Women’s Hand Drum Group Rematriate Songs of Their Grandmothers
March 26, 2020

Women’s Hand Drum Group Rematriate Songs of Their Grandmothers

As a blizzard loomed on the horizon, a group of Indigenous women stood in a semi-circle — facing one another while connecting with their audience at the Ojibwe Language Symposium. The special event was held at the Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College in December 2019.

Filled with nerves and wondering how people would respond, it was hard for the Oshkii Giizhik Singers to think of the moment as their first “performance” for their new CD. It was more about sharing the language and culture with their own people.  But standing before everyone, firm in their 13-year history as a drum group gave them the confidence to play and sing songs of their ancestors’ and of their own making.

“It was more like an ‘informance,’ not just a performance, and I think it was well-received,” says Lyz Jaakola (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior), a former First People’s Fund Community Spirit Award recipient (2012). Also known as Nitaa-Nagamokwe, Lyz intertwines art, music, and education. A wife, mother, and dedicated community member, Lyz teaches music and directs the Ojibwemowining Language and Culture Resource Center at the Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College in Cloquet, Minn., on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

The group she founded, Oshkii Giizhik Singers (OGS), received a 2019 First Peoples Fund Our Nations’ Spaces (ONS) grant for their concert and CD project, “Anishinaabekwe Inendamowin” (Women’s Thinking).

“We were a little nervous [at the performance] because you never know how people are going to respond, but they were right there paying attention,” Lyz says. “Some members of our community learned and acknowledged that women have been singing independently from men for centuries, which was new information for them.”

OGS is a community-based group of Native women singers from the Fond du Lac Reservation/Duluth area. Since 2006, over 45 women have sung with OGS in various forms and venues. Since being awarded “Best Traditional Recording” at the 2009 Nammys (Native American Music Awards), their focus is to give back to the community.

“My community hasn’t always been the most supportive of ladies hand drumming,” Lyz says. “But we were able to demonstrate the historical context to show that women were singing 110 years ago, and even 200 years ago. We’re following in the footsteps of our grandmas.”

"We’re following in the footsteps of our grandmas.”

Many women have come and gone from the group over the years. It’s a difficult commitment to make. This was alleviated in part by the ONS grant that went toward paying the singers and drummers for the time they invested in their CD project.

“Being able to offer compensation for this work felt so good,” Lyz says. “The ability to pay these women for their time and work felt correct and respectful to them.”

While six of the songs on the CD were newly composed tracks, 10 were gathered from 100-year-old recordings held within what is known as the Densmore Collection.

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Beginning in 1907, Frances Densmore was employed by the Bureau for American Ethnology. Over her lengthy career, she took 79 field trips to 54 locations, made 3,500 recordings, transcribed more than 2,300 songs, and published 16 books and hundreds of articles. Densmore spent over 50 years studying and preserving American Indian music.

Plumbing the depths of the Densmore Collection, Lyz and the other women “rematriated” several of the songs.

“I think repatriation is crucial work,” she says. “But often in that narrative, we lose track of the women’s stories. To call attention to it by coining that term ‘rematriation’ is recognizing the importance in the women’s voices.”

One song OGS drew from the collection was “The Little Girls’ War Song.” They recruited four young girls to record on the project, lifting the words and melodies from a wax cylinder into their hearts and through their lips, giving life to their ancestors’ voices.

“One of Densmore’s most willing singers, a man named Odjibwe, recorded this song that little girls would sing when playing war,” Lyz says. “So an elder man recorded the little girls’ song, we retrieved it and taught it to our little girls who recorded it with us on the CD.”

The performance at the college was the first time many of these songs had a voice among their people in over 100 years.

"We did it because we love our ancestors, and we love our culture."

“We’re the conduit to update the recordings,” Lyz says. “Those wax cylinder recordings, even digitized, are hard to listen to. We were able to bring them up to today’s standards of recording. That was really humbling. We did it because we love our ancestors, and we love our culture. Because we led with these motivations, it’s apparent to our community that we are not trying to do anything but help our people grow in knowledge and strength. This is the best way to build community in Anishinaabe country.”

After the performance, they gifted CDs to the attendees. Remaining CDs that were purchased with the ONS grant are being used as a fundraiser for a possible gig the group was invited to perform at in July 2020— Riddu Riđđu, an International Indigenous Music Festival in Norway.

Through the project, each woman developed a new level of confidence in her language and singing skills.

““This has empowered them physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to do any of their work with more confidence. This has manifested itself in their ability to work better in their field, their job, their classroom, and some have been invited to take on more gigs or responsibility in their professional or cultural lives.”

— Lyz Jaakola

“Giving a concert, recording a CD, learning the language, painting art for the CD cover, rehearsing and singing songs for the sake of singing songs — all of these are measures of achievement in and of themselves,” Lyz says. “I think this project is considered a monumental effort by all involved. We want to do more of this type of rematriation of songs. We are very grateful for the opportunity afforded us by this grant.”

Note: Our Nations' Spaces grants expand opportunities for Native performing artists within and beyond their own communities and are generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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