It starts with one drumbeat. What comes next is a collaboration from different tribes and traditions at the University of Idaho. The Native American drum group, Vandal Nation Singers, gathers students around a ceremonial drum to sing and celebrate the core of their heritage.
“It’s a cultural tie to home; I sang a lot before coming here,” says Kenneth Pete, an agribusiness major from Owyhee, Nev. “It’s pretty fun to learn new songs and sing together.”
Pete began singing with the group in both his and the group’s first year on campus. The drum group helps connect the Shoshone Paiute to his home community as one of the lead singers in this group and offers a place for him to connect to the University.
In 2009, Native American Student Center director Steve Martin, citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was looking for a way to help keep American Indian male students at the University – a group that traditionally does not have a good retention rate. He approached Rudy Shebala, a Navajo natural resources graduate student from Arizona, about ways to create a connection to university life. With several other universities hosting drumming groups and Shebala’s drumming background, the “band” was born.
“Even though it’s a combination of different tribes, the drum is a strong tradition in our culture and it helps bridge the cultural life from home to school,” says Martin. “It allows them to be proactive, to express themselves.”
The group, made up of Native American students from freshman to grad students, both traditional and non-traditional students, and members of several tribes, has come together for several events on campus, as well as off campus. While largely sticking to events related to Native American heritage, they have been asked to visit elementary schools, Art Walk and participate in human rights activities in town. Martin says it is important for the group to participate in events that honor their presence and heritage, rather than just give a “performance.”
“We don’t call it performing; this is a part of who we are; this is our tradition,” says Martin. “They say the drum is the heartbeat of Indian Country.”
The group was invited to sing at the inaugural HooPalousa basketball game, which pitted tribal members, University staff, faculty, students and alumni, and professional writers against each other to raise funds for a Native American writing fellowship, the presidential inauguration, the native film festival, and several pow wows. The group also drummed on a float during in the Homecoming parade – celebrating their song at the University of Idaho. Martin says the group is stronger and performing at a higher level of quality with each performance.
“I am proud of the guys at the drum and happy to see their progress happen,” says Martin.
While the core group of students come from different tribes, Martin says they are cognizant of those differences, whether they be reflected in different songs, pitches, beats or traditions. The group started as a men’s group, but women are welcome to participate: though some tribes do not allow women to sit in the circle but must stand behind the group, while other tribes allow the women to sit at the drum.
“We try to respect the drum first, and the rules of the event and respect each other,” says Martin.
And respect for the drum and each other is what connects them throughout the year.