Drumming is a family endeavor for the Southern Slam group of Zia Pueblo.
Of the 18 singers in the group, 15 are part of the extended family of Steven Toya Sr., lead singer and founder of Southern Slam. Toya picked up the powwow style of drumming, singing and dancing from his father, who started a group in the 1980s. All six of Toya’s children are part of Southern Slam.
“I’m very proud of where I come from and who I am and to see my children and grandchildren sing and dance as a family … it’s gratitude,” Toya said.
Southern Slam is one of six drum groups that have been invited to help host the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque on Friday and Saturday. It is the only group from New Mexico.
“It’s a great honor,” Toya said. “We’re very proud not only as a family, because we’re not only representing the Pueblo of Zia, we’re representing all of pueblo nation and pueblo country.”
The powwow is the country’s largest gathering of Native American and indigenous people from other countries. It draws crowds in the thousands each year. The powwow also includes the Miss Indian World pageant Thursday. The winner will spend a year traveling around the world, promoting awareness of Native cultures.
This is a transitional year for the Gathering of Nations, which is being held for the first time at Expo New Mexico. The University of New Mexico announced it would stop hosting the gathering last June.
The invited drum groups help begin and end the powwow and play music for competitive dancers.
Larry Yazzie, an emcee with the Gathering of Nations, said that being an invited drum group is a big honor, given the number of talented and well-known drum groups touring powwow circuits in the U.S. and Canada.
“You have to know the appropriate protocol for the songs the arena director and emcee ask for,” said Yazzie, who represents the Meskwaki Nation in Tama, Iowa. “The drum group has to be very knowledgeable.”
Toya started Southern Slam over 20 years ago to compete at the Taos Pueblo Powwow. His children and grandchildren are now singers, gathered around the drum.
“We’ve been singing forever,” said Joanna Toya, one of Toya’s eldest daughters. “It will always be a part of our family and our kids’ family. It doesn’t feel normal to go to a powwow and not sing or dance.”
Southern Slam is a southern-style drum group, which means it sings in a lower pitch than northern style, according to the website www.powwow-power.com.
Southern Slam has performed in such places as Connecticut, North Dakota and Florida, In recent years, it has stayed closer to home because some children in the group have school commitments.
For Toya, drumming is about sharing and honoring past generations.
Toya used to be a member of Jemez Pueblo but relinquished his rights there when he married a woman from Zia Pueblo. He can also trace his father’s Comanche heritage to Pecos Pueblo in the 1700s. Plains Indians, like the Comanche, originated the southern powwow drumming style, which Toya said is not a traditional aspect of pueblo culture.
“We are very proud of who we are. My family and I have no shame to represent the different tribes that we come from. Some people don’t want to admit they’re different tribes, other than the one they represent,” Toya said. “That’s what I like to share. Not to be greedy with our religion and customs. That’s not the way it was meant to be.”
When not performing at powwows or making drums, Toya and Southern Slam perform at schools and churches.
“We’re not just hoping and hollering; there is a purpose,” Toya said. He teaches people about the different regalia dancers wear, the significance of the songs and the reverent aspects of drumming.
“I share my prayer through the songs, through the drums,” he said. “It’s very hard to say thank you. But you’re drumming, we can say thank you to them in the spirit world for letting us share this humbleness through tradition and culture.”