Healing Through Traditional Beats at Bay Mills

Each and every Thursday at 5pm, the aroma of burning sage can be smelled throughout the hallways of the Boys & Girls Club of Bay Mills, in Brimley, Michigan. Accompanying this sacred scent are the rhythmic vibrations of hand-crafted drums. They can be heard from every corner of the Club, echoing past each room. Youth patiently and eagerly await this day of the week, the day they finally get to practice with the traditional drumming program.

The Bay Mills traditional drumming program is celebrated for encouraging youth to connect with their Anishinaabe culture. Mentor and instructor Mike Willis leads young men at the Club through a new song each week, while Tonia Jimmie assists, creating balance by leading their young women through their roles and passing down knowledge about the drum. Willis, a Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Bay Mills Community College, has served as a drumming mentor for Bay Mills since 2007, with Jimmie coming to assist over the course of a year. According to Club Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sandra Walden, Willis has been a member of the Bear Creek community for nineteen years, and whenever he has been given an opportunity to sing and drum, he’s taken it.

Youth at the Club also love and appreciate the art of drumming. One young member, Meagun, patiently waits for the clock to hit five each Thursday. He then rushes to the front door to help Mike bring in the drum sticks and stand. He says, “I come to practice to be a better singer. I want to travel to pow-wows to sing on a drum. I love practicing my culture. It is one of my favorite things to do. I like singing with my dad on Wednesdays too at the college where he teaches. I have long hair, and singing and drumming makes me feel proud to be Native.” Fifteen-year old Club member, John, is a long-time youth drummer, and says the program is important to him “because it’s our stories about our people and what we believe in. It represents our history and way of life.”

For the Anishinaabe people, traditional songs, and the Mishomis, or grandfather drum hold many of their stories, teachings, and culture within them. For this reason it is so important to help youth connect to these teachings as Anishinaabe people, so they can reconnect with their identity and gain confidence. Willis states, “Without our traditions and cultural values, we are a lost people. Growing up, we didn’t have someone available to come and teach us singing and drumming. We had to go and find people to help guide us in these ways. Our youth are the future, and I was called by the Creator to be a part of instilling our songs and drumming into them.”