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Roots of Award-Winning Native American Drum Group in New Mexico

  • Joseph Mok

Black Eagle, a Native American drum group from Jemez, New Mexico, has successfully melded its unique native Towa language singing with powwow drumming. VOA's Joseph Mok reports on this Grammy Award-winning group, and its voyage of success from a small village in New Mexico to the nation's capital. Elaine Lu narrates his report.

The land of the Black Eagle group is a village nestled against the majestic Canyon de Don Diego. Home to beautiful red mesas, adobe houses, and an ancient culture, the pueblo of Jemez is a small community about 80 kilometers north of Albuquerque, and one of the 19 Indian pueblos in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico.

Black Eagle's "Flying Free" album won the 2004 Grammy Award in the Best Native American Music Album category. The group is made up of 20 musicians from three generations. Shawn Yepa, the youngest band member, is still in school.

One of the oldest members is David Yepa, a grandfather and lawyer by profession, and a well-respected member of the community. He recalls a trip to Montana with his wife and son Malcolm, where family friend Jimmy Little Coyote introduced Malcolm to the world of the powwow.

"He told us all about the powwow. And it is for everybody - all the Indian natives. If you want to, you can go ahead and try it. Sing for the people and see how it comes out."

Powwow is a cultural, ritual, social, and spiritual gathering of Native American people. They come together at various times of the year to renew family, clan and tribal ties. They also forge social and political alliances, celebrate victories, and hold religious and spiritual ceremonies.

The word powwow comes from the Algonquian language: "pau-wau" or "pauau", referred to a gathering of medicine men or spiritual leaders. "Pau-wauing" referred to a religious ceremony, usually one of curing. In the 1800s, Europeans who observed these religious gatherings and dances mispronounced the word as powwow. Non-Indians began to use the term to describe nearly any gathering of native people.

Malcolm Yepa is now the lead singer of the Black Eagle drum group. He was a teenager in 1989 when he founded the band with his family and friends.

"If you want to feel good, go to a powwow. Sit there and pray with the drum. Listen to the beat and the songs, and the dancing, and the things that are going on. Sooner or later, the feeling will hit you to your heart. You will notice it is the heart beat of your life."

At the beginning, the focus was only on pure native music. It is changing. Dave Yepa likes to put in some English lyrics; so non-native people can understand what they are singing about.

Fame has not really affected the daily lives of the Black Eagle members: they are still either working or in school. But they have begun to receive invitations to perform all over the country. Last year, the band played at the National Powwow in Washington D.C., and at the American Indian Museum.

At the gathering, the Black Eagles shared the stage with other American Indians.

Derrick Davis is a dancer from a Hopi pueblo community. "We went to these inter-tribal gatherings called powwow where everybody can participate. And even though in our pueblo community we have our own songs and dances. As an individual, we can choose to be part of this inter-tribal powwow arena as well. We are welcomed there. It's a gift to play in the beautiful nation's capital to help people being together."

Joining Black Eagle's vibrant drum beat, and letting loose at the powwow indeed gives people a sense of being together, a feeling that resonates even beyond the Native American tribes.

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