Pioneering Native American Drummer’ Benefits From Healing Tradition

Paula Fu, a professor of design at the University of California, Davis, built a drum out of quilts to help her integrate singing and drumming into her healing arts practice. Now, it’s helping others cope with their own Native American culture, even those who don’t have a background in dance and singing.

The deep foundations of healing that cultural practice offers can transform lives from trauma and despair, she said.

There are many stories of healing through drumming, including martial arts master Rev. Harriet E. Herring.

“I had a lot of martial arts training and I always loved martial arts, but I started dancing because that’s where my spirituality and my spirituality came from,” Herring said. “So, whenever I could, I would dance. That became my expression of my spirituality. At one point, my spirituality was my driving passion.”

Herring told the story of a Native American girl, Tanis Laureano, who died of starvation at the age of 6 in the late 1980s. When the girl’s parents heard that Herring was teaching martial arts, they came to the door and asked her to teach their daughter a fight. Herring was the only one that could do it.

“There was this beautiful act of collaboration, which brought all the various parts of [the relationship] together,” Herring said. “It was a gift that God had put in place to bring everybody together and have one, beautiful act. It was beautiful to see it in action. The dance had a very powerful healing impact.”

In 2012, during a speech at a University of Arizona conference, Herring presented the story of the abused girl and of her mom, who was given a prison sentence and deported. One of Herring’s students who was reading the story of the girl’s death was inspired to pass on Herring’s craft to another girl from her Iowa church.

Herring was lucky to have a college degree in studies and a background in religious studies. But other Native American cultures would be less fortunate.

Despite the greater access to education and resources for Native American youth today, rural and tribal communities continue to struggle. Young people like Fu are fighting to share her art and movement with the Native American community. Fu said that starting a drum circle was the healing mission of the movement, a desire for unity and the need to move forward.

She builds skills as a dance teacher, drum chief and teacher of song. But those skills often aren’t taught by Native Americans with the ability to research or learn from, or recruit new instructors from, outside of the organization.

This resistance has caused Fu to often support and inspire others to create their own movement, something she wants to see grow in the future.

“What I really try to have is the Native people promote within their community, teaching the tribe and teaching the community the culture,” Fu said. “At the end of the day, I want to see that smile on those faces of the students as they start to learn to dance and then hear themselves sing. … I feel that [a vision] would heal the wounds. The painful feelings would not be there. I really want to have an empowering process.”

Trina Maheshwari is a college journalism student at the University of California, Davis.

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