A Drumstick’s Story: Part 21

By Joe Liles
News From Indian Country 6-09

With special thanks to Adam Teller, Diné College, Harry Walters, Albert Smith, John Woodmansee, Emerson E-rock Begay, and the people of Tuba City and Moenkopi.

Last time, I told you how R.D., Grandpa, and I came to two towns side by side, one Navajo and one Hopi, Tuba City and Moenkopi. We were in a place called Arizona. It seemed like a long time ago when we picked up Grandpa as a hitchhiker back at Diné College in Tsaile.

I was sad because I knew that Grandpa was slipping away from me, out of my life. He told us he had come here because something special was happening. He was working with a group of people to bring understanding and harmony between the Navajo and the Hopi.

After a night’s rest in a Hopi home in Moenkopi, R.D. and I left Grandpa and headed to a place called the Tuba City Fair. I had no idea what to expect.  R.D. and I cruised the area with me riding on the dashboard. Outside of town, we came to a place called the fairgrounds.

This was a very special place:  Colored lights, flying flags, and Indian people everywhere. There were strange machines taking people and spinning them around for a while. Then the people would climb down from the machines.  They walked funny and had strange looks in their eyes.

And then, I heard it, the unmistakable sound of a powwow drum. R.D. heard it too, and we followed the sound until we came to a large gathering of people.  R.D. wasted no time in heading over to the drum. He pulled me out of his belt and asked a man if he could sit down.    

This head singer did not say anything, he just motioned with his head to a chair.  R.D. sat down and placed me on the drum. It had been so long since I had felt the power of a big drum.

We sang songs for all the dance categories. There were tiny tots, boys, girls, teenagers, and grown-ups. I could tell this was a drum that sang in the style of the Northern Plain because the singing was much higher than I was used to, but R.D. didn’t have any problem.

The singers even sang some round dances. All of this resulted in a flood of memories for me. I was taken back to my first powwow trip to Knoxville with Nephew, my trip to the big casino powwow, all the powwows in Oklahoma, the Gathering of Nations, and the Eagle Staff campout.

I truly missed going to powwows. But I had a new awareness. Back in my earlier times, I thought powwows were the most important thing in life. With all the singing, dancing, socializing, and food, powwows seemed to be the center of traditional Indian life. But now, because of my travels with R.D., I realized Indian life was much deeper than this.  The Indian communities I had visited had ceremonies, food, teachings, and even languages that were different from each other. I now know that powwows are a small part of a much larger life.

R.D. and I spent most of the day at the powwow.  In between songs, R.D. and the other singers around the drum would tell jokes, talk about where they were from, and, oh yeah, eat.  R.D. had an Indian taco. I recognized the frybread immediately, but there was a lot of stuff piled on top I wasn’t familiar with. At the end of the powwow, the head singer shook R.D.’s hand and thanked him for his help.

R.D. said it was an honor to sing at the drum. When he pulled his hand back, I could see that the head singer had given R.D. something. It was some folded up money. Hooray! This meant we had money for gas for the car and food for R.D. to eat.  Maybe I will see California after all.

Not so fast, I told myself as we headed off into the late afternoon to explore the rest of the fair. We wandered through craft stands with turquoise and silver and weaving you would not believe until we came to a place where people were standing in a long line. There was a big banner behind a gate. It said:  Battle of the Bands.

I had always thought powwows were all about harmony and people coming together only to discover that different bands of Indians were going to fight each other for the amusement of spectators. I thought R.D. had lost his mind when he got in this line and started moving toward the gate. He even gave a man some of his hard earned drum money to go inside.               

We headed toward a raised stage where I figured the battle was going to take place. Everyone was standing, and I could feel the excitement growing.  Finally, a Master of Ceremonies came out with a microphone. He told everyone they were in for a real treat. There were four bands that would battle it out until only one was left as a winner. What kind of sickness is this? I thought to myself.

The MC named the four bands.  There was Ethnic Degeneration, which was something called a Hardcore Metal group. They were from Kayenta. Then, there was The Horny Toads. They were what you call Rock and Roll. This ought to be interesting. There was a band called The Tipi Creepers, which was supposed to be Country and Western. I didn’t understand any of this. And finally there was a Heavy Metal group named Skinjun. I was very concerned. I did not know Indians did things like this.

What happened next showed me how little I understood about Indians and the world in general.  This was no fight to the death between bands of Indians.  These bands were musical groups.


