By Patrick Winderl
For eight months out of the year, the 10 members of Southern Cree and their families are on the road - every weekend, or just about.
From February to fall, the so-called "powwow trail" takes the group to more than 30 powwows around the continent.
"We've been coast to coast and all across Canada," said Harlan Baker, the group's lead singer.
Rocky Boy-based Southern Cree is on the cutting edge of Native American music. The group began more than a decade ago as a venture among relatives, Baker said.
"We got a drum together and started practicing," he said.
Twelve years later, Southern Cree has emerged as a staple of the powwow circuit. The group has pressed six albums and was one of several groups featured on a CD that won a Grammy award in 2001.
The group practices singing and drumming every other night during the winter, but does not practice much during the powwow season, Baker said.
"You need to let your voice heal between powwows," he said.
Last weekend, the group was one of 22 that attended Milk River Indian Days in Fort Belknap. Most singing groups consist of about 10 singers, who are seated in a circle around a large drum. Each singer has a drumstick, which are beat in unison as they sing.
As the volume of the song changes, so does the beat of the drums. The singers alternate between rapid and slow beats, sometimes striking the drum very hard, at other times barely tapping it. The result is that a group of 10 singers can produce a wide variety of songs and sounds using only their voices and a single drum.
Drum circles are almost exclusively male, though some singing groups allow women to participate, depending on the beliefs of their respective tribe. Southern Cree allows women to sing with the group, though they must stand behind the men at the drum circle.
Singing groups are divided into two categories: contemporary and traditional.
Southern Cree uses a contemporary style. The style is relatively new, and includes the use of lyrics in songs, a rapid drum beat and high-pitched vocals, Baker said.
At times, singers may pinch their throat between two fingers, a technique that manipulates the vocal chords to produce a very shrill tone.
"It helps keep the pitch higher and hold a very high note," Baker said.
Traditional style is slower than most contemporary music, and the vocal parts of the songs do not contain words. Southern Cree's drum circle at the powwow in Fort Belknap was directly adjacent to that of the Porcupine Singers, a traditional group from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
To untrained ears, the differences in styles between the two groups would be difficult to pinpoint, though the Porcupine Singers did seem to favor a slower drum beat.
The contemporary style emerged in the late 1980s and easy 1990s, Baker said. Initially very few groups performed the music, but it rapidly grew in popularity until many powwows began dividing singing competitions into two categories.
Baker, who writes many of the songs for Southern Cree, said song lyrics nearly always reflect the culture of the group's members. Many of the group's songs are crafted by experiences they have had on the powwow trail,
"When you're on your way to a powwow, sometimes you're driving at 3 or 4 in the morning and a song will pop into your head," he said.
Other songs give tribute to a particular dance or dancer, Baker said. "Just the beauty of it," he said, adding that other songs are inspired by dreams or deeply personal experiences.
The other members of Southern Cree are Clement Baker Jr., Keith Gopher, Wyatt Delora, Cliffton Goodwill, Curtis Seeseequaris, Little Bear Watson, Glenn Eagleman, Ben Wisespirit and Rod Sutherland.
The group competes against other groups for cash prizes at the powwows they attend.
"It's kind of like rodeo. One week you do good, another week you don't," Baker said. "It all depends on whether the judges like you."
One group of judges that did like the group was the awards panel for the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in 2001. Southern Cree's song "Men's Grass" was among those on a compilation album called "Gathering of Nations" that won a Grammy in the Best Native American Album category.
Being a member of a singing group is not about winning prize money but about sharing talent and culture with other people, Baker said. He stressed the importance of respecting the drum circle. Sometimes spectators walk through the middle of the circle during a song, something he considers disrespectful.
"The drum has a spiritual significance," he said. "Not to everyone, but to us it is sacred."