Courtesy Canyon Records
Members of the Alberta, Canada, drum group Northern Cree perform.

Power of Northern Cree Talking Drum

Alysa Landry

Steve Wood likes to let his drum do the talking.

More than three decades ago, the drum group Northern Cree made its unlikely and accidental debut in 1982 on Idaho’s Nez Perce reservation. The 53-year-old Wood, a founding member, has seen the group grow from three members to nearly 60, and its music now reaches audiences from London’s Trafalgar Square to the isolated villages of northern Canada.

Wood, who hails from the Cree village of Saddle Lake, Alberta, watched the group win numerous awards in contests for Native American or aboriginal music. The group has released 36 records over 22 years and was nominated six times for a Grammy award. And through it all, the one thing that remained constant was the drum. “My real belief is that these things really have life,” he said of the drum. “They have the spirit to move people.”

Wood, the group’s drum keeper, leads one of the world’s most commercially successful Native drum groups. Although the group now enjoys international success, Northern Cree had humble—and slightly humorous—beginnings.

Wood was 22 when he and his two brothers traveled to Lapwai, Idaho to compete in a stick-game tournament. When they lost all their money the first night of the tournament, the brothers decided to sing in the pow wow to earn funds to get home.

One of the brothers borrowed a drum from a local museum and they performed songs they learned from their father and uncles. When the arena director asked for the name of the group, they looked down at the drum, which read in faded letters, “Northern Cree.”

Something about the drum resonated with the brothers, Wood said. Some of his earliest memories are of visitors staying the night at his house because his father was organizing pow wows.


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