Drumming and Healing at Beans Café

drumming beans cafe2_DE

At midday, huge crowds of homeless men and women filter inside Beans Cafe in downtown Anchorage for meals and socializing. It can be noisy and chaotic. For many, it’s their only respite from the cold and dust outside on the city streets. But once a week, volunteers recently began serving up more than a hot meal. KSKA’s Daysha Eaton has the story.

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drumming beans cafe3_DEDressed in a traditional fringed and beaded moose hide jacket, when Samuel Johns steps into the industrial-sized building filled with cafeteria tables, heads

Some of the homeless people ask about his jacket, others about his drum with the word Ahtna scrolled across the front and two red feathers on either side. Even more gather round when he brings out his stick and starts pounding out the beat.

His cousin Andrew wears a black hoodie and dances and sings at his side. During a recent one-day point in time survey, The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation found the majority of chronically homeless people in Anchorage – Around 70 percent of the 700 or so homeless people surveyed – self-identified as Alaska Native. Johns noticed too. He says he got the idea to start drumming at Beans while volunteering there a few weeks ago. At the end of the song, the audience let out sounds of approval.

28-year-old Johns grew up in Copper Center, or as he calls it Kluti Kaah. He is Ahtna and Gwich’en Athabascan. By his own account, Johns could have been among the men and women with substance abuse issues at beans. He spent his youth drinking to numb out emotions, he says, he did not know how to deal with. Traditional songs, drumming, dancing helped him find connection again get sober when he was 21. He says he was apprehensive about how he’d be received but something cool happened when he started drumming and singing at Beans.

“I just started singing. And it amazed me the respect that I got and the quietness that happened.”

Quietness followed by request after request for traditional Native songs from every corner of Alaska. Ed Pratt, who says he’s Tlingit from Huna and Juneau asked Johns to play a song to honor a friend who recently died.

drumming beans cafe4_DE“I love the drumming. I love the drumming! Because it takes me away from myself.”

Vernita Ballot who is Inupaq from Selawik, likes the drumming too.

“Driving me crazy. In a good, beautiful way. (Daysha: Does it remind you of home?) It remind me a lot of the way long ago people, Inupaq people, they used to drum too and dance. They taught me how. I know a little bit about it. But you know just to hear them drummin’ – it’s beautiful. I love it. Made me feel young again (laughs).”

“Our Native dancing and drumming, long ago, was kind of our form of going to church.”

That’s Ed Tiulana, a cultural programs coordinator at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

“Before western civilization came to Alaska and religion came to Alaska this was our way of making prayer to honor animals, our ancestors and the land and to share stories with everybody.”

Tiulana’s learned traditional drumming from his grandparents who come from King Island while he was growing up in Anchorage. He says they taught him that drums are used to replicate the sound of your mother’s heartbeat – that they help you relax, release energy and feel connection. With Alaska Native culture still in a transition from traditional to modern times, Tiulana says, the drum is a connection to healthy traditions and finding a way forward.

drumming beans cafe_DE“Physical abuse, mental abuse, alcohol, drug abuse. You know, These things we tend to get lost in. And then we are disconnected from our culture. But when we hear our drumming and our singing, that fills an empty spot in our heart.”

A spot Johns says he’s excited to help fill with his drum.

“Our drum is like Medicine. Our drum is a tool for healing. And that’s what I was telling them while we were down there. You don’t just buy this thing at a store. You don’t get this at the hospital. It’s something that’s been passed down from generation to generation for a reason.”

Johns only knows songs from his region. He hopes Alaska Native people from other regions will join him to drum, sing and dance with the people at Beans Cafe soon.

Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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