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Native American Drums – An Overview

Despite what archeologists seem to be saying about some sort of 40,000 year old vulture bone flute, the drum has to be the world’s oldest instrument. After all, banging on things is just a natural, human thing to do. Over history, people have bashed away on rocks, hollow logs, shells, and just about anything else they could find to make loud noises with.

These days, most drums are made from modern materials with either plywood or composite shells and synthetic plastic heads. But many Native American drums are still made in traditional ways. This is because drums not only held the spotlight in most Native American music, but they were also given special respect and an important place in society. As drums should.

The Drum in Native American Music

The Drum in Native American Music

Let’s start by getting one thing clear here. When I talk about Native American music, I’m talking about general trends. We have to remember that there is a huge range of traditional cultures across America.

Each people had their own traditions, language, beliefs, and of course music. I’ll talk about drums in general first and then get specific about which different people played which kinds of drums and why.

A Universal Instrument

Drums combined with singing, flutes, and horns made up the majority of traditional Native American music in the past. Some groups had stringed instruments as well, and some made some ingenious instruments that we’ll talk about later. But every culture had drums.

Generally speaking, drums in pre-colonial America were made from wooden shells. Either from whole pieces of hollowed-out logs or from staves that were held together with hoops. Some cultures bent thin wood to make their frames.

Heads were almost always made from the skins of animals that the Native American tribes hunted. Rawhide heads were made from the skins of larger animals like deer and elk. They were often held onto the shells using rawhide or sinew ties, though rope of various sorts was also used.

How Did Native Americans Use Drums?

Like all peoples everywhere, Native Americans set their stories to music. Drums accompanied singing, sometimes songs about epic legends and special heroes, sometimes about love, and sometimes about important events in history. They also provide the rhythm for important cultural dances passed on from generation to generation.

Drumming has also been used in different ceremonies for spiritual reasons. In everything from traditional Plains Sun Dance ceremonies to modern Peyote Rituals of the Native American Church, you’d find drums involved.

Drums provided rhythm like the beat of the heart, roaring noise like thunder, and circles like the circles of life and community. And they still do for many Native groups.

Different Types of Drums

The vast numbers of Native American cultures produced a wide variety of drums. Each was made differently and used for a different purpose. Here are the four main types of drums used by Native Americans that I’ve come across.

Hand Drums

Hand drums have been made by people around the world. In America, Native people made these in three main types: kettle, frame, or double-sided drums.

1 – Kettle Drums

These are drums made with skin stretched over a bowl or kettle shape. The bowls could be made by hollowing out logs or by stretching a skin over a fired clay pot. These drums might be played with the hands or using a stick, and are usually placed on the player’s lap.

2 – Frame Drums

Frame Drum

Drums that have big, wide openings and short shell walls, so they’re wider than they are deep. The frames are usually made of thin, bent wood. A skin would be soaked to make it stretchy, then pulled over the shell and usually tied on the back with sinew or rawhide. Well, for single-sided drums, anyway.

The Inuit “qilaut” is a large, thin frame drum made from wood and caribou skin. It’s unusual because it has a handle which the player often uses to turn the drum back and forth while performing a drum dance. Listen here to experience its unique sound.

3 – Double-sided Drums

As you can guess, double-sided drums, like this one from the Cochiti Pueblo, have skin on either face. These drums give more resonance, and so they are often smaller. They also allow the player to strike both sides, which can be tuned differently. It also opens up more possibilities in drum dances.

Pow Wow Drums

When most people think of Native American drums, they’re probably like me and think about the big drum in the center of a drum circle. These days, these two to three foot across drums are usually called pow wow drums, because they’re used mostly at pow wows.

But drums similar to these were used for all sorts of important meetings and customs by many different cultures across North America.

How to build one…

There are two basic ways to make a pow wow drum. One is to choose a nice round log and hollow it out to get a nice single-piece shell. These log drums can have purer tones and are often more durable.

