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Local students give voice to First Nations drums

By Celina Ip

Local high school students have given their voice to First Nations drums.


As part of the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board’s Aboriginal Education program, a group of 15 Indigenous students and allies from Bishop Smith Catholic High School and St. Joseph’s High School took part in a couple of workshops to learn about the process of fabricating and birthing traditional First Nations drums.

“I had successfully applied for a ministry grant (supporting Radicalized Students in Ontario) and we put some of the funding towards these workshops,” said RCCDSB mental health lead Rebecca Paulsen. “I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to support equity and inclusion and of course it's so good for mental wellness to be connected to culture.”

With involvement from members of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, and the Kinounchepirini Algonquins, RCCDSB Indigenous Education lead Kellie Hisko said that the workshops were intended to enhance the skills and knowledge of Indigenous students and their allies as well as to increase the awareness of Indigenous issues and culture.

“Reconciliation is about relationships. Sharing culture between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people fosters an understanding and appreciation for what makes each other special while reverencing the dignity of the whole person. I think in a time where we're all talking about reconciliation, this is a project that's all about reconciliACTION. Reconciliation cannot happen without action,” said Hisko.

In late May at their respective schools, the students engaged in the fabrication workshop where they used softened deer hide, wooden frames and sinew to craft their first hand drum. Thereafter, the drums remained at school to cure and to await the birthing ceremony before use.

A couple of weeks later, on May 31, the students gathered at Shaw Woods Sugar Shack to engage in the special birthing ceremony.

Sitting outside in a circle, the ceremony was led by Trevor Pearce of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation, Denis Dupont of the Kinounchepirini Algonquins, along with Michele Gaudry of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan.

After tobacco was placed in the centre of each drum, Gaudry began the ceremony by singing and beating the ‘mother drum’, as one by one the students followed by drumming to the same beat.

Gaudry said that it’s an act of bringing the drums to life, because the drum is like a heartbeat.

“Birthing the drum is about giving life to the drum. Laying tobacco down is about offering thanks (to the Creator) and praying for the spirit of the drum,” said Gaudry.

With all drums connected to the ‘mother drum’, that connection was symbolized by the literal cutting of an “umbilical cord” from the drum.

“When we made our drums, we left one string hanging at the bottom and we cut those at the end of the ceremony,” said Kiannah Barr, Grade 9 student from St. Joseph’s High School. “Just like a baby has an umbilical cord connected to it’s mom, they say that the string is like the drum's umbilical cord.”

Upon cutting the strings, the independent life of each drum began.

To complete the process, the students were asked to bury the cord and their tobacco beneath the earth.

“We each found our own spot and dug a hole to put the cord and tobacco in the ground. It represents that you're grounded and your drum and the spirit is grounded with Mother Earth,” said Barr.

Gaudry added that while the ceremony gives each of the drums a voice of their own, that connection to the great ‘mother drum’ is never completely severed. 

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