The first time I saw Terry Filer, a 74-year-old with Irish and Osage Nation roots, she was beating a drum in the breezeway of the McMinnville City Library on the summer solstice. It was Make Music Day 2022 and she was there with the Inner Oasis Drum Circle, an informal group that meets Monday evenings year-round. She handed maracas out to children in tow with parents and encouraged everyone to join in as the spirit moved them.
Drums tend to do that — to call spirits, and move them.
“There’s something about a drum,” Filer said. “If you think about it, when we were conceived in our mother’s belly, we heard the heartbeat. So all of us have the beat. It’s already there.”
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Filer is a musical force of nature in McMinnville and beyond. Years before she organized the McMinnville drum circle, customers who stopped by the Inner Oasis Mind Body Spirit shop would inquire whether there was such a gathering in town. It was a “build it and they will come” scenario, she told me.
Besides the Inner Oasis circle, Filer also leads drumming at the McMinnville Senior Center January through October. She plays flute with the Newport Community Drum Circle at Cafe Mundo in Nye Beach once a month, then joins them in July at the Lincoln County Fair. On the last Sunday of the month, Filer facilitates a Native American-style flute circle she organized with friends, and she regularly pops up at flute circles in Eugene, Corvallis, and Portland. You can also find her – sometimes with a drum, sometimes on a flute — for “pop-up” summer sessions at Dine Out, when downtown McMinnville restaurants offer sidewalk seating.
“It gives me great joy to share the healing beats of the drum,” she said. “A person comes to a circle and returns home rejuvenated, happy, and full of energy.”
Those sentiments were echoed by drummers I spoke with, some of whom started only recently. Jillian Tamber, a mother of two who works at a McMinnville school, started attending Filer’s drum circle about a year or so as the pandemic was tapering off. “It’s so good, Monday nights,” she said. “It just starts my week out really well.”
Everyone I spoke with cited the meditative, centering aspect of drum practice. “I kind of forget other people are even there, it’s just me and the drum,” said Diane Pierce, a former call-center manager who moved to McMinnville and works at the Inner Oasis shop. “It helps me slow my brain down and accept the energy as is. Even if I’m having the worst day ever, if I come to drum circle, by the time I’m done, I feel energized or, at the very least, content.”
A native of Oklahoma, Filer and her mother and sisters are members of Osage Nation; her father’s roots are Irish. She came to drumming relatively late in life.
“Women in my tribe don’t play the powwow drum,” she pointed out. “Women are the singers, and the men play the drum.”
Filer and her sisters operated a Native American craft shop, Sisters of the Osage, in Southern California in the 1980s, but she didn’t make her first drum until the 1990s, and that was from a commercial kit. After learning the traditional methods later, she recalled being a little nervous to let tribal leaders in on her secret. “I was really shy about it, because I wasn’t sure of the reaction I would get,” she said.
One of her sisters let it slip during a visit, and Filer says she was hesitant to even get her drum out of the car. “I found out through many relations that it was OK that I make them,” she went on. “They said I could play the flute, and they never said I couldn’t play the drums. These are contemporary times. Things have changed.”
The question of cultural appropriation is one Filer says she has considered long and hard and has, given that drumming dates back thousands of years on both sides of the Atlantic, resolved for herself on the side of sharing with the broader public.
“In my experience, it’s OK for me to do this, and it’s OK for non-Natives to do this,” she said. “I know how it makes me feel and how healing it can be, and how it brings people together. And that’s what the Native people do, you know?”
Willow Heveron, a retired higher-ed administrator from Newberg who is a regular at the Monday drum circle, was raised in a Christian home and has since incorporated spiritual perspectives and practices from both Eastern and Western traditions. A self-described pagan priestess for more than 30 years, she echoes Filer’s point about the ubiquity of drums in all human experience.
“Drums belong to everybody,” Heveron said. “The drum can be found in every culture … Irish, Middle Eastern, the Norse, every culture. In statues of ancient Greek goddesses, a lot of them are holding hand-framed drums, so it’s a universal thing, it’s not just Native American.”
A couple of times a year, Filer and Heveron hold summer drum workshops on the latter’s wooded property in the hills north of Newberg to bring people together not to play drums, but to make them.
More so than the more laid-back vibe of drum circles, these daylong workshops highlight and nurture what drummers describe as the deeply healing and spiritual aspects of drumming practice.
A July workshop I attended started mid-morning before the fog had burned off with a sacred circle gathering in the woods. The attendees, all women, were open in sharing life experiences and even trauma that had shaped them — family alcoholism, the loss of a sibling.
It was also spiritually eclectic and inclusive. A couple cited shamanistic influences, and one described herself as an “explorer of the Earth” who reads the Bible. Another characterized her perspective as animist, while yet another was an ex-evangelical and seminary student from Texas who works as a hospice chaplain. The morning included a communal call to the four elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air, flute music and drumming, and a reading of the drum’s origin story from the perspective of the Abenaki, an Algonquian-speaking North American Indian tribe.
After a midday sack lunch, Filer led the class in making a hand-frame drum from scratch. The process begins with choosing the skin (deer or buffalo), a smudging ceremony, and honoring the animal whose skin will become part of the instrument. As the women sanded down the rims, which were provided along with the skins and 30-foot strands of lace, Filer read an Indigenous prayer from South America. It is meticulous, repetitive work, and lacing the skins over the rim through 32 holes they’ve punched out struck me as frightfully difficult, but they all got it down; only one had to backtrack for relacing. Several hours later, under the dappled midafternoon sun, half a dozen new frame drums had come into the world.
Sunnie Brown, a Newberg spa owner and esthetician, made her first drum several years ago, from horse skin, with a shaman. Last summer, she made another with Heveron out of buffalo skin. This year, she used deer hide, which is easier to work with.
“Birthing a drum is a sacred practice,” she told me. “You are calling in a new ally to your spiritual team.” She recalled once, when fire threatened her home and evacuation was almost certain, the only physical item she had at arm’s length to grab was her drum.
Fran Olivieri, the seminary student, had known Heveron for a few years, but this was the first occasion she’d been able to attend. Music is an integral part of her spiritual life. She plays her drum daily for at least 10 minutes, and more if she’s under stress. On weekends, she and her wife play drums together.
“The primitive nature of the drum in the story of humanity and its place in sacred ceremony is what moved me to want to do this,” she said.
Whether drummers talk about their instruments in the language of spirituality or secular psychology, all attest to the sense of calm they get from communal drumming. Emil Geyer, a McMinnville man who made his deerskin drum with Heveron and Filer last summer and plays regularly in the Monday night drum circle, said it’s “not really a religious thing” for him, though like others he talked about his instrument as more than just a static object.
“The drum actually does have its own personality, it’s not controlled by you,” said Geyer, who has been drumming since he was a teenager. “It’s gonna be what it is after it’s done, it’s not like you can tune it or anything like that.” Depending on the weather and humidity, a drum’s sound will change with the seasons, he added.
“During COVID, when we were all cloistered in, I was drumming every day just to keep the fear at bay, and to stay grounded and centered, and to reset my sympathetic nervous system to stay well,” Heveron said. “That was my way of getting through. It’s active meditation, because when you drum, pretty soon everything’s OK.”
The Inner Oasis Drum Circle meets from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays at the shop, 448 N.E. Third Street in downtown McMinnville. For more information, call 503-435-7335, or visit Filer’s Facebook page.