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November 10, 2004: Interview with Paul Nadjiwan

Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Location: Ojibwe Cultural Centre, Manitoulin Island.

FvR: Paul, can we start with you telling us about the ceremony you conducted this morning.

Paul: This morning we greeted the new light of the day. Our purpose for doing that ceremony was to start fresh with the beginning, the arrival of the sun and the breaking of the dawn. That is the most powerful time of day to say our guiding prayer and request for that day. The sun spirit is the one that comes out to acknowledge us and to watch us. So the song that was used today was one that we refer to as the Sun Spirit Song. In our Ojibwe language what the words are saying is that the sun spirit is coming out to watch us, to look at us.  While it is difficult to translate it into English, it means that the sun spirit is taking ownership of his relationship with us and with all things in creation.

FvR: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to know that song.

Paul: I guess when I was younger I used to have what I consider to be unusual dreams about elders and different people singing old style songs, old traditional songs. Iíd see them doing ceremonies and different things. At one point in my life, I had actually met these people that I dreamt about. I felt compelled to step forward and introduce myself and speak to them of the thoughts and feelings that I had on the things that they were doing and what my previous reflections were through dreams of the things that they were doing. Over a period of time they shared a great deal of their knowledge with me based on the original instructions, teachings and guiding laws that have been handed down through countless generations. So it is a continuation of that responsibility to take the laws and the rules and the values, the guiding principles of our elders, and lead, what we refer to as a good way of life. We call that Aminobamatesiwe. And that is a way to conduct ourselves in a healthy and respectful manner.

FvR:  Can we now talk about the drum you made yesterday, the one you are holding now. [image] Can we talk about the actual process of making this drum.

Paul:  Well, a lot of times when we are going to make a drum, we do a number of ceremonies and we make offerings of tobacco, food, and other things. We usually do that in private places in the forest and we ask for those things. When we receive a favourable message to guide us to go forward with that task, a lot of times we will find that an animal will readily give its life, and ultimately its skin for the use of a drum [visual image]. We also use the tree and thatís whatís inside here bent into a round shape. [image]  Thatís an ash tree, and ash is nice wood to work with. It shapes well; it steams well; it bends well and it holds its shape fairly well. When it dries, it is quite hard. So it=s a good wood to work with.

So the hair is removed from the hide and any excessive fat or anything is scraped smooth and clean [image]. And we have to put the hide on wet to stretch it. What the water does is give the hide elasticity.  And you can see in different places here how the hide is stretched.

Sometimes the hide is thinner in some spots then others. Now thin hide in itself isnít necessarily a bad thing because it stretches easier. But at the same time you want the most consistent piece of the hide. What the hide provides is both the stretching action and something that will retain its shape.  So the thicker part of the hide retains its shape better; the thinner side stretches better, so you want to try to get the best of both.  We were very fortunate to get enough hide for both sides of this drum out of one deer hide.

So once we know what part of the hide we want, then we cut it to the approximate size [image]. We place our holes in it [image] and we use our lashing to bind the two hides together [image]. You want the hide to be fairly tight on there to give the proper sound.  It is easier to sing with a drum with a tight hide. Sometimes we use a fire to warm the hides up and to tune them up prior to doing our ceremonies.  You want something that is very, very clear and has a strong sound to it, a good tone.

Sometimes a drum would have a painting on it. The only time we put a painting on a drum is when we have had a vision from the spirit that has asked us, or has directed us to do that. So not all drums are painted.  And sometimes what you would see would be some sinew here, and perhaps some small animal bones, which gives it the same effect that a snare drum has.  So when you are singing with the drum it has that pulsing rattling sound. And all of these things are reflections of sounds that we hear in nature; they are all very natural.

FvR: What would this kind of drum be used for?

Paul: When you see a drum like this with two hides, generally this is a ceremonial drum and a drum that would often be used by a medicine man [image] What they used to do when they were out camping, living in the bush trapping and hunting, they would suspend the drum from the ceiling. There would be another string below here which would attach to the ground. That would show that the drum was from heaven. It was suspended in a place where we were able to utilize it. That gave the singer or the ceremonial conductor the freedom to use his hands while the drum was being suspended.

