News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 20, 2012

Feel the Beat: Clay City fourth-graders get to experience Native American drum circle

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Fourth-grader Jaden Freeman said he felt his own heartbeat connecting with the drumming on Monday as fourth-graders at Clay City Elementary School witnessed a Native American drum circle.

“It’s like your heart is drumming, like that big drum, and it pumps, and it just makes you feel strong,” Freeman said after he had taken a turn in the drum circle.

He not only kept in rhythm with five experienced drummers in the circle, he joined along with the call-and-echo singing led by Gary Strong, a Terre Haute man with Native American ancestry who brought together his drum circle friends for the school demonstration.

Fourth-grade teachers Jana Kennedy and Vangie Harrison invited Strong and the Cantewaste Optaya (which translates to “happy group”) drum circle from the Wabash Valley American Indian Council to talk to the school’s fourth-graders about one of their cultural traditions.

“Fourth grade is the year they get Indiana history,” Kennedy said. “If we don’t make history relevant to them, this is the only opportunity we have.”

Strong, who is Kennedy’s hairdresser, had been trying to pull together the performance for the students since last year. As Thanksgiving approached this week and the students learned about the holiday and its spirit of cooperation among New World settlers and native peoples, the drum circle arrangement fell into place.

The drum circle — composed of Lakota and Dakota Sioux — included Strong’s daughter Michele Truxal, Elise Murle, Janis King LaPlante, Gary LaPlante and his 22-year-old son, Nathaniel “Boots” LaPlante, who arrived in Vigo County on Sunday in his first trip away from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

The Clay City students made a poster welcoming “Boots” to their school. He shyly joined the drum circle, while his father explained some of the actions of the group and related the students’ history lessons to the drummers.

“Isn’t that exciting to page through the books and see all the people with the feathers on?” LaPlante asked. “That’s us!”

He explained the costumes and jewelry worn by some of the drum circle members, and he talked about traditions and the songs of the people.

“My son grew up with this drum since he was really small,” LaPlante said of the large colorful drum that filled the school gymnasium with sound. “And he’ll use it now to teach.”

The drum — remade from an old drum that Janis LaPlante had in her family — has buffalo hide stretched across its top and bottom. The drummers sat around the drum, with some of them holding it off the floor by its rope handles, and they performed a few songs before letting some of the students join the group.

“If you see us laughing and drumming, that’s pretty typical,” Janis told the children. “We laugh and giggle a lot. We’re a happy group.”

The drum beat represents a heartbeat, Strong said. “It’s part of our spiritual song.”

The students also learned a step and slide dance, which is performed sideways, just as it sounds.

“People did it in a circle 500 years ago,” LaPlante said, “They did it so the tall grass laid down evenly so they could put up their teepees. The grass was like a carpet, not all lumpy.”

The drummers also welcomed teacher Kennedy into the circle for a song.

“The drum gives people a happy feeling,” LaPlante said. “If they were sad when they sat, I bet when they left they were happy.”

The smiles of Kennedy and the students were evidence of that happy feeling after the drumming and dancing.

Strong said the group has been performing at powwows around the state and will be in the holiday parade through downtown Brazil on Friday. They are also available to do other educational programs and performances.

For more information about the group, go online to its Facebook page  — Wabash Valley American Indian Council.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.