One guy, one hand drum – Nakoa Heavy Runner

Posted by on Oct 4, 2017 in Articles, Dakota Lakota Journal, Music | 0 comments

Round dance singer brings healing, connection and solid talent to area

 

Abena Songbird

former Journal Staff Writer

Hand drums in hand, Menominee singers Josh (left) and Joel Fish (right), (also a drum maker) form a Round dance song trio with lead singer/composer, Assiniboine/Blackfeet Nakoa Heavy Runner (center) last week at a CD signing and live performance at Prairie Edge. The three performed a request, “Smiling Eyes.”

Hand drums in hand, Menominee singers Josh (left) and Joel Fish (right), (also a drum maker) form a Round dance song trio with lead singer/composer, Assiniboine/Blackfeet Nakoa Heavy Runner (center) last week at a CD signing and live performance at Prairie Edge. The three performed a request, “Smiling Eyes.”

 

RAPID CITY — There is a ever growing buzz about a new “lean and mean” talent coming out of the Fort Belknap, Montana  area, who has been singing and composing for fourteen years, both Round dance and Pow wow songs. His name is Nakoa Heavy Runner.

Formerly known on the Pow wow circuit for his clear, high leads with Black Bull Jr. Drum, Heavy Runner has joined forces for the last two years with two tight Menominee singers, Josh and Joel Fish, and has been solidly composing, recording, producing and self-promoting his contemporary style, stacking layered vocal tracks and creating a unique sound of many voices that is “stand-out” in the Native American music world.

“I’ve been singing my whole life, but started actually composing at the age of 14 in 1994,” said the 28 year old singer, Heavy Runner. DSCF1220

Not only known now from various clips on YouTube performed by himself, and fans of his songs, Heavy Runner and his Round dance songs have gotten significant exposure from Native radio, including KILI Radio on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Grant Weston, lead singer in Rapid City’s Standing Horse Drum, and founder of Wimahiya Hand Drum Group said he first heard Heavy Runner at the Denver Indian Powwow Expo a few years ago. “His voice stood out, it was a crisp, clear sound,” he said. Wanting to help promote his music, Weston got the word out about this gifted composer/singer and his hand drum trio’s stops in South Dakota.

In 2003 he decided to cut his first album himself. Using home equipment, Heavy Runner laid all the tracks, recorded it, designed the artwork for the CD, burned and duplicated it by hand, even doing his own final shrink-wrapping.

“Even today, although these later two CDs have been ‘sent-out’ for duplication, that’s something I still do: all my own recording, mixing, mastering, and graphics,” he noted.

Heavy Runner comes from a large family of traditional singers. All his uncles and grandpas sing, he said. Most of his friends and family grew up around the drum, listening to the Round Dance songs.              Growing up around the Powwows, he said he’s been out of that for about two years when he met Joel Fish and his younger brother, Josh, enrolled members of the Menominee Nation from Wisconsin, two years ago in August 2006 at the Rocky Boy Powwow.

Never having met before, the two were unfamiliar with each other’s work but both liked what they heard. After hearing his Round dance material, Joel Fish had some songs to show the singer, Heavy Runner noted. “I liked them and asked if we could put them on a CD.” Last year was the debut of this collaboration – two songs released on Heavy Runner’s CD, “Brothers.” “Butterfly” is one track on that CD that Fish composed.

Joel, 22, is also a prestigious drum maker. Formerly a student in Construction Technology at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, he met his wife, Mastewin Fish, (who traveled to South Dakota with the trio) and they now both reside in Fort Peck, MT.

“That’s just the next rez down from me,” Heavy Runner noted. “We just talked, got to messing around, showing me some of these songs, and so I went ahead and signed them (Fish singers) to a 15 year contract,” he jokes.

Joel Fish also started from the time he was 8 or 9 years old, traveling with his family to Powwows “as a snotty-nosed kid” he laughs. “I began singing at a young age, got into hand drums, as I liked a lot of the Cree style music, and Menominee,” he said. “I really enjoyed the words and always wanted a drum.”

He got his first drum at the age of 10, a 13 inch elk hide hand drum.

 “One guy, one drum” Assiniboine/Blackfeet singer, Nakoa Heavy Runner, of Fort Belknap demonstrates why his is a rising star on the Powwow circuit for his unique style, and original Round dance compositions last Friday at a CD Release party at Prairie Edge.

“One guy, one drum” Assiniboine/Blackfeet singer, Nakoa Heavy Runner, of Fort Belknap demonstrates why his is a rising star on the Powwow circuit for his unique style, and original Round dance compositions last Friday at a CD Release party at Prairie Edge.

“I was told by my uncle to take care of it and it will take care of me,” he said. He had it for five years and lost it. His older brother, Jeffery, showed him “told me what was what” about the basics of making and taking care of the drum.

“I just started doing it. I started killing deer, scraping the hides, making hand drums all the time,” he said. “I started getting good at what I was doing.” Now looking back on his work the artist said he realizes he did “okay” but is always looking ahead one-step ahead of anything he did in the past.

Currently he has turned from using primarily deer hide to horse hide with his signature drums. The sound difference is in the vibration he says.

“Horse hide only contracts so far,” he explains, adding that elk hide, horse, buffalo, and deer all have their own tonal quality, and tighten up differently when exposed to moisture, contracting to heat.

