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Unalaska Group Battles Uncertainty And Isolation During Pandemic By Drumming For Hope

Maggie Nelson/KUCB

The sun still sits high on the horizon in Unalaska, even though it's late afternoon. A group of community members begin trickling in around the riverbank in the Valley—kitchen utensils and drums in hand. Greeting one another eagerly, they begin their countdown to 7 p.m.


7 o'clock strikes; they scream with wild abandon and beat their drums enthusiastically. Slowly, the pounding fades into a soft heartbeat and hymnal chanting.


Led by local Rande Leggett, this group of Unalaskans met for 40 days, for 15 minutes each day, to drum, sing, and foster positivity. They gathered to support the community and the rest of the globe in their battle against uncertainty, isolation, and grief during the coronavirus pandemic.  

While certain coronavirus mandates are now being lifted across the State of Alaska and business returns to normal under Gov. Mike Dunleavy's Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan, the group's meetings brought solace and optimism to many during darker and lonelier times.


Their chants and drumbeats are meant to remind people that while socially isolated, they are not alone. And while these songs provide support and encouragement, they also surface some of the hardships that have made this time so difficult, and have perhaps even inspired some to begin drumming.


''There's just been so much death in our town. It weighs heavy on my heart. And I just kept thinking there's got to be something we can do,'' said Leggett, founder of the drumming group and the Facebook page behind the group, Ataqan Akun, which, according to Leggett, is an old Unangan saying meaning, ''we are one.''


After the realities of the coronavirus pandemic began to settle in and blanket daily rituals and habits, Leggett said she became overwhelmed by the pandemic's looming presence. Following the loss of four young locals within the past year, Leggett saw a need for comfort and reassurance in the community.


Leggett reached out to local organizations with ideas for supporting the school and community members, but she said she felt her ideas fell a bit short of the island's emotional needs. Facing fatigue, she decided to pick up a drum instead.


''I was talking to my cousin who lives in Anchorage. We were just chatting back and forth. And I'm not sure if she suggested it or if I thought about it, but we just said we need to drum. I don't own a drum, but let's drum,'' said Leggett.


She and her cousin decided to take their idea to social media to see who might be interested, and from there, the idea took shape and began collecting more and more participants.  


''My cousin Dennis who lived here, his quote was, '63 comments later, I said, well, I'll join you and I'm going to start at 7 tonight,''' said Leggett. ''And I'm like, I guess this is really happening. Let's just do it, and there was no plan, other than reaching back to our ancestors' roots.''


For Leggett, this is a very personal and intimate endeavor: a means of reaching back to her Unangan heritage, but also of uniting and feeling a part of the community and family she holds close.


The routine of drumming every evening has become a way of reconnecting and fortifying her relationship with her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's, but it's also been a way of finding support from afar.


''On top of everything, it's not been easy. So this is something we can do together. It's just been fabulous,'' reflected Leggett.  ''And I look forward to it every day. And the couple of days Mom doesn't want to do it or something happens, my cousin Dennis says, 'Well, I drummed for you last night,' and it's just been so encouraging.''


Leggett recognizes that this can be an incredibly lonely time for many, as public health mandates require social distancing, even sometimes from family members. But by drumming and reaching out over social media, Leggett demonstrates how communities can rely on one another for support.


Delanney McConnell, a local member of the Unalaska group, similarly recognizes the ways this ritual of nightly drumming encourages hope and emotional proximity.


''Being able to come outside and just see faces, even if I'm not super close to them, and just hearing their voice, seeing their facial expression—I know that sounds weird, but just seeing them makes it all better,'' said McConnell. ''And so, just for that 15 minutes of standing next to each other and screaming out into the world, you feel good—you definitely feel good inside.''


As various mandates are being lifted, the community is able to see more of one another, and the drummers no longer meet nightly. But Leggett says she is still drumming, just not as frequently. 

For those who feel inclined to pick up a drum or bowl at home, McConnell suggests just diving in, bringing whatever's on hand, and changing it up to see what kinds of different sounds can be made. 


''I didn't start with anything. I just went and just sang and screamed. And then I brought a cooking pan, and that's what I usually use, but I try to spice it up,'' explained McConnell.


However, she doesn't advise using rocks, which, as she's learned, can lead to drumming injuries: ''I've used two pairs of rocks and I don't recommend that because I smashed my fingers a couple of times.''


''Right now, I'm using a really big red bowl and a wooden stirring utensil, and it's nice as a soft sound, but if you want it to be loud and obnoxious and just fun, I would use an actual metal pan. Unless you have a drum,'' suggested McConnell.  


While Leggett doesn't consider the origin of this group to have any remarkably profound roots, her humble efforts in uniting the community amassed a Facebook page with over 300 members and led to a 40-day coordinated event that brought several locals together nightly.


Now, as Alaska continues to reopen and no cases of coronavirus have yet been discovered on the island, it seems Leggett's, McConnell's, and the rest of the drummers' efforts were not in vain.


Leggett continues drumming, and as Unalaskans may begin widening their social circles, even if they don't have a proper drum to beat on, or a group to drum with, Leggett says, ''Everybody's welcome wherever, whenever.''

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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