Yakima culture's pulse 6-24-07

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - Echoing the cadence of life, he helps others, and himself, keep in tune with the earth.

With a pulsing beat and a lilting voice, he creates poetry.

And as that musical poetry flows, amid chanting and drumming, he's providing the heartbeat of his people.

Ted Williams is a Yakama drummer, a keeper of tradition at powwows throughout the West.

He's the lead singer of the Toppenish Creek Drummers, named for the stream close to where Williams grew up in White Swan.

Joining him in the family drumming group are his wife, Alberta, son Cory, nephew Justin, brother Rod and uncle George Lee.

Drum groups form the lifeblood of powwow dancing, as well as a backdrop to flag raisings, veteran salutes - “celebrating victories and honoring the fallen,” says Williams - and other ceremonies.

Drums have long accented many tribal traditions, but powwow drumming isn't the same as the sacred drum measures of the Washat, or Seven Drum, religion, Williams explains.

Rather, it's the rhythmic arc between tradition and showcase.

Powwow drummers sit in a circle, beating their drum in unison with covered mallets. There can be as few as one drummer or as many as 15.

As lead singer, Williams chants the song's introduction, repeated by the other drummers as the chorus crescendos into the main theme.

“Groups have different styles,” Williams explains. “Some like up tempo. Ours starts in a slow manner and then builds up. It varies from reservation to reservation.”

Throughout the song, the rhythm is punctuated by alternating thunderous, then soft, ripples of drum beats.

The balance comes with the plaintive chant.

“I always liked to sing,” says Williams. “I grew up in the Shaker Church, so I did a lot of singing as a youngster.”

He describes the succession of chorus, beats and repeated sounds as a verse. However, “it's not really called a verse,” he notes. “Some people call it a 'push'; others say 'starts.' “

A song is about four or five pushes, becoming increasingly louder as it culminates.

“Drumming and singing and getting to know the rhythm - it's a lot of work,” Williams concedes.

“I'm 47 and still learning.”

When he began drumming in 1991, a tribal elder told him that, unfortunately, not every powwow group becomes accomplished.

“He taught me that you have hummers and drummers and bummers,” Williams laughs.

Williams credits a Wapato drummer, Rudy Wahchumwah, with helping him learn the craft.

But it was Williams' father who was the inspiration. The son of a Yakama mother and a father from the Upper Skagit Indian Reservation in Western Washington, Williams explains that although his father didn't drum or sing, he had an abiding appreciation for the skill.

“I try to carry on what my dad wanted me to be. I'm honoring his teachings,” Williams says.

In turn, drumming has influenced the relationship between Williams and his son, Cory, a freshman at White Swan High School.

“Drumming has helped me become closer to my son,” says Williams.

Cory, who has been drumming since age 4, acknowledges there's still much to learn but says, “I like it, and I like traveling.”

Customarily, the Toppenish Creek Drummers are on the road a great deal in the summer months, traveling from one powwow to another. But this year the price of gasoline may slow them down a bit, laments Williams.

Recently, he began linking the skill of drumming with the art of creating the instrument. Being a hunter he knows when he gets an elk, he'll be able to make use of the hide as well as the meat.

“I don't hunt for sport; it's for food,” he explains. “When I bring down the animal, I sing a song to show respect for it.”

Once he's removed the edible parts, Williams begins cleaning hair from the hide, a laborious and “stinky process,” he says.

Through experience, he's learned that green, or fresh, hides are the easiest to work with and stretch. He pulls the elk skin over a wooden base, about 26 inches wide, to form the top of the drum, then laces it to the wood for a taut fit.

The Toppenish Creek Drummers have begun using one of Williams' handmade drums during their powwow performances, getting vibrant, rich sounds from the instrument.

Although drumming is traditionally a male custom, the Toppenish Creek group has given a nod to changing times by having a woman drummer, Alberta.

“It's a modern world now,” explains Williams. “It's kind of changed us.”

He's also used to the modern world doing a double take over his name -- the same as the legendary Red Sox baseball player.

But even so, Williams maintains his role is a traditionalist in following tribal customs.

“Ted takes pride in his heritage, and he instills that pride in other Native Americans,” points out Sandy Jetton, a longtime friend from Naches.

Jetton, a teacher, and Williams, who teaches cultural enrichment classes at White Swan High School, coached middle school football together nearly 20 years ago in White Swan.

Saying that Williams was an inspiration for all of the students, tribal or not, Jetton notes, “What I admire most is that he's dedicated to the culture and land, has very strong family attachments and is nice to everyone.”

And not just that, adds Jetton.

“Ted is one of the finest men I've ever met.”