For many Native American cultures, the drum represents the heartbeat, the circle of life and a way of communicating traditions through the generations
For many Native American cultures, the drum represents the heartbeat, the circle of life and a way of communicating traditions through the generations. On Thursday night at the U-Club in the Overman Student Center, John Hernandez, a.k.a. John Twobears, gave Pittsburg State University students and community members a lesson in Native American vocal and drumming techniques that have been passed down orally over centuries and told them about his tribe’s culture. The Native American Student Association brought Twobears to campus as part of Native American History Month. Later, he was joined by his friend and primitivist Bo Brown, who taught the group how to knap arrowheads and knife blades from flint, how to make string from plant fiber and how to build a fire using a bow.
Born in 1950, Twobears is a member of the Mescalero tribe of the Apache Nation. He grew up singing “peyote songs,” which are performed as part of the Native American Church. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he said he returned to the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico in 1969 as a broken man. His grandfather, sensing the anguish he was going through, introduced him to pow-wow drum circles and music as a way to help him heal.
“He helped me to understand why I thought the things I did were morally or spiritually wrong, and we worked those things out,” said Twobears, who now lives near Springfield, Mo. “He was like my psychiatrist.”
After he had gotten well, Twobears began learning Native American songs. He said he worked for NATO for many years, teaching Native American stories to the children of Native American employees who were stationed at posts around the globe, as well as many other kids.
“I’ve worked with more than a million children,” he said, adding that he helps kids learn how to create butterfly and water gardens. “I want to get children involved in non-electronic activities because they stifle their creativity. Once they get their hands on things and learn the dynamics of creating physical things it stimulates them in a way electronics can’t.”
He currently is employed with the federal government as a drug and alcohol counselor for Native Americans and other minorities.
“They have many similarities to tribal living and it helps them connect better,” he said.
Twobears played and sang a number of songs with a drum he built in 1979, the first one he ever made. He said he knows songs in dozens of languages and styles. There are songs for every occasion and event, including war dances, love songs, songs for thanking the Earth, children’s songs and songs for saying good-bye. Throughout the show he added humorous anecdotes about the history of the songs and about making drums.
Because there are only two written Native American languages, drums are a sacred and integral part of passing down histories and traditions through song and dance and belong to everyone.
“Even though I built this drum, it’s not my drum,” he said. “It’s the drum of the people and everyone can use it.”
Twobears also demonstrated the difference between northern and southern styles of singing — the northern style features more high-pitched, compared to the more relaxed southern style.
Amazingly, Twobears gives his presentations despite the fact that both of his kidneys were removed three years ago.
“I don’t let that get me down,” he said. “I’m still moving, talking and singing. That’s how I was raised.”
After Twobears finished his demonstration, Bo Brown, his friend and founder of First Earth Wilderness School near Springfield, Mo., demonstrated his Stone Age survival skills. The two met while doing presentations at local schools in Rogersville, Mo. Brown has worked as a wildlife biologist since 1985, was Associate Director with the Ozark Center for Wildlife Research for 15 years, and was a naturalist for the Missouri Department of Conservation in Branson for nine years. He also instructs U.S. Army Special Forces troops in primitive survival techniques. Brown passed around arrowheads, knife blades and other tools he had made out of flint — which also can be used to create sparks for starting fires — buckskin clothing he had made and demonstrated how to make fire using a bow and a wooden stick.