One after the other, the bands would take the stage, tune strange instruments, beat on drums, and then play a set of songs. OK, maybe I was being generous when I said they were musical groups.  Yeah, some of the groups played what I recognized as music, but others had those instruments hanging around their necks screaming to get loose. And it was very loud!

At one point, the crowd got real excited and formed a giant circle. I knew the circle was sacred to Indian people, but what they did in this circle made me worry.  People would enter the circle, run around, and crash into each other. I found out later this was called a mosh pit.  Luckily, R.D. did not go in there.

The last band up was Skinjun. They played some music from the wild side too. It sounded kind of angry. But toward the end they played a song that actually made sense to me. It was called “Red Code, Code Red,” and it was all about the Navajo Code Talkers. I wished Grandpa was here! He would be so proud.

Skinjun finished their performance with a song called “The Long Walk.”  Everybody in the audience got quiet.  There was no more mosh pit. People listened to words you could actually understand. Some people even sang along. This song was all about the Long Walk of the Navajo that Adam had told us about.

At the end of Skinjun’s song, the MC came back out and led the crowd in voting for the winner of all the bands. I had never been to an election before, so I was excited. But the way they voted surprised me. You were supposed to holler for the band you liked the most.  People screamed at the top of their lungs.

When Skinjun’s name was called, R.D. screamed so loud it scared me to the very fibers of my being.

The MC conferred with a few other people and then announced the winner.  Skinjun won the battle! R.D. seemed pleased. I was just relieved there was no bloodshed.

As the crowd started breaking up, R.D. went up to the stage and spoke to one of the members of the Skinjun band.  This guy had long hair and a raggedy T-shirt. “Hey, I really liked your music, particularly that Code Talker song,” R.D. said. The musician shook R.D.’s hand and asked where he was from. R.D. said he was traveling through the area on his way back to California. The Skinjun guy said his name was E-rock and invited R.D. to meet the rest of the guys.

We went behind the stage.  I was stuck through R.D.’s belt loop. E-rock introduced R.D. to Buzz, Don’t Worry, Lakota, and R.I.P. I had never heard names like these before.

“We are what you call an Intertribal Band,” E-rock said, and they all laughed.  “I’m Diné, Buzz is Apache, Don’t Worry’s full name is Don’t Worry, Be Hopi. Lakota is a Sioux Indian from South Dakota. And R.I.P., he’s a Havasupai Indian. We’ve been hanging out for about four years now. That’s a long time for enemies to be together. Our ancestors used to fight each other all the time!” They all laughed again.

Buzz and Lakota said they knew where a real good party was going on.  They invited R.D. to come along. E-rock said that he, Don’t Worry, and R.I.P. were going to hang around the fair for a while longer.

R.D. chose to stay with E-rock.  I was glad. Buzz and Lakota left, and R.D. helped the other guys load up their equipment into the back of a pick-up truck.  The last thing to go in the pick-up was a set of drums.

“Hold on a second,” E-rock said.  “There’s something we should do before we leave.”  He got the big bass drum, put a blanket on the ground, placed the drum on the blanket, and produced a pouch out of his pocket. He placed a pinch of tobacco in the center of the drum. He passed the pouch to Don’t Worry, R.I.P., and R.D. They each took a small amount of tobacco and placed it on the drum.

“We have the ability to make our ordinary objects holy. Unfortunately, we also have the power to make our holy objects ordinary. I would like to take a moment to offer thanksgiving for our good fortune tonight and also for our new friend from California.”

E-rock got a drumstick from the cab of the truck.  R.D. pulled me out from his belt. Don’t Worry and R.I.P. found some chairs up near the stage and brought them over. E-rock started the slow beat of an Honor Song and with a high clear voice delivered the lead.

R.D. added me to the beat and came in with the second. Don’t Worry and R.I.P. added their voices to the mix. This was a song I had never heard before, and I suspected it was new to R.D. as well.

But it took him no time to catch on.  Before the song was in its second time through, all four voices were like one voice. The drumbeat was totally together.  When the song was over, the guys each placed a hand on the drum. There was a moment of silence.

Then E-rock spoke, “R.D. why don’t you hang with us for a while. We are trying to walk the Red Road. We are trying to get away from our hard partying ways. I believe you can help us.

. . . to be continued.

A Drumstick's Story: Part 22

Comments and assistance:

Joe Liles

Faculty Emeritus
NC School of Science
and Mathematics
1219 Broad Street
Durham, NC 27705

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