In the beginning there was silence. Then came the big beat that some call the bang—intense vibration, energy, rhythm–sustained and steady. Since time began, that cosmic beat has remained through creation, war and turmoil, joy and transformation, chaos and dislocation–an ancient universal messenger keeping memory and hope alive across countless generations and cultures on Earth. And one beat of a drum opened a doorway of awareness for a young man who had just stepped out of the gates of incarceration.
It was 1998 and five of us were sitting around a low table in the little office space on Second Street that was assigned to a Santa Fe, New Mexico community corrections program. Three of the group were on probation from juvenile court. One of us was an Indigenous American woman named Sapokniona, White Feather Grandmother. One of us was me. All had drums in our hands. The faces of the two young men and one young woman on probation look bored or irritated and seemed to say, “OK, let’s get this over.” Sapokniona spoke gently, quietly, with what felt like reassuring confidence.https://sapokniona.wixsite.com/whitefeather
I had been asked to present some of my studies in cross cultural earth related traditions to these youth who were considered “high risk” having had numerous run-ins with the law. But when I got the go ahead, I puzzled about how to offer my experiences and studies to some who might not be remotely interested. I had a Master’s degree in criminal justice, had been a juvenile probation officer, worked part time in a Colorado youth prison and served a year as a counselor in an Army jail where the word “counselor” was an anathema, so I had some reason to wonder about what to present.
In the middle of my muddle came the thought: drums. Drumming was physical and could be energetic and noisy and an attention getter. Local drummer Eric Gent kindly loaned his drums. Eric and his wife Elise had sponsored African dance sessions in Santa Fe for decades. Then I thought of Sapokniona, an acquaintance of Apache heritage who led teaching circles, ceremony, workshops and retreats that included work with veterans’ groups. She kindly agreed to lead the group of youth that day.
“I want each of us to play one single beat, in unison,” Sapokniona said. I was expecting something a lot louder and more physical, but went along with it, as did the others. One beat at a time, like the steady rhythm of a pulsing heart. Each hand with a beater rising then falling on the face of the drum. First softer, then louder, then softer, then it was over. We went around the table to talk about the experience. It came to one young man who looked confused, withdrawn. He hesitated.
“Well,” Sapokniona paused, then responded. “My people believe that the bear represents the direction of the west. And you are sitting in that direction. I’m not surprised.” But the rest of us were, including the young man whose face lightened a bit, almost into a smile.
The beat abides—your vibe attracts your tribe.
To my understanding, some Indigenous Americans view the strength of “bear medicine” as the power of introspection. Bear seeks honey, like the sweetness of truth and intuition inside the silent “cave” of mind and soul. Think of Merlin in his crystal cave. In India, the cave symbolizes the creative energy of Brahma which some consider to be the pineal gland located at the base of the brain. https://study.com/academy/lesson/god-brahma-overview-facts-significance.html
As I wrote these words on an early March morning in 2017, the first rays of sun touched my table, the computer, my hands, the photographs of the family “rogue’s gallery” above on the wall. I stopped for a moment to listen to the “sounds of silence” around me: the light twinkle of water in the nearby fountain, the low burbling beating of the humidifier releasing wispy curls of steam, the drone of the refrigerator, the rumbling beat of the attic heater and then…the percussive tapping of typing on the laptop with punctuations, rests, faster and slower rhythms…an opus magnum.
I thought again about the young man in the drum circle who had just stepped through the gates of incarceration. Something happened for him that day that couldn’t be put into words. His eyes got a little wider and there was something like a smile. Maybe the world, too, got just a bit wider with wonder and possibility for him and for all of us in the group, drumming that one beat together.
Did it make a lasting difference in his life in some way? I don’t know. But my thought and hope echo Ann Mortifee’s song, “Just One Voice” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_xixpmvgGY
A single note becomes a song,
A single tree becomes a forest.
A single voice that’s clear and strong
Can turn into a worldwide chorus.
Just one voice, one single voice,
If you say you can, well then you can!
The Native American drum first found its way into my hands in 1982 soon after I arrived in New Mexico. It still does in 2024 after hosting monthly full moon leaderless drum circles in my home for nearly 25 years. In the posts to follow, I’ll share some of my journey with the drum. If you haven’t picked up a drum to try it out, do so! It’s a universal, worldwide instrument. Your vibe will attract your tribe. Have fun!