Tahlequah Daily Press

November 5, 2012

Beating the drum

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Taking his elk-skin covered drum out of his Jeep, drummer Leslie Hannah feels the warmth of the skin with the palm of his hand.

“I bring [my drum] out to the car to keep it warm; I don’t want it to sound flat, so I heat it up in the car when we’re going to use it,” said Hannah, director of Cherokee Programs at Northeastern State University.

The 45-pound drum usually resides in his office in Seminary Hall. It was a gift to Hannah shortly after he came to Tahlequah to teach Cherokee language, Cherokee culture and English classes at Northeastern State University.

“I was at a conference in Seattle, and went to a powwow where a friend was the master of ceremonies. The arena director was detained, and my friend asked me to help them out,” Hannah said. “It’s easy, I thought; you make sure people get where they’re supposed to be and keep people out who aren’t supposed to be in there.”

When his friend asked what he wanted for filling in, Hannah – who had considered it a favor and didn’t expect pay – jokingly asked for the drum.

One day, a large UPS truck pulled up at his home and a big box was delivered. He was surprised to find the drum packed inside.

“My friend tracked me down and sent it to me,” he said. “It had a note that read, ‘Thanks for the help.’”

Attending stomp dances and powwows isn’t uncommon for Hannah and his family, but he hadn’t done much drumming.

“It’s meant to be played,” he told himself, after receiving it. “What am I going to do with this drum?”

Now he plays it with friends. Since he’s had the drum, it’s been played at numerous events on campus, from graduations and basketball games to the annual Symposium on the American Indian at NSU for the past three years.

He sees drumming as an educational tool as much as a social event.

“Native peoples in general have a unique way of seeing and understanding the world,” he said. “We believe we see the world differently than other cultures. Like gathering around the drum, we do it in a circle, not in rows like a marching band. Even in an open field, it’s an intimate setting, with concentric circles around the drum of people singing, listening and watching, and some dancing.”

And it’s a way to bring people together to fellowship, make new friends and meet old ones again, he said.

Drumming can be experienced most Wednesday nights on Beta Field or indoors at the University Center when the weather demands it. About six Native American faculty, students and friends get together around 6:30 p.m. for fellowship, singing and enjoying the evening.

“Six to eight people sit at [a drum this size], but we’ve had [as many as] 14 before,” Hannah said. “It has four rope handles.”

Since Jake Chanate died, there hadn’t been any drumming at NSU, Hannah said.

“His grandson, Chris Chanate, drums with us now,” he said. “The first time [Chris] drummed with us, he said it was ‘just like what grandpa used to do.’”

Other drummers include Kelly Anquoe, former student and member of the Native American Student Association; Pat Oyabi, a Kiowa; and student members Travis Wolfe, Jeff Little and Taylor Morris.

“The first 15 minutes we talk, see how everyone is, then somebody says, ‘Let’s do a song,’” Hannah said. “Then we stop and talk, then play some more. And the evening follows the same pattern.”

Two traditional Cherokee drums hang on the walls of office.

“The hand-held drum has its own category now,” said Hannah. “People have special times to do hand drums, and sometimes they have a hand drum contest at powwows.”

Drumming brings another aspect of Native culture back to the college.

“NSU is a Native service institution. It was originally Cherokee, this building particularly: it was the Cherokee Female Seminary. The Cherokees had a vision of education. And many indigenous cultures are so deeply ingrained here at NSU.”

One project he’s working on is an exchange between NSU and the Institute for American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

“Their students could study Cherokee culture and language here, and ours would study different aspects of art there,” Hannah said. “It would offer more opportunities for cultural understanding.”

After earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Master’s of Science at NSU, Hannah moved to Norman to complete his Ph.D. in Native American Literature from the University of Oklahoma in 2000. After graduating, he taught at the University of Nevada at Reno and Louisiana State University before spending five years at Kansas State, where he became academic dean. He taught writing for three summers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Growing up in the Adair County community of Rock Springs, across the road from Bell, he attended stomp dances with his family. His mom liked to dance.

Once in a while, they would go to a powwow with friends, usually out of state, he said.


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