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Songs of the Spirit

Instruments of the Black Hills

By John Christopher Fine Created: November 10, 2010 Last Updated: March 19, 2013
Related articles: Arts & Entertainment » Music
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HANDCRAFTED: April Seekins showcases her decorated drums. (Myriam Moran)

HANDCRAFTED: April Seekins showcases her decorated drums. (Myriam Moran)

April Seekins is the creator of beautiful, hand-painted, Stephen Yellowhawk rawhide skin drums. She paints the images on the drums her sister creates, using tanned rawhide and wooden frames the size of a tamborine.

“He came to my brother Loren’s place to dance. There were people from Switzerland there. We had a barbecue. We watched the dance and took pictures. He was such an inspiration to me I wanted to do Tribute to Yellowhawk.”

April was seated in a tent with her brother Loren Harrison and his wife, Gloria. The weather was ideal—crisp, dry fall air. Early sun burned away a fog. Distant mountains were still ringed with mist. As his sister spoke, Loren took up a flute and began to play a soulful melody. Deep tones radiated out from under the tent and filled the morning with music.

It was the annual art festival, craft fair, and show held in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Early morning joggers stopped to listen. Others sipped their first coffee as Loren went from a soulful Native American tune to “Amazing Grace.” April sat on a stool painting a new drum, careful to hold it with plastic so her hand wouldn’t smear the wet leather dye.

South Dakota is a land of vast prairies, rolling countryside and, in the Black Hills, sacred mountains. Native Peoples who lived there considered it a holy place. They came to hunt and worship.

When gold was discovered in 1875, tribes were removed from the Black Hills, rounded up, and pushed onto reservations. It was illegal, contrary to treaties signed by the U.S. government. The lure of gold in Deadwood and its environs negated treaties in favor of strangers who desecrated the land.

For a few moments at least, the music made on handcrafted flutes and the imagery of this drum maker brought back a spiritual sense that was vested in this place long ago—music from the past celebrating an early culture that had inhabited the land. With it all, April Seekins worked her magic on taut rawhide.

SOULFUL: Loren Harrison plays one of his handcrafted, Lakota-style flutes. The flutes are known for their deep, smooth tone. (Myriam Moran)

SOULFUL: Loren Harrison plays one of his handcrafted, Lakota-style flutes. The flutes are known for their deep, smooth tone. (Myriam Moran)

The craft tent was a perfect harmony of music and art. Gloria made drums, Loren carved and worked in wood, April painted. She worked on drumheads, the skin surface held taut around the drum frame. There were lampshades decorated with her art.

Native Americans used flutes and drums for entertainment as well as ceremonial and spiritual respite. Loren’s big Lakota flute is designed so that he works the flue into the flute itself not on the bird that sits atop the flute, which is the usual way.

“It is a precision fit. The average person can fit it in here and tie it down without any trouble,” Loren explained.

“A few months ago, I had the honor of playing “Amazing Grace” at a veteran’s funeral with this flute. I’ll show you what we do to get the canyon effect.” Loren turned on background sound from a small speaker as he played the Lakota flute. It created a tranquil atmosphere. Meanwhile, April painted fine brush strokes onto a new drum.

Many of the flutes and art objects had carved stones atop the bird. A purple heart stone on a high-C flute. Rose quartz shaped into a little bear from the Black Hills atop a flute made from wood imported from Ghana. Black wenge wood from the Congo with a moonstone cabochon from Japur, India. Green jade from Alaska.

A far cry from his commercial deep-sea diving job after high school or his doctoral in criminology that saw Loren at work with the U.S. Justice Department until retirement. His wife Gloria taught art in the Rapid City public schools for 28 years.

April retired from her job in ultrasound diagnostic imaging. It was a lifetime career in ultrasound that saw her using her art to teach anatomy as well as to make illustrations for court cases. Upon retirement in 2005, April has devoted herself to her art.

Gloria and Loren made buffalo drums in the native tradition for the 2006 annual Buffalo Roundup and art fair in Custer State Park, South Dakota. April was asked to paint buffalo on them. The drums proved so popular that April continued to work with her brother and sister-in-law, creating art for Gloria’s handcrafted drums.

EARLY CULTURE: Handmade, decorated flutes originally used for ceremonies and healing. (Myriam Moran)

EARLY CULTURE: Handmade, decorated flutes originally used for ceremonies and healing. (Myriam Moran)

Permanent leather dye is used because “it becomes one with the drumhead.” “Each drum has its own tone, its own texture. The leather has natural markings from skinning and scraping,” April said. Every skin accepts the dye differently since the surface is unique to each skin. April takes time to feel the drum and determine how it will take her images.

April has three married daughters with children. Her husband retired from the U.S. Forest Service. His work gave April opportunity to see wilderness areas of South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and most western states. Her art is inspired by nature and Native American tradition, with appreciation for the land.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. John Christopher Fine is the author of 24 books. His prize-winning photographs appear as covers for magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe. He is a columnist for a major newspaper chain and writes feature stories for newspapers around the world.




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