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.