Anishinaabe make up one of the largest populations of Indigenous peoples in Ontario. They include seven distinct groups: Odawa, Ojibway, Pottawatomi, Saulteaux, Chippewa, Algonquin and Mississauga, with common beliefs, customs and a strong attachment to the land.
A drumbeat drives everything Brock Lewis does in life, work and business.
“It’s part of my job to sing for the people,” he says, “and help them understand that the drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth and all of us have heard this [connection] before, in our mother’s womb.”
The 23-year-old Anishinaabe (Odawa, Pottawatomi) from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island only came to that realization a few years ago.
Timing is everything when it comes to making music, and the adage proved true for Lewis when he found himself caught up in the rhythm of the Idle No More movement in 2013.
Lewis happened to be in Ottawa for a six-month training program just as Idle No More was hitting its peak with demonstrations and marches in the street.
In retrospect, he doesn’t think it was a coincidence.
“My spirit led me to be a part of these rallies, to sing for these people at that time," he says. "Being a part of Idle No More really empowered me to change the way I look at my community, and some of the things that could be improved.”
Lewis and like-minded Indigenous youth in Ottawa ended up forming the Assembly of Seven Generations, which aims to create a place where young people can use Indigenous knowledge and teachings to achieve their educational and career goals.
It was a struggle at first to find funding, Lewis says, but then the Assembly of Seven Generations partnered with Digital Opportunity Trust on the Reach Up! North program.
Since then, the partnership has helped 20 Indigenous youth go on to postsecondary education or start their own companies.
That's what Lewis did, turning his passion for making traditional leather and wooden drumsticks into a viable business — thus becoming an entrepreneur who literally moves to his own beat.
The handmade Lewis Sticks are leatherbound on both ends and brightly painted in the middle with the red, yellow, white and black of the medicine wheel.
Lewis markets them online and in person at powwows, where he says they regularly sell out. But the business has a higher purpose.
“It’s not just about making money,” he says. “People can use these to be empowered to learn how to sing.”
“Learning culture is the most influential thing I've done in my life.”
Lewis says learning how to make music in the traditional way helped him better understand who he is as an Indigenous person.
It wasn't until six years ago, when Lewis started drumming with his father, that he started to find balance — emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally. He says that balance was missing in his childhood, in part because residential schools robbed his family of the ability to pass on “who we are and how we're connected to the earth.”
“Learning the culture is the most influential thing I’ve done in my life,” he says.
That confidence and pride in his Anishinaabe heritage has recently led him to visit public schools, as part of a program run through the Assembly of Seven Generations, to talk about Canada’s residential school legacy.
His advice for young people searching for their place in the world: Find what moves you.
“Dance, singing, painting, art or ceremonies — if you're able to grasp onto any of that stuff, really take it and go with it as far as it'll bring you.”