“My brother (Josh) calls this one, Norman,” he said, pointing at one of his favorite horse hide drums. He has no need to sign his drums he said, as he “knows his own work.” Many agree that his drums are quality.

Any good drum maker or drum keeper will know how to take care of his drums, Fish added. “If you make drums you take care of them.” Well versed in drum etiquette he said, “You always keep a drum face-up, never upside down when not in use.”

He said he never thought he and his younger brother would “team up” playing music with Heavy Runner and traveling together.

Josh, 20, echoes his brother, also saying he’s spent most of his early years singing back home. He and Joel will also be featured on a future album “in the works” by Heavy Runner, called, “Traditions.”

Now all three are full-time singers; able to earn an income solely from singing their original songs. They travel together, promoting heavily on the Powwow circuit, and do many school presentations for the youth.

Friday the three held court at Prairie Edge, with Heavy Runner front and center, promoting four of his CDs, that comprise 4 years of work, and signing his newest release.

The first CD Heavy Runner ever did, was called ‘Round Dance Time”, however it’s now out-of-print, he says, so had no copies at his new CD Release Party last Friday at Prairie Edge in Rapid City. His subsequent recordings include, “Dance For Me” (2004), “Journey” (2005), “Brothers” (2007) and his newest, “Indian Summer” (2008) which was recorded over a course of five months at Heavy Runner’s dad’s place in Ft. Belknap the trio has christened, “The Healing Ranch.”

“My first album was just me on vocals – a guy and a hand drum singing,” he said. “But my second solo album (Dance For Me) developed a whole new sound.” One can hear all 11 tracks from this CD on the NativeRadio.com website

Heavy Runner started singing softer and overlaying his voice to create two or three tracks – creating a thick sound that sounds like many voices – two or three guys.

Each CD holds significant meaning for Heavy Runner, and he names his favorite originals songs from each: On Journey he cites, “Warriors and Walk with You”: from Dance For Me – it’s, “Grandma’s Wisdom” and “So & So” are his favorite songs, from Brothers, “Give you the World” and “Don’t Matter” and from the newest CD Indian Summer Heavy Runner says, “Gone Away” and “Mine O Mine’ are his personal standouts.

“I was singing a lot of years, just sitting there, didn’t know how to do CDs and get it out there,” he said.

In 2003 he decided to cut his first album himself. Using home equipment, Heavy Runner laid all the tracks, recorded it, designed the artwork for the CD, burned and duplicated it by hand, even doing his own final shrink-wrapping.

“Even today, although these later two CDs have been “sent-out” for duplication, that’s something I still do: all my own recording, mixing, mastering, and graphics,” he noted.

Nakota HeavyRunner

Nakota HeavyRunner

Following the CD signing, the trio was slated to perform a Round Dance in Little Eagle, South Dakota on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Saturday night, and would return home to gear up for their next promotion at Spirit Lake, North Dakota.

Though Round dance songs are social songs, and the music Heavy Runner makes with his hand drum trio these days is not spiritually based, his message to youth and the way all three singers conduct themselves is steeped in traditional culture and ceremony

“We’re sharing what we do, and what a Round dance is, a lot of them don’t know” he added. The traditional roots of Round Dance – the songs and social dances were for healing, Heavy Runner noted. “Many times when someone is sick, a family will have a Round dance, feed the people, and the sponsor will have a giveaway.”

He grew up hearing the stories of the dances his late grandma would speak of, when she was young.

“You’re bringing all the people together for their healing,” he continues. “Everyone when you go out there and join hands, and dance for anyone in your family that may be sick, even though you go there to have fun and to share.”

Back home he says there’s a resurgence of these songs, and social dances. “It’s always been pretty big in Canada, but it’s really growing now, even in the states, these last four years,” Heavy Runner said.

His current hand drum is signature, a special gift to him. It has two strips of blue tape circling the inner and outer bone-white rim, and he handles it protectively, not allowing others to touch it.

Heavy Runner’s message in his presentations to youth and all who hear his music rang out loud and clear with his group’s debut in South Dakota, “Music is what keeps us connected to everything. It helps to align mind, body and spirit. My belief is that we need to stay connected. Everything we do as Indian people, there isn’t a ceremony out there that doesn’t have some kind of song connected to it. Even though this isn’t ceremonial music it still keeps people connected in some way.”

He says that all have something to share, whether it’s one’s voice, song or path. He encourages this wherever his group travels, “Find what it is that connects us, what you have to share.”

Steeped in these ways of respect, the singers carry this with them to their performances. Every performance is opened with an older Round dance song Nakoa originally learned from his cousin called, “Prayer Song.”

“It’s on the Brothers CD. It’s an opening song in our language,” he said, adding that his Powwow Drum, Black Bull Jr. is also still active, but the Round dance songs have kept him preoccupied and have “kinda taken over.”

“A lot of our ways were lost, but now they’re coming back,” Heavy Runner added. “We’re helping not just to bring it back, but to help understand it.”

 

All four Nakoa Heavy Runner CD titles: “Dance For Me”, “Journey” and “Brothers”, “Indian Summer” (featuring Josh and Joel Fish) are available at Prairie Edge Trading Post & Art Gallery in Rapid City for $15.00 retail plus tax.

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