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National powwow winners find distinctive harmony

May 13, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

North Bear earned a first prize for singing at the Gathering of the Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, N.M.

The four Northern Arapaho members of North Bear rhythmically hit the drum each of them held as they began to sing in the center of the University of New Mexico Arena known as The Pit.

Their style of round dance singing started in the traditional chant before they hit an unheard of four-part harmony, concluding with the lyrics "She's my world. She's my everything. She's my Daddy's Girl."

Cheers, whistling and screams from spectators in The Pit erupted at the sounds of singers Jermaine Bell, Luke Bell, Herb Augustine Jr. and Abe Thomas at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., on April 28.

"North Bear in the house. Damn!" the announcer could be heard saying in the arena. "That's Indian harmony, man!"

The response was tremendous for the North Bear singers from the Wind River Indian Reservation, who walked away with the title of world hand drum singing champions at the annual powwow.

"I still can't believe it," Augustine said in an interview.

"I can't get over it," Thomas said. "People are blowing it up all over Facebook I don't even know."

Jermaine Bell, who wrote the winning song "Daddy's Girl" performed by North Bear, said the unique singing style has been called a game-changer by some top performers in the Indian Country music.

"It's so big because we changed up everything," the 31-year-old Arapahoe man said. "We made a traditional song into a four-part harmony and nobody has ever done that before."

Video of North Bear's winning performance, found on You Tube under "GON 2012 Hand Drum 1st Place Champs," is making the rounds on the Internet and causing a stir on the reservation and elsewhere.

"We've gotten compliments already from all the big name singers," Bell said. "They told us, 'You've changed the game right there. Nobody is going to look at round dance singing the same.'"

More importantly for the group that regularly performs around the region, the winning song is historic for the Wind River Indian Reservation.

"The good thing about it is no other drum group accomplished something like that from our reservation," Bell said. "It makes us feel proud to represent the Northern Arapaho people."

Augustine added: "We really want to thank the people."

The inspiration for the four performers came from their family and children. "It's kind of cool because we all have little girls," Bell said.

The song itself was one Bell wrote in December when he couldn't visit his 3-year-old daughter, Olowan Win Josephine Bell, in Montana over Christmastime due to poor weather.

After writing the song, "I sang it to her over the phone," Bell said. "It's a song I sing to her as a lullaby."

Bell talked about changing the song's style to make it unique for the group's performance at the powwow.

"The traditional singing, it's one tune. It's one beat. What we did was basically something that no one has ever done with a four-art harmony," he said.

"We were toying with the idea" to incorporate harmony, Augustine, 32, of Ethete, said.

"We didn't know it was going to be this big until we actually sang it," Bell said.

The four winning members of North Bear who have been singing at times together since high school and consider themselves brothers competed against 25 other groups for the hand drum contest at the powwow.

"It's considered the world championship of all powwows. There's like 50,000 people there," Bell said. "There's the top singers from all over the world."

The pressure was on for the group.

"It was surreal. It was really surreal. It was scary," Bell said. "We just happened to be different than every other drum group out there. Every other drum group out there does the same thing."

Thomas said thinking of everyone's children helped the group's performance. "It was just a very exciting feeling, a very happy feeling because when we sang it, we sang it to our full emotion. We had a reason behind it, especially Jermaine," he said.

As the North Bear members prepare to record a new CD, they still can look forward to smaller performances.

"We sing a lot of karaoke," Augustine said.

"We like to do a lot of karaoke," Bell added.

"It's helps keep our voice in shape," Augustine chimed in, saying they sing "country or whatever."

"They call round dance music the Indian country version," Bell said.

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