Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Wunk Sheek drum circle tells stories of native students on campus

Every Monday evening, the Wunk Sheek student organization holds a drum circle to pass on Native American traditions and stories. The drum holds significant cultural importance to the group, especially since it was returned after being confiscated by the university for over a year.

If you haven’t heard of Wunk Sheek, you’re not alone — many native students don’t even know about the organization and those that do may have a hard time finding it.

Wunk Sheek is an organization for Native American students on the UW-Madison campus and serves members of the community interested in indigenous issues, culture and history. The group is open to everyone, not just Native Americans. Since it was established in the 1960s, its main purpose is to be a home for native students on campus and provide a community.

They host events, workshops and dialogues, bringing in people to speak and holding conversations with one another. They make crafts, including moccasins and beadings. They frequently teach each other new skills and share their tribes’ traditions. Today, there are approximately 25 members.

It’s part of us culturally. It tells stories — that’s what drum circle is. You sit around, you drum, you sing a little bit and you talk and tell stories and pass along history.

The drum circle is much more exclusive, however. Averaging five men, group members gather around one big drum that sits at the center of the room once a week for an hour. Other people have been recruited to sing and to play the hand drums. Though it is mainly men around the drum circle, women can hand-drum and sing. At powwows, they even dance around the drum.

Collin Ludwig, co-president of Fiscal Relations for Wunk Sheek and a senior at UW-Madison, and Michael Gilpin, freshman general body member of Wunk Sheek, sat down with me to discuss the importance of the drum circle and organization.

Allison: What is the significance of the Wunk Sheek organization to you?

Collin: To me, personally, it’s a family. It’s a place where I can be with other native students and people I can relate to. I didn’t know about Wunk Sheek until the end of my sophomore year — that’s when I got my first email about Wunk Sheek. I didn’t know there was a student organization for natives until the end of my freshman year but I didn’t know how to go about finding Wunk Sheek. I looked for it and still couldn’t find it. I think it took me so long to find it because, in general, the university doesn’t advertise minority groups as much as other groups. Now, it’s the place where I can go to be with family.

Michael: I’m a first-year so I’m new here, but it’s nice having Wunk Sheek here as a safe spot. It’s a community to belong to. It’s where I go to see other Native Americans and talk about the things that have happened in our lives, like on reservations. It’s nice to come here on a majority white campus and see other Native Americans in a group, together.

Allison: What is the cultural importance of the drum circle? Why do members participate?

Collin: It’s part of us culturally. It tells stories — that’s what drum circle is. You sit around, you drum, you sing a little bit and you talk and tell stories and pass along history. Eventually, once we get good and learn songs, we want to go to Pow Wows and to other gigs.

Michael: Drumming, in general, is like passing on tradition. The songs get passed on from generation to generation. Each song can carry a story or significance and each song is different. I was also told that drumming could be a source of healing. The drum in the drum circle will always be there in your life. When things are going bad, the drum will always be there for you — it’s like a way of life.

Allison: What are the powwows like?

Michael: They’re essentially a big party, a big celebration.

Collin: I like to see it as the Super Bowl meeting Comic-Con. The Comic-Con part of it is vendors selling items like beading, beads and art. The Super Bowl part is the competition powwow, which we always look forward to. There’s dancing: Women compete to see who is the best and there’s prize money. There’s usually two per tribe per year. Wunk Sheek’s powwow is inter-tribal because we’re not all in one tribe here in the group. Also, some tribes have sobriety powwow on New Year’s to prevent people from going out to drink.

Allison: How long does it take someone to learn the drums/a song? Is there music you read or is it improvised?

Michael: It’s usually your whole life. You’re learning new things everyday, it’s like the language. It’s just like being a normal white person — something new happens everyday and that’s communicated through drum. I grew up in a Pow Wow family so I have been doing it my whole life.

Collin: I didn’t grow up on a reservation, so I started when I joined Wunk Sheek. When I was two, my mom and I moved off the reservation with my dad because he’s white. We moved to a white town. I wasn’t really that connected to [the reservation]. I spent half my childhood there with my cousins and grandparents, though. I wasn’t traditional, but I was there.

The drum in the drum circle will always be there in your life. When things are going bad, the drum will always be there for you — it’s like a way of life.

Allison: You told me that the university took away the drum. Do you mind if I asked what happened?

Collin: There was a faculty member who worked on Bascom; they were part of the diversity office. We had a Wunk Sheek Singers Group and they went out to gigs and powwows and made money. The faculty member and the university said that drum is made with taxpayer money, student money and that we can’t go out to gigs and make money from it. So they took the drum and they took the money too. They’ve had it ever since. We just got it back in November, before Thanksgiving. They took it a year or two ago.

Allison: Is there anything else you want to add?

Collin: I think most students don’t know about our group because we’re so small of a population on campus and in general. The university says they’re all about diversity but they don’t advertise or promote minority groups.

Michael: I agree. We’re pretty underrepresented on campus out of all the minority groups. Whenever I talk to someone, they’re pretty shocked to hear I’m Native American.
Collin: There are two things that go through their mind: First of all, they’re like, “Holy sh*t, a native! That’s weird.” The second thing is then they’ll ask all the stereotypical questions.

Michael: “Oh my god, you wear normal clothes?”

Collin: “Wow, you own a sweater? Wow, you wear jeans? A hat?!”

Michael: “I’ve heard all that before.”

Collin: I like that the media is talking to us now because they usually only come talk to us when things are bad or something has gone wrong. They never reach out to us just to showcase our groups. When something bad happens, suddenly everyone is like, “Hey, hey! We need to talk to them!”

Michael: The only time I see native coverage is when the media go out to reservations just to see how terrible the quality of living is there. They do a two-minute documentary and then they’re done.

Colin: The media never goes out and actually asks how we are doing. That’s the bigger issue.

Allison Garfield Box - arts editor