The drum is a very sacred and powerful instrument that we use to communicate with the creator, with the powers of creation, with all of the animals that help us, give us messages and guide us in various ways [image] We also use it to communicate with the powers of creation. Some people might refer to them as the characters in the old legends we call them atsokanek. And so thatís how we do this.

FvR: How did you learn to make a drum?

Paul: Iíve learned to make drums by being with the elders, and watching them do these things. I guess I was fortunate as a young person to have two sets of great grandparents. I had quite a few great aunts and great uncles, even great great aunts, and great great uncles.

Many of them were involved in trapping, fishing, hunting, making of traditional medicines and a variety of traditional ceremonies. So when I was small I got to see some of these things, but as time went on and some of my family members had passed away, then I met other elders who still knew some of those things.  Oddly enough many of the elders who kept these ceremonies, these old songs alive, the traditions were ones that never went to residential school and would not be considered highly trained or educated in the mainstream way.

But in knowing their way around the traditions, the natural environment and how to use the environment, you know, they would be quite adept at that, both men and women.

FvR: What about gender roles?

Paul: Gender roles are often not as clearly defined as one might think. They are to a point but anyone can hunt if they need to, or fish, or clean animals or clean fish, or scrape hides, you know, make baskets, garden, all the various things that were done.  People will say women did all the gardening, well sometimes they did, but sometimes they didnít. Sometimes the men did the weeding, and so on. So often you would see both men and women doing the same tasks.

When it comes to some of our leaders in our ceremonies, in our spiritual ways and various things like this, you will see both men and women who can achieve a very high rank based on the gifts that they possess, based on their commitment to what they do, and based on the opportunities theyíve had to spend time with their elders. They become duties and responsibilities to not only themselves, their families, their clans and their nations.  And sometimes other nations will borrow spiritual leaders or medicine people, you know because of their level of expertise, and the respect they have for that knowledge.

FvR: What about care of the drum?

Paul:  The drum and other ceremonial objects, eagle feathers, medicines and other things like this always have a special place in our homes. We place them where nobody will step over them because we believe that is inappropriate to the spirit and the sacredness of these things and can affect their energy and our own energy. So ultimately we keep them in a very special place, and everybody in the household understands the placement of very sacred items. In my home I keep the big drum in my living room and everybody is fine with that [image]. The drum is always there except when I need to take it out, take it somewhere.  And my wife has her own place for her things that she keeps, and my daughters; the ones that have earned some of these things they have places where they keep their things.

FvR: What about other kinds of care?

Paul: Well we feast the drums twice a year usually. Every time we do ceremonies there is usually a feast involved, both directly and indirectly, the drums, the ceremonial items, our pipes, our feathers, things that we are using, get feasted in that process as well. So we are nourishing our sacred items, our drums, and they in turn nourish us by keeping us balanced and healthy.

FvR: Can you tell me what it means to be a drumkeeper?

Paul: People who become drumkeepers are often gifted to be that way. A person could perhaps go out and purchase a drum and be a drumkeeper that way, but thatís not really what a drumkeeper is within our own cultural context. A drumkeeper is a spiritual person, a drumkeeper lives a good way of life, in a way that is respected by their family, by their community members. A drumkeeper has the obligation of assisting in community activities when he or she is called upon to do that and to fulfill the obligations as requested.  The communities themselves often will provide a monetary honorarium to somebody and will often provide gifts as well. Normally the ceremonial leader will keep one or two gifts as a souvenir but will generally distribute the rest.

Sometimes a woman will dream about a drum. Or because of her commitment to the cultural practices of her family she becomes the keeper of the ceremonial drum in the family, over one of the sons.  Age sometimes has something to do with it but not always. It is really based on which family members are really demonstrating an active involvement and commitment to those practices. And those things get handed down to them.

FvR: Does that mean she will sit at the big drum?

Paul: No, she will assist in the ceremonies that are done with that drum. And she will assure that the proper singers are selected to sing at that drum. And she has the authority and the right to say what songs have to be sung and what songs that drum uses. A lot of times those singers are relatives, but not always. They can be just other individuals that are out there who are considered to be well versed in the traditional songs that are used, for some of our songs are shared by many drums.

