By Simon Kaufman | 6/4/14 12:00 AM
In Native American tradition, the beating of a drum symbolizes the commencement and conclusion of ceremonies. Since 2007, JoJo War Drummer has been helping kick off, conclude and set the tone for Denver Outlaws games with his drum. For each Denver home game, JoJo takes his place on the sideline with his drum to help inspire the players, pump up fans and honor the sport’s Native American roots. With each strike of the stretched hide, the crowd grows louder and the players attack more fiercely.
JoJo wasn’t always on the side of a lacrosse field, though. He grew up in Los Angeles, Calif. where he played football in a Pop Warner league. During the 1984 Olympics, as a young boy, JoJo and his brother spotted a group of men playing an unfamiliar sport outside of Los Angeles Memorial Stadium.
“There were some guys out in the parking lot, and they had these sticks and a ball,” JoJo said. “My brother and I were like, ‘What is this? This is pretty cool. This isn’t football but they look like their doing some action.’”
The two brothers learned about the sport and its Native American traditions and instantly knew they had to become involved.
“Realizing my Native American heritage, my blood literally felt like it was connected to this sport–the Creator’s game,” JoJo said.
Unfortunately, there was no organized lacrosse in Los Angeles at the time, so JoJo continued to play football. His passion for lacrosse still burned, though. When his parents took him and his brother to a pow-wow—a gathering of Native Americans—he instantly made a connection between the ceremonious drumming and singing taking place and what he had learned about lacrosse. When Native Americans played the game centuries ago, a drumming ceremony would take place in the days leading up to the game.
After moving to Denver following high school, JoJo rediscovered the sport he loved and was committed to becoming a part of it while honoring his heritage.
He first brought his drum to a Colorado youth lacrosse game and played on the sideline as youngsters competed on the field. He could immediately tell that his drumming produced more inspired play.
“As soon as I started drumming, I noticed the energy level of these kids picked up 100 percent,” JoJo said. “Then I stopped drumming and each time I stopped (the energy level) went down, and each time I brought the drums up they started going crazy again.”
Since that first time he has come a long way — now a staple on the field for Outlaws’ games. For each home game, JoJo prepares himself to help inspire Outlaws’ players and fans. Before a game, he gets to the stadium on “Indian time,” which he defines as having enough time to relax and then get his game face on. He dawns traditional war paint on his face to symbolize the battle of the game, and he wears a No. 49 Outlaws’ jersey—a reminder of the 49 Native American warriors that were able to defeat an army of 300 men in an historic battle, losing only one of their own.
As the Outlaws run out onto the field before the game, JoJo furiously beats his drum to welcome the players. Some Outlaws, like goalie Jesse Schwartzman, like to give the drum a touch on their way out.
Then, throughout the game, JoJo fills the stadium with different beats—he even has different rhythms depending on the opponent and situation in the game.
“Each and every game that I have done for the Denver Outlaws has been extremely exciting whether it’s overtime or (the Outlaws) kicking butt,” JoJo said.
And he knows that his drumming is heard by the players too and does make a difference.
“I’ve had opposing teams tell me that I drained them and that it messed them up,” JoJo said. “But at the same time the Denver Outlaws will say it gave them energy. So it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”
JoJo’s drumming has earned him some worthy recognition. One of his biggest fans is Jake Steinfeld, one of Major League Lacrosse’s founders. He’ll also be featured in an upcoming lacrosse video game and his drumming was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Crooked Arrows.
JoJo appreciates the recognition and is humbled by the opportunities his drumming has afforded him. But ultimately, he knows his drumming is about tying together lacrosse and his Native American heritage.
“It’s not just a sport. It’s a way of life,” JoJo said. “The seed is the drum. It’s the thing that gets the heartbeat of lacrosse going.”