A group of women in colourful ribbon skirts sit in the middle of a grassy field at Kildonan Park. Families are strolling through the warm evening air. A volleyball game is underway on the nearby court.

A group of women in colourful ribbon skirts sit in the middle of a grassy field at Kildonan Park. Families are strolling through the warm evening air. A volleyball game is underway on the nearby court.

Event preview

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APTN Indigenous Day Live
• June 18, 6 to 11 p.m.
• The Forks
• More information at indigenousdaylive.ca

After some joking and chatting, the women pick up their drumsticks and launch into song. Their piercing harmony and tandem drumming carries across the park, causing passersby to change course and approach the circle to listen.

"This is my favourite thing to do," Meagan Salwan says. "It’s the energy I get from it, the energy it gives off. If I’m having a crap day and I go drum, I’m fine after, it’s my self care. The drum always brings healing — we’re healing others and we’re healing ourselves."

But the Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum group hasn’t always been received as a healing force.

The original members of the women’s traditional big drum group have been playing together for nine years. When they started, their presence at gatherings was often met with intimidation, snide comments or public humiliation — usually from men who believed it was inappropriate for women to drum.

<p>PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><p>Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum group rehearsal at Kildonan Park. Drummers (from left), Meagan Salwan, Gladys Marinko, Shannon Allard and Christy Salwan.</p>

PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum group rehearsal at Kildonan Park. Drummers (from left), Meagan Salwan, Gladys Marinko, Shannon Allard and Christy Salwan.

"My teachings were that women were not supposed to be at the big drum," says Christy Salwan, Meagan’s sister.

It’s a patriarchal attitude that came with colonization and has persisted for generations, according to Southern Thunderbird member, Gladys Marinko.

Indigenous Day Live

Members of the Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum group are among the local artists performing at APTN Indigenous Day Live this Saturday. The free annual celebration in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day has been on hiatus amid the pandemic and returns this year with a reimagined format.

“We decided to take a little bit more of a multidisciplinary approach to the whole show,” says Adam Garnet Jones, APTN’s director of TV content and special events. “We’re (going to have) spoken word artists and drag artists and comedians and live painting and all these different kinds of media.”

This year’s artist lineup features women and members of the LGBTTQ+ community from across the county who will be performing under the theme “Celebrating Our Lands.”

Members of the Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum group are among the local artists performing at APTN Indigenous Day Live this Saturday. The free annual celebration in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day has been on hiatus amid the pandemic and returns this year with a reimagined format.

“We decided to take a little bit more of a multidisciplinary approach to the whole show,” says Adam Garnet Jones, APTN’s director of TV content and special events. “We’re (going to have) spoken word artists and drag artists and comedians and live painting and all these different kinds of media.”

This year’s artist lineup features women and members of the LGBTTQ+ community from across the county who will be performing under the theme “Celebrating Our Lands.”

“Everything comes from the land and we wanted to practice gratitude for the for the land, and everything that it does to support us and also inspire artists,” Garnet Jones says. “You have people who are talking about the Earth as mother and provider and speaking in literal and poetic ways about their relationship to the earth.”

Other local performers include the drag artists the Bannock Babes, playwright Tomson Highway, the Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers, Powwow dancers from Treaty 1 Territory and musicians MJ Dandeneau and Marisolle Negash.

Indigenous Day Live will be presented on two stages, with cultural shows and competitions starting at 6 p.m. followed by mainstage acts at 9 p.m. Food and artisan goods will be available for purchase on site, and APTN National News will be broadcasting live on location.

Entry is free and masks and vaccination are not required. The event will be streamed live on YouTube and a recording will be available through the APTN lumi streaming service at a later date.

"Women are the lead in all the ceremonies," she says "But women nowadays aren’t seen around the drum because of colonization; the men were learning from the newcomers that it was the men that (lead)… it was the taking of power."

Despite years of adversity, the group has carried on. Today, some of the same men who once hurled insults have become mentors and supporters. The acceptance they’re experiencing now is the result of persistence and purpose.

In between songs, the women sip on water and pass around throat lozenges to preserve their voices. Drumming is demanding, physically and spiritually.

The drum at the centre of the circle came into Christy’s life as an unexpected gift. She found the large wooden rim in a pile of garbage while helping a family member move. The discovery felt like a sign from her ancestors, but she was still apprehensive about playing the instrument. After consulting with Elders, the drum was fixed and fitted with a new bison hide.

"My Sundance chief was kind of the same way, no women at the drum; but he said, ‘I can’t go against grandfathers and grandmothers, get that drum made and take it where it needs to go,’" she says. "The first place we ended up was a funeral."

<p>PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p>During the last practice song, Jorden Salwan joined Mars Ballantyne to sing. </p>

PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

During the last practice song, Jorden Salwan joined Mars Ballantyne to sing.

The drum, which is draped in purple fabric to signify healing, has been played at many funerals and vigils across Manitoba. It’s become a travelling drum meant to console the bereaved and guide the deceased — a sombre responsibility the group doesn’t take lightly.

"Death is one of the biggest honours," Christy says. "People only die once, so you have to do it right."

The Southern Thunderbird group has a second drum for powwows and celebrations that, in recent years, has been getting a lot more play. The women have drummed for the Winnipeg Jets, collaborated with local DJ Boogey the Beat, played an honour song for David Suzuki and are set to perform at APTN’s Indigenous Day Live event at The Forks this Saturday — opportunities that were beyond imagination when they first started playing together in Meagan’s backyard on Boyd Avenue.

<p>PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p>The drum, which is draped in purple fabric to signify healing, has been played at many funerals and vigils across Manitoba. </p>

PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The drum, which is draped in purple fabric to signify healing, has been played at many funerals and vigils across Manitoba.

While the group is open to anyone who’s interested, Marinko and the Salwan sisters are among its founding members. The trio learned songs and teachings from other women and drum groups, like Keewatin Otchitchak (Northern Crane) Traditional Women Singers, one of the few other female drum groups in the province.

"Being around the drum is always a learning experience," Meagan says. "It’s all give and take and sharing."

More than lyrics and rhythm, the drum circle has taught them how to create community without judgment.

Respect — for the drum, protocol and each other — is a core principle. Skirts are worn at the traditional drum and the women, most of whom are Anishnaabe, sing exclusively in Cree and Ojibwe. Drummers are also expected to set aside their differences, "You don’t have to like people, but you have to respect them, especially in the circle," Christy explains.

<p>PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p>Christy Salwan with her son Darnell Salwan.

PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Christy Salwan with her son Darnell Salwan.

The group meets once a week to practice in yards or public parks (although, they’ll soon be hosting drum sessions at Thunderbird House on Main Street). Tonight, the circle includes frequent participants Shannon Allard and Mars Ballantyne. Christy’s children Darnell and Jorden sing and dance nearby while a gaggle of younger kids run off to investigate the play structure.

The Southern Thunderbird Medicine Drum is meant to be shared — with friends, family and strangers alike. By sharing the drum, the group hopes to empower other women to pull up a seat.

"We’re free to be who we are," Christy says. "We’re doing work that our ancestors couldn’t do, and so I take that seriously."

<p>PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p>The group enjoyed some laughs while taking a break.

PRABHJOT SINGH LOTEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The group enjoyed some laughs while taking a break.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.