FvR: How did you become a drumkeeper?

Paul: Well I guess for the drum that I carry, the big drum that I have, there are a number of dreams and experiences that I had when I was younger. I sort of followed those dreams and experiences and found people who could explain to me what those experiences meant.

And in time having found an interest in the old stories and the traditions and things, I found myself becoming more active and participating and assisting the elders. That way they became my mentors in the kinds of practices and the requirements of those practices that were needed to fulfill ceremonial obligations. So largely just by helping the elders over time one becomes more understanding of the practices and sees the importance and significance and benefits of doing the ceremonies.

It takes many, many years of training with elders, and relatives who use these things to understand the context of the songs. We donít make up songs ourselves. Theyíve been handed down, and theyíve originated from dreams and visions. So there is power with the songs and there is a responsibility in maintaining the songs. We try and keep them exactly they way they were handed down to us. Sometimes an individual will actually converse or communicate with the spirit of that song. Then they become the keeper of the song. So one can learn songs and memorize songs but when one has had the experience of communicating directly with the spirit of the song, then usually thatís when they have permission to use it in ceremonies, themselves. Often times thatís how it works.

FvR: What can you tell me about the origins of the songs that you would use on this type of drum?

Paul: The origin of the songs that we would use on a drum like this, a two sided ceremonial drum would either come from our own personal visions or would come from one which had been handed down through generations to use for hunting, to use to make medicine or various healing practices that are done. So they are very sacred and they can only be used for their own context. So the Sun Spirit Song that we sang this morning, thatís the only time we would use that song is in the early morning.

Paul: I have explained that this is a ceremonial drum and that in time it will be utilized by someone who can, who has the songs that can be, can be used for this type of drum, but Iíd like to show you another drum that I have had for many years.

This drum as you can see has skin on one side. [image] This is a northern drum that comes from the Yukon Territory and was built by George Dawson I believe his name was. And I think he was the chief of the Wolf clan up in the Territories. He was a well known and well respected elder.  He only made drums for singers. He wouldn=t make drums for someone to hang on their wall, on the living room or whatever. He has his own unique design and pattern. [image of back of drum]

I must admit to know exactly how much to cut a hide and have it fit that well, you know I think is quite, quite amazing. You can tell that he probably built an awful lot of drums to know how to do that.  And then it=s bound by a cross piece there that snugs it all together and probably keeps the hoop nice and round.

Generally speaking women that carry hand drums with the Anishnabe people, carry one sided drums like this. Thatís what they were given. But we share many of the same songs. But there are certain songs that are only sung by certain individuals because of the power of that song, because of the recognition of the spirit of that song. So only that person has the fundamental right to use that song. And everybody knows that only certain people can use that song.

I donít even know how many songs there are that are used on our drums, our hand drums, our water drums, our thunderbird drums. And we even have tiny, tiny, small drums. The first drum that was given to the people to use was actually very small and was used in ceremonies. Over time the drums grew in size.  See thatís got a nice tone to it. And thatís what you want in a drum. That makes it really easy to sing on it.

FvR: would you talk a bit about the significance of the drumstick that you are using.

Paul: Once again it is a ceremonial drumstick and we refer to it as the claw of the thunderbird. [image] So because I sing with the thunderbird drum [visual image], and am the keeper of the drum, this is the type of stick that I use.  I received that in a vision and was directed by the elders to go ahead and make that kind.  But not every singer uses this kind of stick.  It is only for traditional songs. And this one here I use for my hand drum.  It was made by an elder in the Pays Plat community (near Schreiber, ON) on Lake Superior. It is a very nice stick.

FvR: You were talking about being the keeper of the thunderbird drum, and in your home we see a drum dressed with the symbol of the thunderbird and you also have a hand drum.  What is the relationship between those two.

