Drum is healing for Women Society Singers

By Susanne Nadeau
Grand Forks, North Dakota (AP) 4-08

The drum, says Jermaine Tremmel, is our nation’s heartbeat.

And it becomes a health line for women who have lost their way because of alcohol or drug abuse, said Tremmel, a Lakota from Standing Rock reservation.

Tremmel said she and sister, Sharon Big Bird Mountain – two members of an all female American Indian drum group called Red Drum Women Society Singers – got into the traditionally male-dominated role of drumming after four years of prayer at Bear Butte near Sturgis, S.D., a place of spiritual import for American Indian tribes. Dreams led the sisters to believe drumming would help them heal women.

“If our women fall, if our women don’t make it, our nations won’t survive,” Tremmel said.

Tremmel and Big Bird Mountain performed a welcoming song at the University of North Dakota Memorial Ballroom April 22.

The original Red Drum Women Society Singers began with forlorn female children, left by their parents at the home Tremmel and Mountain shared. Drumming became a way to reach the children and help them become successful, Tremmel said.

Tremmel said there are more than 280 members in their drum society – which means a large group of men or women with a common goal. Some of those women have stayed, but many have moved on after finding spiritual or physical healing, Tremmel said.

Amber Annis, president of UND’s Indian Studies Association, said she hadn’t heard of a woman seated at the drum before planning for the Time-Out week, held each year at UND. This year’s theme was “Honoring Women.”

“Culture always changes. It’s controversial, and it’s something I think is pretty interesting,” Annis said.

The sisters recognize the twist of tradition among American Indian roles and contemporary female roles creates controversy.

“We’ve been ostracized, banished at (some) powwows,” Tremmel said. “And now they have this thing that says ‘invited drums only.’ “

Basically, the women drummers are not wanted at powwows because they break tradition, but they are making headway – some female groups are invited and do drum at some powwows.

Greg Gagnon, an associate professor of Indian Studies at UND, said female drum groups are comparable to women seeking positions as priests in the Roman Catholic religion. It’s a break from long-held tradition and values.

Drumming is not the “role traditionally prescribed for women,” he said, in particular, the kind of drum Mountain and Tremmel use, which is about 2 1/2 feet around and placed on wooden platforms between them. In some tribes, women have used hand drums.

Men usually are seated in a circle around that drum, while women stand around the outside of the circle and sing, Gagnon said.

Women who are moving into traditionally male roles are facing resistance to that change, Gagnon said. “It’s kind of like heresy,” he said.

A tobacco offering was laid out along the smooth buffalo hide surface of the drum at center stage, and the tangy scent of burning sweet grass filled the air before the women sang at UND last Tuesday afternoon. Their voices melded together, each taking turns to lift above the other.

Women have filled that space around the drum before, Tremmel said. But it’s always been in a private setting.

“Our men’s roles have diminished; our women’s roles have diminished. Both have adapted, they are resilient. Our ways have changed,” she said. “We need to find our place again.”

The goal of the drum group is not to usurp men from that role, Tremmel said.

“We don’t compete against our men; we are equals with our men,” she said. “This drum is about women healing.”