Phil Davis remembers growing up when there wasn’t much about Indigenous culture being celebrated.
He and his sister, Dawn Moughtin, both part of the Niagara Regional Native Centre, discovered their heritage late in life.
Today, however, Davis and Moughtin’s ties to their Haudenosaunee heritage are strong – and they were among many celebrating their culture at the Native Centre’s drum night on the Monday before Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21.
“We’re no different than anybody else. We just love who we are,” Davis said.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first established as National Aboriginal Day in 1996 in Canada but was renamed in 2017.
However, many Indigenous communities have long held celebrations on or around June 21 because of its significance as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
“It’s important that we actually have a day that’s celebrated across the nation,” Davis said. He’s the justice overflow co-ordinator at the Native Centre, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Davis’ sister Moughtin, the Native Centre’s program co-ordinator, says her grandparents went into residential school and came out “hardcore Jehovah’s Witness until the day they died.”
This effectively severed the family’s connection to their Haudenosaunee heritage until well into adulthood.
Moughtin, one of 11 siblings, credits Davis and some of her other older siblings who helped the family reconnect to their culture.
For Davis, drumming circles have been an essential part of connecting to his Haudenosaunee culture.
“The drum leads you,” he said, adding that “you learn things” when you’re responsible for carrying a drum.
One lesson Davis learned is that every song they sing in a circle is a prayer and a ”sacred thing.”
Drums, he said, are central to any community. In fact, he bets that drums and music were a part of every person’s ancestry.
“There’s some land out there that you are indigenous to,” he said.
“The only difference is you’re a little bit more removed from who you actually are as original peoples.”
Whereas Indigenous peoples, he said, are only about 100 years removed from their culture.
He compared drumming in a group to performing as a musician.
“It takes a certain amount of inner strength,” to sing and drum in front of a crowd and not by yourself.
For his sister Moughtin, who runs the women’s drum circle on Monday nights, part of it is about finding your voice, though she laughs and says she was born with hers.
Men and women form individual circles at drum night, Moughtin says.
“Most of the hand drum songs are for women,” and the larger drums are for men.
At the end of the evening, they usually come together and form two circles, with the women forming the exterior of the two and men the interior.
Moughtin says the women form the exterior circle to support the men inside.
“Our job is also to watch them and make sure that they’re acting right,” she said.
In the event that a male drummer is acting disrespectfully, it’s her job to remove him, Moughtin said.
Throughout drum night, Moughtin wanders around the drum circle keeping the beat with her hand-held drum and encouraging people to add their voices to the song.
Meanwhile, Jessica Riel-Johns, the second of the centre’s two executive directors, sat behind the circle, occasionally lending her voice to the group.
Riel-Johns has only been singing for a few months but she says Moughtin really helped her to find that voice.
The two directors see the Indigenous People’s Day as an opportunity for their non-Indigenous peers to, in Riel-John’s words, “come out, learn from us, ask questions.”
“We celebrate our culture every day,” Riel-Johns said of Indigenous People’s Day. “We’re a rich culture.”
And for Moughtin, it’s an opportunity to participate in reconciling the relationship between First Nations and Canada.
“If you’re a non-Indigenous person, if you want to be part of that reconciliation, and part of that healing, come and talk to us, come and learn about our culture,” Moughtin says.
Sandy Crawford was one of a couple of dozen people gathered outside the Native Centre for drum night.
Crawford says people who frequent drum night will occasionally see people cry.
“The words that you can’t get out of your mouth that are like bottled up inside, whether it’s pain or sadness, it comes out when you’re drumming,” Crawford said.
For her, it is “extremely healing.”
Crawford is Algonquin Bear clan but, like others in the circle, had to go out and rediscover her heritage.
Crawford explains that her mother was non-Indigenous and her Indigenous father spent the first 13 years of her life in prison, and so was unable to pass his heritage to his daughter.
This is a systemic issue in the Indigenous community, which makes up 28 per cent of the total incarcerated population in Canada, despite being only 4.1 per cent of the population.
Crawford says the people at the Native Centre took her in when she moved to Niagara and provided opportunities for her to grow.
“I went from really no education, to just getting an education. To living off the Ontario work system with absolutely no family supports, to this centre completely changing my life,” she said.