Paul:  Well because these drums have been put through the same ceremonies, I can sing most of the songs on both of them. Not all of them, but sometimes I=ll be asked to go open a meeting or something like this and I will just bring my hand drum. But generally speaking, I usually bring the big drum with me. It is a grandfather spirit drum, and the spirit of that drum is from Manitoulin Island here. And my great great uncle from Wikwemikong, he was the keeper of that spirit up until about the 1930s. From that period when he passed away to around the 1980s that drum spirit was not used. And because I was involved in singing, working with elders and assisting them with ceremonies that spirit made itself known to me.  So the drum was constructed to be amalgamated if you will with that spirit. That thunderbird spirit resides here on Manitoulin Island.

These colours that you see are the colours that I use for my drum, and the ceremonies that I do. [image] And this represents, these colours that you see here represent what we call manito nimkibenesimikn. That means the spirit road of the thunderbird. So after a rain storm, when you see these colours, or sometimes you will see orange or purple, the variations of colours that you see in the spectrum of the rainbow, each of those colours designates some of the work that the thunderbirds did when they brought the rain to the earth. They cleaned the earth; they cleaned the lakes and the streams; they gave the plants a drink. You know these kinds of things, so that life would continue. The thunderbird has a big role in creation, and revitalises creation every spring. And it brings all the birds back in the spring, from the south where they rest. And when they come back, it is the thunderbird that brings them back.

FvR:  How do people refer to these drums in Ojibwe?

Paul: More to the two sided drum that we were talking about. I have heard people refer to it as kiwesitewegn which means the old man drum, and the big drum referred to as the grandfather drum - mishomsinantewegn , or nokomisnantewegn, if it is a grandmother spirit drum, because there are, just like with the thunderbirds, the spirits are always male and female gender.

FvR:  What about the sound of the thunderbird drum?

Paul:  Sometimes when you are out and there is a storm coming you will actually here the thunder rolling through the sky. Youíll see the clouds moving quickly and that sound is just like a drumbeat. So the thunderbirds give us part of what they have so that we can benefit from that.  They are teaching this: ďAs long as you do not forget us we will always look after you.Ē Thatís the message of the thunderbirds. So they represent the connection to our grandfathers and grandmothers and the remembrance of the many wonderful and beautiful achievements that they facilitated within their life times. And the role modelling that went with that. So we are here to be reminded by the thunderbirds about those things and to continue to use them.

FvR: People often refer to the sound of the drum as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Can you talk about that?

Paul:  Yes, I guess people try to describe it as eloquently and as personally as they can. Often times when people hear the drum for the first time, they want to cry. Sometimes they are even scared. Because what it does, it takes each person back to that time when they were developing within their mother=s womb. And the one continuity that existed in that developmental stage in our life was the motherís heartbeat. When we came out of the womb, we cried because we did not have that continuity. So we search for the heartbeat. So we get that with the drum. It revitalises us; it gives us comfort; it gives us strength, understanding, wisdom, peace of mind, and we share that with everybody. We have songs for just about anything you can think of to honour creation in all the different ways that we integrate with it. So we are really trying to hold onto the authenticity of our songs, of the teachings of the drums. It isnít for everybody, but there are a handful of people out there that have dedicated their life time to ensuring that these things continue. And thatís the way that I know the elders want it to be. They trust us to look after these things.

FvR: When you talk about something being traditional, what do you mean?

Paul: Well, there have been experiences that I am aware of by elders and different people who have dreamt about songs. Then they go out to a gathering somewhere and maybe they are not entirely sure what the purpose of the song is. Sometimes they know right away, but other times they are not quite sure. But they want to make sure that they sing that song. They use it because they believe that it was passed down to them for the purposes of retaining it and bringing it back out.

I can think of a song that we use when we feast our food. And there is a grandmother bear spirit that honours that food and takes the message to creation that we are making that thank you offering. And so an elder dreamt about that and he started singing that at some of the gatherings. Oddly enough one of the oldest living Anishnabe kwe (grandmother, Native woman), who was probably around 100 years old or close to that was sitting there. And when she heard that song she went up to that man and told him: ďThatís the song that they used to use, she said, ďwhen I was a little girl, to honour the food and it belongs to the grandmother bear spirit. And Iím going to tell you that there are words that go also in that song and these are the words that go in that song. Nakigekwe, nakigekwe and that simply means ďForever woman, forever womanĒ. So when she hears that song she knows we are giving our thanks for the food and we dance that food around, we honour that food and creation in that way. Where a woman is, sheíll dance it.Ē So a little bit of that song goes like this. [sings the song].

