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Native drum helps bring community together

Native American group Southern Straight's performance at the Kalamazoo Public Library in 2009. Southern Straight is an earlier incarnation of Sons of Three Fires.
Kalamazoo Public Library

“You’re singing your best. You’re singing your hardest. You’re not being shy or holding back anything because somebody might look at you,” says John Bush of Sons of Three Fires describing what he tries to achieve as a singer.

Sons of Three Fires is a Native American group that will perform Saturday at the Kalamazoo Public Library as part of the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music. There will be two performances: one at 2:00 p.m. and one at 3:30 p.m.

Credit Sons of Three Fires
Sons of Three Fires

The name “Sons of Three Fires” comes from the tribes its members belong to: the Chippewa, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. The group is more than 30 years old and spans generations of family members, just like the music itself. 

Bush says before the band started, there were hardly any Native American singers in Southwest Michigan. So tribes would hire people from Chicago and Detroit to come and sing at the powwows. Some of them sang in the style of southern tribes. But Bush says Sons of Three Fires has a distinctly northern sound. It’s high-pitched with a faster pace.

“We’re more prone to do more about the singing than the hitting of the drum," says Bush. "Whereas Southerns are explicit on drum roles and drum technique.”

Most of the songs at the event will be accompanied by social dances like the Inter-Tribal or friendship dance. But there will also be specialty dances. John Bush’s wife Carolyn is one of the dancers and so is their daughter who will be performing a hoop dance. Carolyn says a hoop dance should not be confused with hula hooping.

“They use these hoops to show that connection between that circle of life and all living things,” says Carolyn Bush. “But imagine taking five hula hoops and stretching them across your arms. Now figure out how to link them so they don’t slide off. And then you got your arms all stretched out and you’re helping people imagine what an eagle would look like in flight. Then you’re going to take those hoops and you’re going to quickly change it and you’re going to bloom a flower out of it. And then from there, you’re going to flip it and make a basket to gather water in—because water is one of our sacred elements.”

Sons of Three Fires will also do a song for veterans.

“And we invite veterans from the audience—all nationalities, all colors—to come out and dance," says singer Terry Chivis. "The song is an honor song for veterans, non-combat and combat.”

John Bush says Native American drum circles, especially medicine drums, have a powerful effect on the community.

“I had it explained by elders that it’s like going up to a pond and throwing a pebble in that pond. And the first ring goes out and it touches the people. It touches the community and gets bigger and bigger. Basically, song we can believe that touches out over the state of Michigan across and out to the United States. And it just keeps on going. There’s no end to the good medicine, the good vibrations and the feeling of that song. So that’s what we believe.”

You can come watch the performances, but Carolyn Bush says it’s really about being a part of the event.

“And that’s how you get excited about the drum is being out there with it and feeling the excitement that it provides you," she says.  "And learning that it’s…pow-wowing and dancing are about the socialization.”

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