We are staying in Taos, New Mexico, renting a house that overlooks a sage-filled valley. One day, we decide to go horseback riding with our friends. We find a local outfitter and follow their directions along small roads winding through the outskirts of town. After a few missed turns, we spot horses and turn onto a potholed dirt road. We bounce our way towards a barn surrounded by corrals. A tall, ruggedly handsome man, with long gray hair tied in a braid hanging down his back, is saddling up four horses. We park the car, and wander over.
“Hello!” he greets us with a smile, “My name is Chief Storm Star. Are you the Winters and the Wrights?” We acknowledge that we are and shake his strong, rough hand. A tall, slender girl, with deep brown eyes, and shiny raven hair saunters over. Chief Storm Star gestures towards her. “This is my granddaughter,” he tells us, his voice swelling with pride.
“Hi, my name is Nova,” she introduces herself. “I’ll be your guide today”. She swings herself up onto a barebacked horse with one fluid, graceful movement. I have to stand on an overturned crate, grope around for the stirrup, and lunge myself up and over the saddle while Chief Storm Star steadies my horse. I chuckle at my own lack of finesse.
With Nova leading the way, we head out single file for our ride amongst the sage brush and cactus, with the purple mountains looming in the distance. Nova and I chat for the entire ride. She tells me that she is graduating from high-school this year, and how she wants to be a veterinarian. She tells me funny stories about her grandfather, living in Taos, and about the horses. She says that Larry’s horse is aptly named ‘Scooby Snack’ because he likes to dawdle behind the group to munch on bushes and berries. I look back, and sure enough, Larry and Scooby Snack have stopped, the horse’s nose buried deep in a tasty bush. Larry is urging on the horse to no avail. Taking his own sweet time, Scooby Snack glances up, a mouth full of leaves, and notices he has dropped significantly behind. Without warning, he breaks into an alarming gallop. Larry, clinging to the enormous animal, is not amused. Nova and I share a little giggle.
Nearing the end of our ride, Nova asks me if I like Native American art. When I affirm that I do, she tells me her father makes drums and would we like to take a tour of his workshop? Sure, I enthuse. That sounds fun!
After the horse ride, we follow Nova across the paddocks. We pass a few languid looking buffalos snuffling in the dirt inside sturdily-fenced enclosures. We arrive at a small workshop surrounded by piles of wood debris, wood cutting tools, buffalo hides drying in the sun and vats of gray acidic liquid. Nova fetches her father. A stocky man with a cheery disposition emerges from the workshop and greets us effusively.
“Hello. I’m Running Bear. Would you like to see my drum making business?” he asks with a wide sweep of his arm. We follow him around the yard, wading through drifts of sawdust to inspect the various stages of making a drum the traditional way.
“My drums are unique because I make them from whole pieces of hollowed out tree trunks. Many people use small pieces of wood fitted and glued together to make a uniform shape. My drums require a lot more work to remove the bark and hollow them out, but each one is as unique as the tree itself.” He walks over to a large stack of trunk sections cut into various lengths and in varying stages of completion. He picks up one with a large crack splitting it open along the side. “It is difficult work to hollow them out. One wrong move and the piece is ruined,” he says, dramatically tossing it back on the discard pile. The discard pile is six five feet high and ten feet wide.
Next, Running Bear reaches into one of the vats of liquid and partially pulls out a large bristly hide for our inspection. The odor is pungent. “This liquid is used in the tanning process. It helps remove the hair from the skin and prepare the hide for drying.” I touch the bristles. They are sharp and prickly against my fingertips.
Finally, he leads us into the workshop. It’s made of corrugated iron, with long wooden benches along the walls. It is stuffy and hot, smelling strongly of acetone, oils and leather. A row of completed drums is lined up against the window. I wander over to inspect them more closely. One of them is about three feet high and a foot in diameter with fresh hide stretched over the top.
“Hey Larry, come check this one out!” I can already visualize it next to the wood stove in our family room. Larry wanders over and appraises the drum with a critical eye. He looks up and catches the expression on my face. “Is this the one you want?” he asks, already knowing my answer. I nod, a grin spreading across my face. “How much is this drum?” Larry asks Running Bear.
“Normally, in a shop in town, I would sell this drum for $350, but since you are here, I’ll give it to you for $250.” I glance at Larry. He gives me a barely discernible nod. “Would you take $220?” I barter feebly. Without hesitation, Running Bear agrees. “However,” he tells us, “this drum is not completely dry and cured yet. It will be another ten days before its ready.” I start to pull my credit card out of my purse but Running Bear informs us he can only accept local checks or cash. I glance back at Larry. A wave of displeasure passes over his face. “There is a bank just down the road.” Running Bear offers hurriedly. “I’m leaving right now to run an errand anyway. I could follow you there.” Our friends exchange sideways glances.
“OK!” I chirp, tapping my fingers on my new drum. “Sounds great! Can we get a receipt?” Running Bear rummages around for a generic receipt pad and writes out our purchase in large looping scrawl. I carefully spell out our mailing address and watch him copy it down. We pile in our rental car and wave goodbye to Nova, who is sitting on the railing of the small house across the yard. She waves back with a big smile. As we drive away, we pass by other small ranches, dotted with sturdily-fenced enclosures corralling languid buffalos, next to small workshops surrounded by sawdust. I notice each one has a huge stack of discarded trunk sections cut into various lengths and in varying stages of completion. We follow Running Bear to the bank, extract $220 cash, and hand it over. He thanks us, says he will send the drum along to our home when it is ready, and then speeds away in his big, black pickup.
“Cool!” I enthuse to the others, “I’ve always wanted to have a handmade drum!”
On our way back to the vacation house, we stop at a large touristy country store. It is made from whole logs and hand-stripped wood flooring. It is stuffed with every conceivable type of South Western merchandise from clothing, jewelry, food stuffs, leather goods, animal skins and, of course, drums. I wander over to look at one drum and note how it is made of small pieces of wood fitted and glued together to make a uniform shape, instead of one whole piece of trunk like the one we just bought. The price tag optimistically asks for $450. I walk away feeling smug.
Upon our return home, I start the countdown to when our custom, handmade, Native American drum will arrive. On the tenth day, I drive home in a heightened state of anticipation, expecting to find a big package on the doorstep. No drum. Another week creeps by, and still, there is no drum. I call Running Bear to inquire.
“Oh, Hi Marci! How are you? Yes, yes, I have your drum right here. I was planning to take it down to the post office tomorrow. You should get it next week.”
Another week goes by.
“Oh Marci! I’m so sorry. I got called in by the elders and had to attend a tribal gathering, so I wasn’t able to make it to the post office. I’ll go this week.”
“Ah, Marci… yes, well, you’re not going to believe this, but some people stole my drums! I’ve been dealing with the federal police and…No, no, your drum didn’t get taken. I have it right here. I will mail it right away.”
Two more months.
I call and an automated voice tells me Running Bear’s phone is no longer in service. I call Chief Storm Star. I explain my predicament. Within minutes I get a phone call from Running Bear.
“Marci, I’m going to let you talk to my wife.” I speak to a very patient, long-suffering woman who takes down my address. Two days later, there is a big package on the doorstep. I rip open the box to find a drum made of small pieces of wood fitted and glued together to make a uniform shape. With a little sigh, I place the drum in a prominent place by the wood stove. We’re keeping it.