Our elders believe that if you have heard a song once, your mind has the capacity to retain that song and it may take a lifetime before that song comes out, before that song is needed for some ceremony. I may be asked to do it in 30 or 40 years, 50 years and even longer. One elder told me, he said: ďIt was about 70 years ago, the last time that I heard this song. And it was taught to me by my elders, one of the oldest residents in the community.Ē He said: ďSomeday you are going to use this song. But I want you to remember it and remember the meaning of it.Ē  And I was sitting there one time when that elder was asked to do a ceremony for another elder to honour that man for his capacity as a traditional teacher and that song came to him. And he couldnít say too much because he didnít want to lose the song. Normally we make the prayer and everything before anything is done. So he was very brief and he sat down at the drum and he said ďI am going to sing an old song, and talk about it after.Ē So he started singing. Beautiful, beautiful song  And then he told us later that was the song he had heard 70 years ago and he had never sung it to that day. But after that day he started using it again. So these songs are very special.

FvR: How do you see your role in passing on the traditions?

Paul: I take it upon myself when I meet young boys or young men or individuals that really understand the intention of the authenticity factor and show an interest and demonstrate humility and all the other factors that are appropriate to these things to teach them.

My goal is to give young people information that they can understand and they can use themselves. And you probably noticed there were times when they were doing some of the lacing and the cutting and the punching of the holes and things [visual image.] Because when you have that direct hands on relationship with the creation of something it means more to you. You know you produced that through your own efforts. And that in itself merits something that young people will hold on to for the rest of their lives. Someday I=ll be long gone and they will be turning around and saying OK we are going to make a drum today. Or we are going to do a ceremony today and this is what I remember; this is what I understand we are going to do.  That is the beauty of it. Because I can look back, not too far and see my elders, my grandparents and others who have passed on knowledge and realize that it doesn=t seem like it was that long ago that they were here. And but they aren=t here any longer, but their messages and their wisdom has remained.

We are sharing the experience and sharing the responsibility. They probably donít realize that yet but in time they will and they will be very comfortable and confident in these things. And that is the way it should be. They should take pride and ownership of these things and in turn someday be able to do things when they are asked. And to feel good about them, not to shun away from them or to feel inadequate, to feel like they donít measure up to the standards that people envision. So I want them to be comfortable with those things.

FvR: What interest do you see among the young people for these things?

Paul: The difference between a lot of children today and growing up in the sixties was we still had a lot of fluent speakers of Ojibwe and that is all we primarily heard.  You know I can remember times when we didn=t have police officers and the elders were the police. And where we gathered to play near the community centre, the elders sat there in the evenings and watched us, and they listened to us.  They spoke to us in Ojibwe. And if there was conduct that was inappropriate they quickly corrected it. They did it with respect, they did it with dignity. But when they told us that=s enough then we understood that. Now there are a number of factors: separation of generations, technology, all kinds of things that can distract a person from some of the social benefits that things like singing and dancing and other kinds of activities, sports and recreation, outdoor living have to offer. And I think it is something that we really need to look and try to put everything together. Mind, body and spirit all contribute to our well being. And there is an interest by main stream people that are reaching for these things themselves. There is an interest from other countries who share this common need. And we know when we look at our environment that we all have the responsibility to maintain it. By doing that we share the benefits and provide the opportunities that we have known and enjoyed with seven generations yet to come.

FvR: What about in your own family, do you think any of them will become singers?

Paul: Well, oddly enough you know, just about everyone in my family sings. And when I try to get them to sing, they usually wonít because it=s kind of like a command from Dad. But a lot of times Iíll hear them when they are playing or tidying up their room or something and I hear them humming some of these songs or parts of these songs. They hear them often enough for them to sink in. I don=t think they will ever forget the songs.  When we go for a ride in the car, go for a vacation, go to visit relatives or whatever, weíll listen to some CDs and different things. But then Iíll turn the radio and the CD off and Iíll sing. And I never hear any complaints. Usually Iíll explain to them what that song is; what it means and where it is from; what elder may have taught me that song; if I dreamt about it, what were the circumstances of that vision and so on. So itís an educational process that is so passive that they donít categorize it as school, or as cultural teachings, or cultural awareness.

