Drums: Heartbeat of Mother Earth
Dummers welcome dancers for Feast Day at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, New Mexico, 2008. Photo by Julien McRoberts.
The drum is a powerful instrument. Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island refer to it as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. It is used in many spiritual and sacred ceremonial practices. Some say the beat of the drum has the power to change natural elements, including the weather. It is believed to have the power to heal sickness, and some believe it has the power to send messages both to the animal world and to the spirit world.
The drum is broadly considered to be the first musical instrument used by humans. Historians and music ethnologists alike point out that the drum has been utilized by virtually every culture known to mankind for a multitude of purposes. In ancient times, the earliest drums were used for religious rituals, social dances, sporting events, feasts, special ceremonies, in preparation for hunting, and as a prelude to war. However, it is virtually a universally held belief that the original purpose of the drum was to communicate, many times over long distances as a warning or signal.
In the Americas, the drum has a history that dates back to pre-Columbian times. Remnants of wooden cylinder drums and small pottery drums found in Central Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, the Guatemala highlands and other parts of Mesoamerica have been dated back to A.D. 700; older examples most likely existed but succumbed to the elements.
From the Inuit people of the Arctic region, the salmon and whaling cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and the Northern and Southern Plains tribes, to the Eastern Woodlands, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, Indigenous people of North America continue to use drums for dances, ceremonies, games and sacred practices.
Power Over Illness and Weather
The drumbeat evokes many powerful forms of energy and is an aid in helping to focus one’s attention and to see clear intentions. Certain types of beats are said to carry special healing powers into the human body. A sick person’s psychological and physiological states are believed to be altered by the rhythmic drumbeats and accompanying song, and the illness becomes more attuned to other medicinal remedies.
Stories about drummers being able to influence weather conditions, such as inducing or dissuading thunder, rain and other elements through the vibrations sent into the atmosphere, are common among Indigenous people. In the springtime, the Menominee of Wisconsin celebrate the return of the sturgeon to Keshena Falls, the fish’s original spawning waters, and summon the sturgeon’s return home with the beat of the drum.
Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man made famous by John Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks, offers this perspective: “Since the drum is often the only instrument used in our sacred rites, I should perhaps tell you here why it is especially sacred and important to us. It is because the round form of the drum represents the whole universe, and its steady strong beat is the pulse, the heart, throbbing at the center of the universe. It is the voice of Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), and this sound stirs us and helps us to understand the mystery and power of all things.”
Thomas Evans is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe who works in the curatorial lab with the National Museum of the American Indian’s artifact collections. Although he cannot say so definitively, he believes the oldest drum in the museum’s collection may be an old Delaware drum that was originally collected prior to 1850. He points out that there are other Eastern drums in the collection that are made of whiskey/nail kegs that were also collected at about the same time.
Evans believes research shows that many of the Missouri River tribes, as well as Eastern tribes, traditionally used gourd rattles and rawhide bundles for their ceremonial practices and singing, rather than drums, until perhaps the 1880s when the hiduska (powwow) was introduced.
In his upcoming book Moving History: The Evolution of the Powwow, Dennis Zotigh, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who also works for NMAI in Washington D.C., describes how, in pre-reservation days, Plains singers would unroll a big rawhide, sit on the ground and use ceremonial sticks to drum out a cadence.
“With the introduction of the military base drum around the turn of the 19th century, most Plains tribes adopted it, replacing their rolled-out hides. In some cases, it was modified to fit tribal constraints. Rawhides were stretched and tied over the drum to create drumheads. The base is made from a hollowed-out tree trunk or by bending wood panels into a circle or eight-sided frame,” Zotigh writes.
In these modern times, there are basically three types of drums used by Native people of the Americas: single-headed drums, double-headed drums and kettle drums. All of these drums are beaten with sticks, of many shapes and sizes. Single-headed drums most commonly utilize deer hide, cow hide or caribou hide stretched across a wooden frame that has been soaked and formed into a circle. Many tribes across the hemisphere use this type of drum for hand games, courtship songs and healing songs. The Inuit of the far north beat against the “inside” of the drum head, while other cultures play on the “outside” surface.
Double-headed drums (covered by hides on both top and bottom) are also used by numerous tribes, including the Pueblos of the Southwest and the Ojibwes of the Great Lakes region. These drums have also become a fixture on the contemporary powwow circuit. Kettle drums are usually made from wooden, ceramic or metal containers covered with some type of hide or rubber. Often, kettle drums are filled with small amounts of water to give the drum a different tone. These are referred to as water drums and are used within the Native American Church for peyote ceremonies.
Today, for Native people accustomed to their traditional tribal culture, the sound that emanates from the beat of a drum is distinct and unmistakable. The drum is revered by tribal peoples to the point that many view their drum as a relative, signified by terms within tribal languages that refer to drums as “grandfather.” Drums are used in nearly every aspect of Native culture, from births to funerals. Every tribe, and even clans within tribes, have their own sets of rules when it comes to how the materials for drums are gathered, who has the right to prepare a drum, and what types of behavior are allowed and not allowed near a drum. There is also a ceremonial protocol and prayers offered during the drums’ preparation to ensure that drums emit positive energy to all those who are honored to hear its power.
Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac & Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the host and producer of the radio talk show Native America Calling (www.nativeamericacalling.com) and is a columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He last wrote our profile on the great Comanche leader Quanah Parker (Sept/Oct 2007)