The other way is to make a shell using staves, or many pieces of wood connected together to form a nice big shell. These staves are usually made from lighter hardwoods like dogwood. But they can be made of softer woods, too, like the cedar in this cedar pow wow drum.

Cedar Pow Wow Drum

These drums are made big to allow a whole bunch of drummers to sit around in a circle, drumming on them and singing. And for a big drum, you need a big animal skin. Rawhide to cover most modern pow wow drums comes from cows. However, elk, deer, and other large animals were selected in the past and probably had a better tone as well.

Water Drums

While hand drums and big pow wow drums are probably the most identifiable drums of Native Americans, I found a couple of lesser-known and much less common types. Water drums are the first type.

Water drums were made by Iroquois people as well as by the Yaqui culture found in the Southwest. They’re different ideas on how to use water in drumming, though.

Iroquois water drums…

Wooden kettle drums with skin stretched over the top. They have holes in the side to let you put water into the drum. Just like blowing on the mouths of bottles, different amounts of water give different tones. The skin can also be wet to change the pitch of the drum. This all makes for a pretty unique instrument with a speech-like voice.

The Yaqui make water drums using gourds…

Half a dried gourd is placed into a tub of water. Then you strike the gourd, and the water helps to amplify the sound. The Yaqui use this drum in many different ceremonies and dances, and it could be played to mimic the sound of a heartbeat.

Foot Drums

I was really excited when I found out about foot drums because they’re something I’ve never come across before. These drums have been found by archaeologists mostly in California and aren’t used much today.

People like the Hopi and Nahua made them out of hollow logs that they set over pits that could help amplify their sound. Then they got on and stomped big booming beats. I guess these were the original kick drums that we see in most modern drum kits.

Other Percussion Instruments

Drums were and are central to most musical traditions of Native American people. But they have created and used a lot of other percussion instruments to keep time and make a lot of noise.

Rattles can be used alone, by dancers, or in combination with drums. These could be made from horn, wood, gourds, turtle shells, or basically anything else you can shake a stick at. Actually, anything that you can put on a stick and shake.

Turtle Shell

Clapper sticks

Created by native people in California. They’re made by hollowing out an elderberry tree branch and then partially splitting it lengthwise. When smacked into the palm, this stick lets out a loud clap sound that can be used to keep time when accompanying dancers and singers.

Jingles are a newer tradition, originating sometime around the year 1900. Women began adding cone-shaped metal ornaments to their dancing dresses, and these would jingle together as they danced, creating a shimmering rhythm.

Ankle bells or shakers are similar to jingles. They used to be made of shells or even baked clay pieces that were tied to anklets. When dancers wear these ankle bells, they get a great rhythm with every foot stomp. These days, ankle bells are usually made out of metal bells, which are a lot louder.

Native American Drum Traditions and Beliefs

Different cultures have widely varying beliefs relating to their drums. But in general, drums are highly respected and are considered cultural artifacts and not just instruments.

Sacred and Spiritual…

Lakota tradition teaches that the drum carries the heartbeat of Mother Earth. A drum keeper makes sure everyone treats the drum with respect, which includes not letting anyone drunk or using drugs to play it. It’s also rude to reach over a drum, and nothing should ever be placed on one.

Cheyenne drum makers bless their drums with sage and earth to make them ready to be played. Drums are treated with the utmost respect, and so is drumming in a drum circle, where there should be no fighting or negativity.

Navajo drums include a water drum as well, now used with the Peyote Ceremony in the Native American Church. The unique sound of the water drum is thought to help people get in touch with nature and the earth.

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Native American Drums – Final Thoughts

Drums have always been important to the various native cultures across America. They’re treated with respect and sometimes veneration. Their voices can express many things to many people, like heartbeats, spirits, and the earth itself. But everywhere, they’re used to help continue the songs and stories of the people who make them.

From small hand drums to huge pow wow drums and even unique water drums, these are instruments with power. They’re loud and exciting and are used to bring communities together to enjoy music, dance, and their traditions.

So, until next time, let the beat go on.

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