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Jonathan Windy Boy on judging drum groups

ROCKY BOY, Mont. - Jonathan Windy Boy understands the importance of judging a drum or dance contest.

For the past decade or so, Windy Boy, a Chippewa Cree, has judged any number of competitions throughout the United States.

The 48-year-old, now a representative for the state of Montana, might spend time working with the Legislature and introducing bills to help the citizens he represents, but he still finds time for drumming and judging contests.

''I've been involved in pow wows since 1960,'' said Windy Boy, a member of Haystack, a drum for which Windy Boy sings. ''I have a lot of extended family who come on board when I have road trips.''

Although Windy Boy isn't one of the judges at the 2007 National Powwow, he said he understands what the judges will look for when viewing the drum competition as well as what the drum groups will be feeling.

''The main thing I look for is the rhythm, the drum beat, the type of song and the originality,'' said Windy Boy, who's served as a judge for drum contests as well as a lead singer and a lead dancer.

Having more than one lead singer stands out as one characteristic that Windy Boy said adds diversity to a group.

''If they're singers, they should be able to sing,'' he said, adding that he and a friend say, ''There are singers, drummers and hummers.''

Some tribes have their own ways of drumming and singing because tribes are diverse, but a style that's prevalent in Windy Boy's area includes singing that has more of a tone to it, or is ''vocable.''

''We sing vocable tones and some songs that have words in them,'' he said. ''These vocable songs have a certain meaning. There's a time and place for everything, for every type of song.''

For the past few years, Windy Boy said he has noticed different drum categories surfacing.

Some of the drum categories at competitions include contemporary with songs that have words, original with songs that are vocable or straight with no words, and Southern style where the drum groups do either contemporary or original songs.

''A lot of Southern songs have words,'' he said. ''The Southern style includes the southern Plains area such as Oklahoma, and the Southern style has a lower pitch to it.''

Windy Boy said he's also seen an increase in vocable songs in the last two decades, and in the 1980s, the contemporary style with the words, a higher pitch and higher notes were popular.

''Before then, there was a time and place for songs with words,'' he said. ''I like the drum styles I grew up with as well as the old-school rules.''

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Most of the time, Windy Boy said he's on the road, traveling to and from various competitions.

''In terms of professions, I've been doing this for a while,'' he said.

Having competed in both drum and dance contests, Windy Boy understands that feeling of performing before a crowd and judges. At the Gathering of Nations pow wow held annually in Albuquerque, N.M., he competed before thousands and won dance competitions there 14 or 15 times, he said.

Drumming and dancing remain an important part of Windy Boy's life, but he also works in tribal and state politics. Since 1998, Windy Boy has served on the Chippewa Tribal Council, and he serves as a Montana House of Representatives member for District 32.

If that isn't enough, Windy Boy said he plans to run for a Montana Senate seat in 2008.

''I've been encouraged to run for tribal chairman next year, too,'' he said.

Most recently, Windy Boy was appointed by Montana's governor to the Kindergarten to College work group to make recommendations on improving the education system.

When not working on state or tribal issues, Windy Boy attends pow wows, judging or singing. Sometimes just showing up at a pow wow garners him an invitation to serve as a judge for various competitions, he said.

''I haven't danced in a few years; it's on the mind,'' said Windy Boy, whose two granddaughters, ages 3 and 4, have shown an interest in dancing. ''Hopefully, sometime, I'd like to get back into it.''

From a judge's point of view, Windy Boy said many good groups exist.

''But just like any competition, you have to judge that particular song at that time,'' he said. ''When asked to be a head singing judge, the committee looks at you to make sure the singing contest is conducted in a fair manner.''

The pow wow committee also looks to make sure every drum group is judged for the same number of songs, he said.

For the new and young drum groups who'll compete at the National Powwow, Windy Boy encourages them to learn their own style of singing before learning anyone else's style.

Windy Boy said he tells groups this based advice his grandfather gave him.

When the competitions begin at the National Powwow, Windy Boy has another piece of advice for drum groups, dancers and singers: ''Do not give up. Times change. As long as you believe the power of the drum is there, it always will be. Be humble and kind to people, and don't take life for granted.''