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Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek find the rhythms of the past and future

Gathering for practice on a cold Friday afternoon in December, the Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek (Squirrel Creek Singers) catch up on each other’s lives around the drum and chuckle. They meet twice a week at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, learning the traditions of drumming as well as lyrics in Potawatomi.

“What’s nice about this group of guys is, I think we’re comfortable enough with each other that we don’t mind giving it a whirl, trying it out, trying to lead now and then because you don’t want it always to be the one guy,” said Justin Neely, Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek organizer and CPN Language Department director.

The Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek open the Oklahoma Indian Education Conference with a performance at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in December 2019.

Before they begin, they all lower their heads and say a prayer to Creator in Potawatomi over the drum. Jason Hawk, a new member and Cherokee Nation citizen, learned to give the instrument reverence during the last six months.

“It’s a sacred item, in a way. We call it our grandfather. … We treat it like our grandfather. So, we wouldn’t disrespect it in any type of way,” Hawk said, which includes making indecent jokes in front of the drum and laying things on top of it.

The group started meeting in 2008. They named themselves Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek, or Squirrel Creek Singers, after the creek that runs on Tribal land through the Nation’s FireLake complex.

“Squirrel Creek is a pretty prevalent one for kind of the center of our government right here. Every time you go to (Family Reunion) Festival, Squirrel Creek. We just thought it was a neat name back in the day to call it,” Neely said.

However, many current members began attending practices within the last year. CPN Community Garden Assistant Kaya DeerInWater began drumming in the summer of 2019. Since then, practice became part of his routine as a Tribal citizen.

“The drum is the heartbeat of the Nation, and when that goes silent, our people will be silent; and so I feel like getting to know that better is very heartening,” he said. “It means a lot, and I guess it’s something that I feel like has allowed me to express myself in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable doing.”

Before this experience, DeerInWater had never focused on developing any musical skill. In fact, not many of the Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek have. While a couple of them briefly picked up percussion, piano or saxophone in their youth, their time with the men’s drum group remains their greatest effort toward mastering an instrument. For some of them, attending practice means gathering the courage to try something new.

“Being someone who wasn’t raised in my Native community or around my Native community, that seemed kind of daunting and like there was a divide, but these guys have been so welcoming. And I’ve felt comfortable enough to make horrible mistakes, but it’s all a learning experience,” DeerInWater said.

DeLonais family descendant and Language Aid Robert Collins spent the majority of 2019 learning Potawatomi. In less than a year, he went from knowing nothing about the language to writing songs as part of the drum group.

“It’s just what we do, so it’s feeling like coming to work every day kind of, almost,” he said and laughed. “But it is really awesome to sit back and look at it like that. It’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t have seen myself doing this. If I would have said, ‘I’m going to be doing that in a year’s time,’ that wouldn’t have been one of the things I would have said.”

Last summer, the Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek played the drum for the handgames tournament during the Tribe’s Family Reunion Festival. Several group members began practicing only a couple of months prior, and the event felt like the beginning of something bigger.

“It is something that is so pan-tribal. Most peoples these days have powwows or participate in powwows, so it’s something that can connect you to a whole bunch of other communities. And you can chitchat about or whatever,” DeerInWater said. “That aspect of it is very cool to me, and then being with the guys here is also really cool because we’re singing Potawatomi songs. We’re using the language. We’re drumming at traditional games.”

Occasionally, some of the men’s sons attend practice as well, giving them the opportunity to learn together. As part of the Language Department, Collins drums for the children at the CPN Child Development Center. He also sees it as an opportunity to pass on the customs to the pre-kindergarteners, who like the Seven Fires song, inspired by the prophecy that outlines the origins and history of the Nishnabé people.

“Those kids love it. So, they’ve been wanting it,” he said. “Every day I’ll go down there, they’re wanting it. And they’re learning it. So, they’ll sit there, and there are even videos of them on Facebook doing it.”

The Ngemojek’s songbook includes veterans, flag, honor, intertribal and round dance pieces, and their goals focus on keeping their repertoire growing. Neely hopes to eventually participate as the main drum during CPN’s annual powwow as well as perform at other events.

“I feel real positive about it, myself. … I really think it is something that would be nice if we could be the drum at some time for our own powwow, obviously, our own Festival. I mean, I’d like to see us even try maybe some smaller powwows at some point, kind of get in the mix,” he said.

The Sengo Zibiwes Ngemojek welcome new members on Wednesdays and Fridays at 4 p.m. at the CPN Cultural Heritage Center (cpn.news/heritage). For more information on the Family Reunion Festival, visit cpn.news/festival.