A group of Burnaby students will join counterparts around North and South America in a celebration of Indigenous drumming for Indigenous Peoples Day today – but they weren’t just handed a drum and told to go at it.
The École Alpha Secondary School students were filmed earlier this month singing and drumming two Skwxú7mesh Nation songs and are now featured in a compilation of videos for the 2022 Drum Across North and South America project, coordinated by the Vancouver School Board.
But drumming for the camera was just the culmination of what was a months’ long journey for the students at Alpha, according to Rob Smyth, the Burnaby school district’s district principal of Indigenous education.
“They didn’t touch a drum for two months,” he said. “You have to earn the drum; that’s part of the teaching.”
About 10 Indigenous students and one non-Indigenous student started meeting with Skwxú7mesh Nation elder Ketximtn Alroy Baker and Ianna Lewis, a cultural student and dancer who works with Baker, in November.
They danced, following Lewis’s lead, listened to stories and legends, and learned some of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim language, according to Smyth.
“At first they were a bit surprised that they weren’t touching the drum,” he said. “But you saw that respect grow and that understanding grow. It’s just so powerful to see how this all came to a beautiful conclusion and fruition at the end. They became different people. It’s like they became different students. They just grew so much through this experience.”
Smyth credits Baker and Indigenous teachings that date back thousands of years, but he said the students also deserve recognition for what they learned in their weekly meetings.
“They’re in the library in a very exposed place where everyone can see, and it’s during lunchtime,” Smyth said. “I raise my hands to them because it takes courage. There might be fear of being judged or just looking different by their non-Indigenous peers. I don’t know for sure; maybe they fought through some of those feelings, but they showed tremendous strength and courage.”
By February, they had earned the right to make the drums.
And by June 2 they were ready to sing, dance and drum for Drum Across North and South America.
Their contribution featured two songs by Skwxú7mesh Nation elders: the Killer Whale Song by Latash-Maurice Nahanee and Circle of Eagles by Bob Baker.
The district took a creative approach to fund the Alpha program, securing a grant from the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society.
The grants are designed to encourage participation in the trades.
“We blended culture with the idea of building, working with tools, respecting tools,” Smyth said.
The folks at ACCESS were enthusiastic.
“They said it was a very unique proposal, but they really appreciated it,” Smyth said.