Drum Circles Connect Youth With Native Culture

The goal is to give youth a sense of community to help them transition out of OYA facilities successfully.

A small circle of young people, guided by two adults, sat around a drum in the field at Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility on a recent Friday.

Their drumbeats and song filled the space inside and outside the fence, and even drew the attention of a few hawks and a heron that flew over as they played.

The youth, most of whom were Native American, meet once a month for their drum circle. But this was their first time playing outside, and they clearly relished the experience.

Due to the work of Derwin Decker, one of OYA’s Native American Service Coordinators, and Leslie Riggs, Tribal Liaison and the other Native American Service Coordinator for OYA, drum circles are a regular occurrence at the majority of OYA facilities.

As often as possible, Decker and Riggs visit OYA’s facilities to drum, sing, talk, show documentaries to the youth, and create sweat lodges. Sometimes they even play games like trivia or a traditional game called Stick the Rabbit.

The two of them, both part of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, rotate between facilities to ensure that all youth, Native or not, can participate. At this time, about 120 Native American youth live in OYA facilities.

During the recent drum circle at Tillamook, the group played a song entitled “Mountain Goat Song”. According to Decker, it is a personal power song. Like the courage that mountain goats need to be up high on cliffs, it takes courage and commitment to face adverse situations in life. The Mountain Goat Song is meant to be sung to help build up that personal power to overcome hard times. The drumming starts slow and soft, then becomes faster and louder, eventually elevating into a yell. It is this natural rhythm and cycle that gets the blood pumping, making it a favorite of many of the youth, Decker said.

The connection the drum circles create to one’s heritage and culture is invaluable to the youth, Decker and Riggs said. It is an outlet that allows for the youth to build connections with themselves and each other, learn respect, and discover who they are as individuals. The ultimate goal: to give the youth a sense of community and an education that will hopefully help them succeed as they transition out of OYA facilities.

Leslie Riggs (left) and Derwin Decker
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