“If you believe in yourself, who you are, where you come from, your culture and more importantly your language, it will take you to places you have never even dreamed of,” says Steve Wood, 51, founder and drum keeper of Northern Cree Singers—the hugely popular, award-winning First Nations group.
Northern Cree Singers were founded in 1982 by Wood and his brothers Randy and Earl Wood. The group originates from the Saddle Lake Cree First Nation but is made up of members from the Treaty 6 Area, most notably the Frog Lake Cree Nation, Onion Lake Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Cree Nation, and the Poundmaker Cree Nation. They have garnered multi-Grammy nominations, multi-Juno nominations, and have been awarded multi-Native American Music Awards and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. They have also won numerous pow wow singing competitions.
But it is their adherence to their founder's philosophy that have made them role models for Native peoples everywhere. Their success is a testament and a message to youth that traditional Native music can be a star on the biggest stage, without sacrificing first principals.
In a recent interview with ICTMN, Wood talked candidly about a documentary on his group and their soon-to-be released album, the book he's writing and aspirations for the youth.
You started in the early 1980s with your brothers and now are quite famous. What is the popular guy doing these days?
I didn’t think I was popular. I started in a small home—in an Indian reservation. Back in the 60s, my father used to sing. He was the drum keeper. People sat in benches. People used to come to our house, and my mother would feed them. I never dreamt of going to the Grammys, flying overseas and to remote communities.
How did you all come together?
I was about 16 or 17 years old. My brother Earl was married down in Lapwai, Idaho. We came to visit him—myself, Randy and my older brother, Charlie. We were actually there to play stick games. We didn't do so well and lost most of our money. We had a full tank of gas, a room that was paid for, and about $60 between us. We stood around the car contemplating our situation, and decided to try to get home with what we had. Then Earl said, ‘Why don't you guys set up a drum? The celebration's pow wow was paying daypay and you should get enough to get home. I’ll sing with you.’ So we decided to set up and sing songs we had learnt from our father and uncles at the pow wow.
How did you come up with the name Northern Cree?
We were born Cree! But at the Lapwai celebration, we needed a drum. My brother Earl said he was good friends with the curator of a small local museum that kept various drums, and would ask him if he could borrow one. Next day we met before grand entry and Earl brought this drum wrapped in a blanket with a few drumsticks. We went to set up. The arena director came around and asked, ‘What are you guys called?’ We were from Saddle Lake, so I said, “I guess Saddle Lake.’ He said, ‘Do you have a drum group name?’ Just then my brother Randy was taking this borrowed drum out of the blanket and he said, ‘What about Northern Cree? It's right here on this drum.’ In faded print, on the drum, was Northern Cree.
How involved is the Wood family in the Northern Cree group?
We are nine in the family, with four brothers and sisters. I am the third youngest of the nine siblings. My younger brothers Earl, 49, and Randy, 48 are part of the group. My oldest brother Charlie used to be our lead singer.
What are you working on right now?
We have a new recording coming out and bookings coming up. Right now the round dance season is ending and we are getting ready to do pow wows. We have a few bookings in California. We will be in places like Salt Lake, Utah, Arizona, Michigan, North Dakota and even overseas to London. We are performing pretty much every weekend.
How do you think Northern Cree has evolved over the past 20 years?
There are some changes in the face of the group; some have gone to the next world, while others are doing other things. The face of our drum group has changed but the spirit stays the same.
What makes your group different than the other groups?
There is a core group of 8 to 9 guys that has been performing together for ten years plus. We all now live in different communities. When we started the group, we practiced a lot. Now, we don’t practice, we just sing. We are in tune with each other. We are like a hockey team. Everybody works together.
What is the title of the new album?
It is called Loyalty to Our Drum. There are 11 songs on it. We have practically been to all four corners of Turtle Island, and it was our drum that took us there. Without the drum, we would have never met the countless people we have been fortunate enough to meet, or see the places and things we have. We are loyal to our drum—it is the centerpiece and the spirit of our group.
What do you think is Northern Cree’s contribution to the world of pow wow?
We have helped expand the attention of pow wow music and round dance from the many music we produced. Technology has helped like the YouTube. Not one of our guys has posted anything on YouTube, and yet our song "Driving Me Crazy" has probably a million hits. The spirit is perpetuating it—the Northern Cree spirit. (To see a video of Northern Cree performing "Driving Me Crazy," click here.)
What’s this about a documentary?
There is a guy who has been documenting our group over the past several years. His team has been compiling information about us. They come to your house; they’ve been with us on the road and on our biggest pow wows. The documentary is probably about the reality of being a drum group—all the trials and tribulations. You know, it is not all about glory.
Do you want to tell your fans and supporters that you are writing a book?
I am currently penning a book about pow wows from the perspective of a drum group and what we’ve seen for the past 30 or so years. It will include our experiences as performers and some stories when we were at the Grammys. Some people will laugh and some might be offended.
Why will some be offended?
My wife Hilda said I should tell the truth. I am not a perfect man myself, but the truth happens behind the scenes. Let us not forget we are people. We are humans susceptible to a lot of things like alcohol, drugs and money issues.
When it is coming out?
It is going to take awhile. I’ve been wanting to take a year off to finish it. Next year I am taking time off.
What is the next chapter for you?
The next step is to help our people and the next generation in taking their rightful place in history. When it comes to pow wow or any type of traditional genre, it is not only about our dances, but also about the music. Some of our young people want to do rock or hip hop, and that’s alright—more power to them. But I want them to know that they don't have to emulate anyone else, they can be themselves and still aspire to do great things.
Is this why the trip to London this summer is significant?
We want to open that door for our next generation of traditional musicians to take our music out of it’s traditional setting and put it on stage, in concert just like any other mainstream music. It's all about how it is presented to the audience.