting in the 1970s, Indigenous women formed their own drum circles across Canada. Today, hand-drumming circles — which are often inclusive of all genders — usually contain a medley of nations from across the country, as well as non-Indigenous participants.
In 1998 Gourdreau began drumming with other women in a northern Ontario group called the Waabishki Mkwaa (White Bear) Singers, whom she still joins now and then. “I didn’t feel like I was being a feminist in saying that you should be able to drum because you’re a woman,” she says. “I just feel like it’s something that if it’s helping you, then why aren’t you doing it? Or if it can help you, why wouldn’t you pick it up?”
Back in Kensington, the women pack their drums away, wrapping them in blankets and leather to protect them against the subzero temperatures. Some sip tea and chat with one another and eat the last pieces of pepperoni and cheese pizza on a table off to the side.
“I believe that drumming is my small part to focus in on global healing and how we have to start with ourselves and the change we want to see out there,” Johnny says, smoothing the surface of her drum in a circular motion with the palm of her hand. “That’s what I love about Toronto. It’s so multicultural and accepting of so many belief systems, ways of life and thought patterns.”
“Everybody has a gift to share.”
This article is from Indigenous Land, Urban Stories, a project by master’s students at the Ryerson School of Journalism, with support from Journalists for Human Rights.
Amy van den Berg is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University.