For the members of Tomahawk Circle, playing in a rural family band is a labor of love. Founded in 2006, the Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe drum group got its name from the street on which the founding members grew up.
William Mitchell Jr. is the founder, lead singer, and drum master. He put the group together with his father, William Mitchell Sr. as well as his brother, Henry, along with other members of their close-knit family.
“We all lived within walking distance of each other back in the day when these guys were little kids,” said Mitchell Jr.
At any given time, there are at least ten singers in the group. They perform across the country, and Canada, at contest powwows. If they are short a singer, they will draw from a regional network of “drum brothers” who can sit in and help out with singing for a competition.
“Every powwow we go to, we’re pretty crewed up,” said Mitchell Jr.
Seated in a circle around a large deer-hide drum, the members play in unison and sing “northern original” style songs in hopes of earning high scores from contest judges, as well as motivating nearby dancers.
Describing the excitement surrounding a competition, Mitchell Jr. explains, “There’s no powwow unless there’s a drum. Get those dancers out there rockin’. You hear those bells, man it’s a good feeling.”
Singer, Henry Mitchell said there’s a difference between “traditional” singing and “competition singing.”
“In competition singing, everything has got to be perfect. If we get lucky, sometimes we take home a little extra cash. Sometimes it just pays for the trip,” said Mitchell.
The group stays busy most (pre-COVID) summers , traveling to competitions from New York to California. But Mitchell Jr. explained how the prize money is not what keeps the group motivated to maintain such a packed summer calendar.
“What money we make, we probably spend that to get there. We just go represent and have a good time. As long as we make it back home in one piece like we came, we’re good to go to the next one,” said Mitchell Jr.
The group had to take time off from competing this past summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about how the group handled the hiatus, Mitchell Jr. replied, “We handled it ok. A few of our singers did catch it and are doing well now. It just felt weird not singing and traveling this year. Hopefully things get better and we can travel next summer.”
This story came to us from the “Sounds Like Home” podcast produced by the Chippewa Valley Museum and Joseph O’Connell. The episodes were originally produced with support from National Endowment for the Arts with additional support from the Wisconsin Arts Board.