FvR: Your son Jack is only eight years old. How important is it that he learns these things so young?

Paul:  I think it is very important. I feel that the education system could be so much richer if we would take the time to cater to the physical and the emotional needs of the children as they are developing and strengthen those areas of development. Largely by hands on activities, largely by getting them to understand the environment, nature, ecology, plant and animal life. They also need to learn respect when hunting, how to utilize the animals, how to share them. And you know these are some of the beautiful things that the school is missing. And we expect sometimes that adults will pick up on this and find their way through the forest but I don=t think it works this way. Children have to be exposed to these things in a natural way and in a way that they establish their own comfort zone.

I try and bring as many people into it as I can. So you share an experience and I think it builds the relationship, strengthens the relationship and they become memories of accomplishments of things that have been done together. Share them in that way and let them draw their own conclusions and what it means to them personally. And if they ask questions, well I=ll explain; well this is the way that I understand it. I still have more songs that I want to learn. Very special songs.

FvR: Do you see one of your sons following in your footsteps?

Paul:  Well, I think they can both sing; they both have nice voices and that=s good because their mother has a nice voice. I just kind of struggle and kick out anything that kind of happens to come out. The boys they have good voices. Steven is a little shyer; He is also a year younger than Jack. But Jack I think has the more natural inclination to excel within these kinds of things. That does not mean that the other boy does not appreciate them or respect them or anything but he is holding back.  I think when he is older he is going to jump into it; that is my feeling about him. Where Jack will stay with it right to the end but Steve will do it later and jump right in. Probably surprise us all when he does. But I am really hoping that they both do.

But sometimes the only problem is that someone thinks they can just learn right away. But it takes a long time to learn the vocal patterns. For example, I can tell the difference between a Cree song, an Ojibwe song, and a Miíkmaq song. I know the difference between those songs when I hear them based on how they vocalize their patterns. I can also tell the difference between a traditional song and one that someone has made up.  For some reason the human mind, and the musical layout of how someone makes a song is almost backwards; the notes are vocalized backwards. Itís hard to describe but that=s how I differentiate when I go to a place and I hear people singing. I can pretty much tell if they are singing a traditional song or one that may have been made up while sitting around the drum in a contemporary setting. I can tell, even if they are different nations.

I have been involved with this pretty much for all of my adult life and I will continue to be involved. I really love to sing and I sing everyday and I am thankful that I was given the opportunities and enough of a gift to sing. It means a lot to me.

Fvr: Who from your community would you like to recognize for helping with this project?

Paul: Well I think we have to recognize everyone who was involved, the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and their staff. Mike Cywink the museumís curator is very supportive of this  endeavour because it involves assisting the museum to retain genuine and authentic items that could be presented for the viewing public. Some of those audiences are international audiences that come from Europe and Asia to visit places like the OCF.

In terms of community members there are Craig Abbotawsaway and other members from Sucker Creek, the adjoining reserve closest to M'Chigeeng here. And having my family, and my wife participate and be part of this thing.  We kind of do these things at home anyway, not often making drums but we make a number of different things together as a family activity. It is a learning process. It is one of sharing, one of giving and taking.

FvR: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Paul: Maybe what I would like to say is that people who are interested in drums and singing like that should keep in mind that there is contemporary singing and traditional singing. Traditional singing involves using the songs that have been handed down, the songs that we can use for ceremonies. If someone receives an eagle feather, or an eagle fan or a jingle dress, or a pipe, there are songs and prayers and ceremonies that go with all of this. And it takes a long time to learn these things. But it is a very rewarding way of retaining and actively practising a lifestyle. And we are not trying to live in the past, but trying to live with the past and use the good things that our ancestors have handed down to us. So I ask that people consider that these things are sacred, they are very special and they need to be respected and honoured in the proper way.

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