Four years after witnessing the drumming and dancing at Sandy Lake, I photographed John Paishk of Red Lake, Ont., with his prized drum.
April 29, 2010: Volume 37 #9, Page A10
In June 1956 forest fires raged on all sides of the mining town of Red Lake, and I was sent to help at the centre of fire fighting activities, the Chief Ranger base a short distance outside the town.
This introduced me to a remarkable individual named Isaac Keesick, the deputy chief ranger at the base and a fountain of Native lore and legend, which he willingly shared with me. One day, Isaac took me to see John Paishk and his ceremonial drum. That night, I sat down at a typewriter and put down on paper what I saw and heard:
Red Lake, Ont.
June 20, 1956
I took pictures of John Paishk, age 73, head drummer among the Red Lake Indians, with his drum, pipe and accessories.
The pipe he made himself only five years ago, from stone from Pipestone Bay at the west end of Red Lake, to replace a much older one that broke, and which he still keeps among the other stuff, wrapped in blue cloth.
The drum seemingly comes from Manitoba, where he purchased it for $25 from an Indian, about 20 or 25 years ago.
Apparently no drumming was then being done at Red Lake, and he wanted to revive it, or get it going. It is of ash wood, covered with blue cloth and decorated with brass studs. The heads are of moosehide, which he has to replace every four years. It is fully tanned, I believe.
When the drum is in use it is slung from four legs, which are stuck in the ground. I only saw the points of these legs, as they were wrapped in an old Union Jack, but they seemed to be about two feet long and curved sharply on the upper end, somewhat like a short cane, only with no more than a 90 degree curve to the handle.
Isaac Keesick was my interpreter. He says as many as 12 men beat the drum at once, sitting around it in a circle. They sing, and I believe dance as well.
The singing is not just a chant with no meaning, but about the sky and such things, says Isaac. Everyone sings in unison, “just like white men.”
The drum is called tay-a-way-gan, the pipe assinae p-wogan, and the whole affair of drumming and singing is a wee-nay-mee-tum.
I believe John Paishk passed away in April 1959, three years after I photographed him, while Isaac Keesick died, at age 76, in 1977.
When I look up at the clear blue sky these days I am missing something. For about a year now during this wretched pandemic I have hardly seen any contrails...