The Nevada Red Hoop drumming group brought the sounds of life to San Quentin’s Native American Group Annual Fall Pow Wow. The thumping sounds of traditional drumming filled the prison’s visiting room, blending with the scent of sage, circle dancing and chanting from the outside spiritual elders.
The pulsating drumbeats simulate the rhythm of a heartbeat, which represents the sign of life, be it from man or animal, according some Native traditions.
“The drum is alive — just as any human being is,” said Martin Montgomery, one of the Red Hoop drummers. “An animal gave its life for this drum – and the wood to produce the heartbeat sound.
“The drums and our traditional songs have the ability to change emotions and they have made their way to us today,” added Montgomery.
The Nov. 15, sacred event celebrated the unity of the human family and its connections through the heart.
The Red Hoop group consists of more than 20 drummers, but only three were able to make the trip, due to rescheduling of the ceremony. The group consisted of Montgomery, Ivan Julianto and Brandon Heredia, the son of the Native American Group’s chaplain.
The trio chanted each song energetically as they uniformly pounded the large drum. The more than 75 incarcerated participants and volunteers swayed and stepped dance throughout the event in ceremonial circles symbolizing the infinity of life.
The dancing and singing is part of the spiritual healing led by the sacred instrument.
“The elders and drummers coming in helps us learn more about our ways as a people,” said Dennis “Wolf” Gilbert, incarcerated participant. “They show us that we are not hated but loved and not forgotten.
“It keeps us on the Red Road (spiritual road.) I want to raise my grandson in our ways,” Gilbert added.
Montgomery can relate to this statement. His father was incarcerated in a Nevada prison.
“Your family needs you. And that’s spoken from a kid who grow up while his father was incarcerated,” said Montgomery. “My father shared a lot of stories about how the system changed him. He wanted to give us an alternative and he taught us the drums – learning our culture help save us,” added Montgomery.
Montgomery credits his father for starting Red Hoops. The group name comes from his grandfather who found a horse, back in the day, with a red hoop around its eye. The horse used to do tricks such as: dancing and bowing.
The grandfather thought it was from a circus or something. So he began asking the people in the surrounding area whose horse it was. No one seem to claim it.
“Being here is like coming full circle,” said Montgomery. “It makes you feel grateful. What my father learned in prison he passed on to us, now I’m sharing it with these men.”
The drum is one of the major parts of Native life. The songs and drum rhythms are passed down through the grandparents or elders. Most of the Native drummers are versatile in Southern and Northern tribal drum rhythms. The drums are used for tribal marriages, prayers and calling people together.
After the opening purification ceremony, where the participants wipe themselves with the smoke from the burning sage, the guests mixed with the Native group to perform the ritual Grand Opening Dance.
Everyone left the visiting room; the men formed one line and women made another one. The two groups danced and stepped their way back into the room to create two circles around the drums.
“The women dance closer to the drums, because they are our hearts,” said Gregory “White Eagle” Coates, San Quentin resident and Sun Dancer. “The men are on the outer rings, because they are the protectors.”
Montgomery paused the drumming and ask some guests to come up and form two rows of seven people. He asked each person to make a rhythm with their bodies; some made sound with their mouths, snap fingers, clapped hands and beat sounds on their bodies.
Then Montgomery had everyone do his or her sound in unison creating an ensemble of music.
“We are all relatives. We all represent that rhythm of the heartbeat, and that was shown in the music we created together,” said Montgomery. “If we can see each other as human beings the world would be a better place.”
The spiritual ceremony ended with traditional food and strong loving words from visiting elder Lee Polanco, Sr. 81, who was a former San Quentin corrections officer and chaplain.
“I seen two of my sons go to prison, and that hurts as a parent. I buried a lot of people, so doing this prayer work is not a game for me,” said Polanco. “I come here because I love these guys, be it the men-in-blue or green.
“I will tell the guys in blue don’t ever give up – it’s never to late learn. I hope you get out and never come back,” he concluded.