The drumming can be heard from the parking lot outside Fort Kenay in Old Town Kenai: a rhythmic pulsing that sounds like a heartbeat. In a way, it represents one.
The Del Dumi Intertribal Drum program’s goal is to promote sobriety, respect, cultural awareness and pride in area youth — the lifeblood of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s future.
The drum program, for ages 13 to 18, is part of the tribe’s Yaghanen Youth Programs (meaning “good place, a safe place for the heart”). The youth program also includes the Jabila’ina Dance Group and Ggugguyni Native Youth Olympics Team, all of which are open to all youths, whether or not they’re Native or tribe members. The drummers, dancers and NYO athletes gave a demonstration of their activities at the Pamyua concert Saturday in Kenai.
Michael Bernard, Yaghanen programs director for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said the youth programs began in the 1990s to give kids healthy activities to be involved in after a tribal youth committed suicide.
“The council decided we didn’t want this to happen again. We needed to come up with some things for our youths to do so they’re not going out drinking and doing drugs and alcohol and getting in trouble,” Bernard said.
The gravity of the group’s mission, combined with the steady thumps that reverberate in the windowpanes of the 100-plus-year-old log structure, sets a serious mood when walking into drum practice Thursdays. It’s immediately shattered by the howls of laughter that come whooshing out the log door with the warm air.
The group, gathered around a large hide-covered wooden drum, has disintegrated into laughter so incoherent it’s hard to tell what set them off. It could have been a drummer owning up to a missed beat or a premature start to a solo, and everyone else joining in to dispel any embarrassment.
“We laugh a lot but we don’t laugh at anybody,” said Doug Gates, a tribal advocate. “We won’t laugh at you, we’ll laugh with you.”
Or it might have been someone getting creative with lyrics. When the group practices Christmas standards around the holidays, for instance, “French hens” often becomes “French toast” in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Or maybe it was Bernard attempting to sing falsetto — not a natural range for someone built like a football player.
Whatever the case, a brief break was in order for everyone to collect themselves and start again.
“We’ll get into this laughing fest where we can’t hardly play anymore,” Gates said.
But they can and do, because even in the drum group’s goofiest moments, there’s a sense of seriousness in what they do.
It plays out in myriad ways, from the respect in how they treat each other — they’ll laugh with you, never at you — to the traditions governing how the drum is played.
Songs have a specific format. Everyone drums on the same beat, and the leader —on Thursday it was 17-year-old Chris Anderson — starts the singing with a solo. There’s a chorus, and the leader signals with a sweep of his hand that the next solo is up for grabs. If someone wants it, they indicate so and Anderson acknowledges it, or he designates someone to sing. There are hand signals for speeding up and slowing down, and a motion to get everyone drumming on the same beat.
The drum itself has rules associated with it. It’s made from a cottonwood stump with hide stretched over it and special items sealed inside — an eagle feather and three agates, three being a lucky number and agates being lucky stones, Gates said. It was constructed in the early 1990s, Bernard said, when tribal elder Peter Kalifornsky was alive. Kalifornsky named the drum Del Dumi, because that was the sound he heard in his head when the drum played, Bernard said.
When drummers prepare to play, hide-covered drumsticks are always passed to the left. At the end of a performance, everyone places his or her right hand on the drum for a moment of silence. If dancers are performing, as well, they ring the drummers and place a hand on the shoulder in front of them. Then the eldest person at the drum says a prayer, offers a few words of thanks or in some other way commemorates the moment. When drummers pick up their chairs to leave, one chair is always left behind until the drum is removed.
Interior Alaska Natives, not the Kenaitzes, traditionally used large drums like Del Dumi. The Cook Inlet-area Dena’ina used more portable percussion devices, like handheld hide drums, wooden plank drums or birch sticks beat together, Gates said. The large communal drum was adopted into Kenaitze programs in the early 1990s as a way to promote sobriety from substance and alcohol abuse, said Maggie Jones, a tribal advocate.
“It’s to keep you focused. It really draws you in and you think about going out and being strong,” she said.
Anderson joined the drum group after moving to the peninsula from Palmer in 2004 and getting involved in the tribe’s NYO program. He started singing solos, realized he was good at it and became a drum leader.
“I love everything about it. There’s nothing to really point to, just everything — I like being here, the drumming, songs, the fun and the seriousness when we do an event,” Anderson said.
Jack Williams, 14, said he likes the drum group for the same reasons as Anderson. He joined a little before Anderson did, when his mother suggested he give it a try.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it out.’ I think it worked out pretty good, actually,” he said.
Some songs are just for fun, like Christmas carols or Wilson Pickett’s “Land of A Thousand Dances,” where drummers fling themselves around in chair-bound circles at the end of each chorus: “Na, na na na na … .”
“That makes me seasick,” Jones said.
Other songs have more traditional meanings, although it usually isn’t conveyed in the lyrics. The words that are sung usually aren’t even words, they’re vocables, Jones said. The song’s meaning comes from how and when it was used.
“This is one where we build it and build it and build it; it’s really powerful,” Bernard said of the “Badger Song.” “Think about why they’re doing this. It’s not just for something to do. Picture it; they’re getting people riled up. They’re like, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ So at the beginning it’s like, ‘We’ve got something to go do,’ and by the end it’s like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Del Dumi’s finale is “Red Earth,” an honor song. No matter what humor precedes it, “Red Earth” is played with complete seriousness. “We do some fun things that are really silly and goofy, and we do some really serious things. It’s kind of a mix of everything,” Bernard said. “It takes a special person to realize the drum is a serious thing, but it’s also a place to have fun with other people who like the same things.”
For Bernard, as a youth counselor, that’s the most impressive part of the drum group.
“They can have fun then turn right around and be completely serious. That says a lot about their character,” he said.