The beat goes on: Native drum, dance teams take hold at area high schools

BEMIDJI--The drums were loud, and they thundered, on and off, for hours. Drummers and dancers from 17 northern Minnesota schools headed on a Saturday earlier this month to Remer, where staff at Northland Community Schools had organized Minnesota'...

Members of Axe Nation, Bemidji High Schools drum and dance group, practice Thursday at Bemidji High School. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI-The drums were loud, and they thundered, on and off, for hours.

Drummers and dancers from 17 northern Minnesota schools headed on a Saturday earlier this month to Remer, where staff at Northland Community Schools had organized Minnesota's State Drum and Dance Competition, an hourslong competition powwow for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

"My voice was broke Sunday," said Xavier Michael-Young, a Bemidji High School senior and member of Axe Nation, the school's team, which was named the competition's best drum group. "The drum is loud. You've got to be louder."

Xavier Michael-Young is a member of Axe Nation, BHS's drum and dance group, which practiced Thursday. (Braught photo)

At a competition powwow like the one in Remer, students are organized by age group, gender, and the type of dance they'll perform: jingle, fancy, traditional, grass and more. Student drums, in order, thump out the song's beat and sing over it, dance-by-dance. A host drum can step in if students need a spell or if the beat is particularly tricky for, say, drummers from an elementary school.


"A lot of them are just learning," said Leah Monroe, Northland's Indian Education coordinator and one of the competition's organizers.

Sets of judges noted how well dancers-and drummers-stayed on beat, and how well singers stuck to the song. They also checked to see if students were respecting and properly caring for their drums.

Teams like Bemidji's practice powwow drumming and dancing for exhibitions across the state and the occasional competition like the one in Remer.

Billy Copenace, an Ojibwe language and culture instructor at Bemidji High School, is Axe Nation's drum instructor and adviser. He said he teaches students how to treat and respect their drum-which Copenace made himself-and how to sing powwow.

"Most of them came in with prior experience, but the ability to practice consistently was something that they never really had," Copenace said. Like many Bemidji-area teams, they drum at school pep fests and other assemblies.

But Bemidji isn't the only school with a team.

Red Lake School District restarted one of its own this school year after a 4-5 year hiatus, said Peggy Johnson, a paraprofessional at the district's secondary complex who supervises the team. A sophomore student of hers said he was into powwows.

"He wanted to sing, so we got it going," Johnson said. The district also has a team based at its school in Ponemah.


The Red Lake Ogichidaa have sung in a handful of exhibitions this year, and placed third overall in the Remer competition. They practice for about two hours after school on Mondays and Thursdays-some of the dancers are shy, Johnson said, and only show up for powwows.

"It made them feel good inside that they placed," Johnson said of their showing at the competition. "It made them feel good that they sang and it was actually people dancing."

Members of the Cass Lake-Bena drum and dance troupe. Submitted photo.

Cass Lake-Bena School District has a longstanding team of its own comprised of about 40 students across elementary and secondary grades. The Cass Lake-Bena Drum and Dance Troupe sang and danced on Nicollet Mall during Super Bowl festivities last year in Minneapolis. They placed first overall at the Remer powwow, which means they'll host next year's competition.

A lot of the troupe's members are veterans of the powwow circuit, but a handful have never been to one before. One student travels with the team just to get his feet wet.

"Most of them are really curious about their Native identity," said Dawn Leblanc, a drum and dance coordinator for the team. "A lot of them want to dance and learn more about who they are and their culture and where they come from, their bloodline, being connected to the area, the reservation."


Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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