Area Native American drum group moving foward

Members of the Medicine Woman Singers keep beat as they practice a song Thursday, Nov. 19. Pictured (clockwise from left) are Chad Roop, Dave Meyers, Holly Meyers (partially hidden), Gary Shoemaker, Jerry Anders, Tim Lawhead and Jay Hyland (partially hidden). The group, which has about a dozen members total, has been together since 2009.
Members of the Medicine Woman Singers keep beat as they practice a song Thursday, Nov. 19. Pictured (clockwise from left) are Chad Roop, Dave Meyers, Holly Meyers (partially hidden), Gary Shoemaker, Jerry Anders, Tim Lawhead and Jay Hyland (partially hidden). The group, which has about a dozen members total, has been together since 2009. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Nov. 26, 2015.

The death this past summer of a beloved elder, mentor and singer in a Huntington County-based Native American drum group left a huge hole in the group, something her widower calls “a stumble.”

But in the wake of their grief, the Medicine Woman Singers are finding their strengths in each other, and are ready to once again honor their ancestors and the Creator with the drum and their voices.

Founding member Marcia Anders lost her battle with cancer on Aug. 3. Jerry Anders, of Lagro, Medicine Woman Singers’ head singer and drumkeeper, says his wife, who also sang with the group, helped come up with the group’s unique name.

“We went to a pow wow. There was just a couple of us that took the drum over there. There was only one other drum at the pow wow and we just wanted to go and sit and sing a little bit,” Anders explains.

“As the day wore on, more fellows came to drum with us, and by nighttime we had a full drum. There were 13 guys sitting at the drum that night.

“There was a woman who wasn’t feeling well, and she had spoken to Marcia at the end of the day as we were getting ready to leave, and she thanked us for coming. She said she just didn’t feel good at the start and she was ‘getting something’ from our drum.

“The drum had no name at that time …  On the way home, Marcia and I were talking, and I just looked at her and said, ‘Medicine Woman. That’s the name of the drum.’ And that’s where that came from.”

That was in 2009. Since that time, the drum has had about a dozen members at any one time. They come from several Native American backgrounds — Miami, Cherokee and Pamunkey, to name a few, an ecumenical makeup of diverse tribal customs. The group meets regularly in Roanoke to practice. Anders, as head singer, leads the group and functions as its guide.

Medicine Woman can be described as a “traditional, southern drum,” meaning the songs are a bit slower than the faster, higher adrenaline “northern drum.” The men are the ones who use the padded-end drumsticks to beat the rhythm, but they are not considered “drummers” — they are known as “singers.”

The female members of the group stand or sometimes sit behind the men, joining in as a show of support, says singer Holly Meyers.
“In the stories, it’s a woman that brought the drum to the men,” she explains. “Another story of the Cree teachings and the Ojibwa is that it came through a dream. We’re a dreaming people. If it comes in a dream to us then we need to do it, and a lot of the women are getting called to the drum.”

In a breakaway from the traditional makeup of the drum, groups in which women sit at the drum are becoming more prevalent. But Meyers says women have a very important supportive role in the traditional groups.

“The women singing behind the men is one of the strong things,” she says. “The men sit around the drum and protect the Grandmother, and the women are behind the men to protect them, because we have our own sacred power that is different from the men, and with us standing behind our men we give them protection from anything that might be coming out.

“Your ancestors are coming because you’re calling them in, and they’re wanting to come … The drum pulls us together.”

Tim Lawhead says strong bonds also form between the members of the group, as they sing together and make the heartbeat in unison.

“We’re like family here. I love these guys, as much as I do my own brothers and sisters,” he says. “We hug each other every time we see each other. We cry when the other person cries, and we’re happy when they’re happy.”

Songs may be fast or slow, some with their own special steps, such as the “two step” or “crow hop.” Some songs are honor songs, sung in memory of fallen veterans, or healing or prayer songs.

At a pow wow, the emcee will explain the different types of songs, and the etiquette expected in respect to the song and the drum. But mostly, the songs include everyone — Native American or not — and invite them to join in the dance, called “intertribal” songs.

Those who sit at the drum don’t do it for a hobby; it is more spiritual, says singer Chad Roop.

“The drum has called us, to this drum,” he says. “You get an inner feeling, you know, like when you know you’re doing the right thing and you know when you’re doing the wrong thing. You get that feeling and it brings you to it. It’s a spiritual calling. Not everybody does. We’ve had some people that sat with the drum, tried it, and walked away. It’s a calling.”

Lawhead says when he sings, he feels transformed.

“We feel connected to our Creator, and to our ancestors,” he says. “It’s an internal feeling, that we are listening to our Creator, and he is listening to us. And thousands and thousands of people before us have struck the drum in silence, and every time we do, I feel them singing with me, like we’re singing all together. That’s the way I see it.”

“It’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” adds Meyers, “and that’s all a part of creation.”

She explains that different Native American tribes have their own stories of how the drum came to be given to the people.

In the teachings of the Three Fires people of the Cree Nation, before people were on Mother Earth, the trees walked around and all the creatures could walk around. The water, lapping up on the grandfathers — which were the stones — was the continual, rhythmic beat of the heart.

“Mother Earth has always been here before every two-legged has come and taken steps on it,” she says. “Everybody is central because we all have a heart. Even trees have a heart. The grandfathers and grandmothers, which are the stones, have hearts. Everything has a spirit in it and we honor that. …

“The heartbeat of Mother Earth is one that we have to take care of her, and we honor her in that way.”

The summer of 2015 came with sorrows and caused a change in itinerary as the singers grieved. This year they only made it to two pow wows, The Mihsihkinaahkwa Pow Wow in Columbia City and another one in Portland. However, the group is looking ahead to again honoring Mother Earth with the heartbeat of the drum and going to different places to share their songs.

Anders says his goal is that Medicine Woman singers grow as a group, become more solid and expand, welcoming more people who are called to drum and sing.

“This past year we were going to expand, and we were going to go different places, into Ohio a little bit. But then with Marcia getting sick it just wasn’t to be this last year,” Anders says.

“You might say — if the word ‘stumble’ is the right word — it’s just that we’ve had to back off. And now Marcia would say, ‘Jerry, you need to get the guys up and going again and chase after it.”

Medicine Woman Singers, and a video of one of their songs, can be found online on Facebook.