Rockstars: Drummers headline aboriginal day

Alvin Chief of the Little Island Cree drummers performs June 21 at Aboriginal Day, Flying Dust First Nation

By Mac Christie

“They’re like the rockstars of the powwow,” said Meadow Lake Coun. Toby Esterby, referring to one of the best known native drumming groups in North America. And last week the Little Island Cree drummers took part in Aboriginal Day, June 21 at Flying Dust First Nation.

It was a performance close to home for the group that hail’s from Island Lake First Nation, near Loon Lake. Every year they travel to play as far away as Colorado and Arizona.

The group has been around for 30 years, said Alvin Chief, who’s brother Clayton Chief was the founder, and they’ve won a few awards along the way.

They were nominated for a Juno Award in 1998 in the Best Music of Aboriginal Canada category, and were named World Champion Hand Drum Group at the 1996 World Championship of Song and Dance in Schemitzun, Connecticut. They also won a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award in 1999.

While he said the only highlight he has is singing for his people, Chief admits being nominated for a Juno was “awesome.”

Although there were only four drummers at Aboriginal Day, the group usually consists of anywhere from six to 15 drummers.

Dale Chief, Clayton’s son, said he, Alvin and cousin Jonathon Chief are always part of the performing group.

“The three of us are kind of like the managers,” he said.

Dale, who’s been drumming since the age of 10, added he’s been involved since his father started the group.

“He just said, ‘you know, I’m going to start a drum group,’” Dale said. “So he started playing a drum and we started hitting that drum.”

At first, everyone was offbeat, he said, but they got better over time.

Today, Dale drums full time, although the other members work in the winter months, as well as drumming.

In the winter the group also practices four or five times per week, and writes new songs for their albums.

They’ve recorded 15 albums by Alvin’s count, and they hope to record another this summer in Phoenix, while they’re performing in Arizona.

Between June and September the group travels almost constantly across North America on the powwow trail.

It’s real family affair, with a new generation of drummers taking part in performances. At Aboriginal Day, the group brought their children along as dancers.

Dale’s son, Braxton, 12, who dances, said he want’s to learn to drum. He added he takes part in the group because it’s fun.

“It’s really important to pass this on to our children,” said Jonathon. “It’s important for them not to lose their tradition.”

“It’s always special for them to learn our values,” Alvin agreed. “It makes them feel alive.”

It’s special for the drummers too, noted Dale.

“It’s like a big family gathering that makes you feel good inside,” he said of drumming. “Like one big family of all tribes and First Nations.”

While there are now other groups that are coming up now that are younger, Little Island Cree are the elder statesman of sorts.

“We’ve been out there for a long, long time,” said Jonathon. “We’re like the Rolling Stones of the powwow.”

And like the Rolling Stones, the group expects to be around for the foreseeable future.

“I’ll probably do it until I have a dirt nap,” confessed Dale with a laugh.

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