Steve Wood likes to let his drum do the talking.
More than three decades ago, the drum group Northern Cree made its unlikely and accidental debut in 1982 on Idaho’s Nez Perce reservation. The 53-year-old Wood, a founding member, has seen the group grow from three members to nearly 60, and its music now reaches audiences from London’s Trafalgar Square to the isolated villages of northern Canada.
Wood, who hails from the Cree village of Saddle Lake, Alberta, watched the group win numerous awards in contests for Native American or aboriginal music. The group has released 36 records over 22 years and was nominated six times for a Grammy award. And through it all, the one thing that remained constant was the drum. “My real belief is that these things really have life,” he said of the drum. “They have the spirit to move people.”
Wood, the group’s drum keeper, leads one of the world’s most commercially successful Native drum groups. Although the group now enjoys international success, Northern Cree had humble—and slightly humorous—beginnings.
Wood was 22 when he and his two brothers traveled to Lapwai, Idaho to compete in a stick-game tournament. When they lost all their money the first night of the tournament, the brothers decided to sing in the pow wow to earn funds to get home.
One of the brothers borrowed a drum from a local museum and they performed songs they learned from their father and uncles. When the arena director asked for the name of the group, they looked down at the drum, which read in faded letters, “Northern Cree.”
Something about the drum resonated with the brothers, Wood said. Some of his earliest memories are of visitors staying the night at his house because his father was organizing pow wows.
“We didn’t have television, but man, when I look back at those days, we had much more fun than kids have today,” he said. “When people came to visit, my mom would cook and feed the people. Then my dad would talk.
Then out came the drum.
If there were other kids there, we’d dance in the living room, and it was like magic.”Wood never dreamed he’d play some of those same songs for international audiences. “When I first started, people weren’t inviting us to perform or flying us places,” he said. “We were driving around locally, then we started going out a little bit farther.”
Courtesy Canyon Records
Members of the drum group Northern Cree pose for a portrait in 2013.
During a trip to Utah, the group met a representative from Canyon Records, the Phoenix, Arizona-based company that produces Native music. Canyon Records produced all of the group’s albums, including its 37th album, which will be released in the spring. “The company looks for groups that perform traditional music either specific to a tribe or ‘pan-tribal,’” said Steve Butler, director of production at Canyon Records. Butler has worked with Northern Cree for more than 20 years.
“We look for something that expresses Native American identity,” he said. “The root of that is the story of Native Americans told by themselves through music.”
Wood credits the group’s success to the drumbeat, which speaks to everyone, regardless of their background, he said. “No matter where they come from, they’ve heard that song somewhere else before,” he said. “It was in the womb with their mother, and they can relate to it.”
Wood has seen the drum connect with people all over North America and beyond. During pow wow season, which runs from May to September, the group plays almost every weekend. As the group continues to gain momentum, Wood hopes the larger music industry is paying attention.
“I think we’re opening doors and generations to come will have traditional musicians who can make a living at it,” he said. “Twenty to 25 years ago, you couldn’t walk into a music store and find traditional or aboriginal music. Now they have entire sections.”
Wood believes the best part about Northern Cree is connecting with people.
“It’s a gift to be touching people we’ve never even met,” he said. “When you can help people feel better, it really is a source of healing. It’s hard to put this into words: We let our drum do the talking for us.”