Throughout history, the drum has served as a way for Native Americans to connect to the Earth. Drums can be heard from quite a distance, and are the call to community and ceremony when American Indian tribes join for powwows and festivals. Although men are usually found sitting around the large drums, beating out spiritual songs, many tribes acknowledge that the drum originated with woman. Author Layne Redmond's research on drum history shows that frame drums played by women can be traced back thousands of years. In Native American cultures today, women usually dance but are also found around the drum, singing or playing frames.
Hoop or frame drums, powwow drums, water drums, shamanic drums and other ceremonial drums traditionally are types of Native America drums. Some are played with sticks or bone, others with hands and padded strikers. Drum sizes range from several inches to several feet in diameter. The larger ones often have enough room for eight or more players to sit around them.
Cedar and yellow pine are common materials, bent into a frame for shamanic and hoop drums. Red oak, cedar and juniper feature in construction of the bases and stands for larger drums. The hides of horse, moose, bull, cow, deer, goat, buffalo and elk are stretched across the frames, sometimes on two sides of a barrel-shaped drum. Smaller water drums, such as those used in Iroquois ceremonies, are actually filled with water, then have the hide stretched over the top. Different tones are created by using different depths in the frames and different amounts of water as well as how the skins are stretched.
Some Native American drums have artistic paintings on the hides. Paintings are of totem and fetish animals, medicine wheels, dream catchers, feathers, the four directions, kachinas, famous chiefs or tribal interpretations through geometric patterns. Some of the painted drums that show up in tourist centers are not authentic, so the buyer should always know who made the drum they intend to purchase and with what tribe he is affiliated.
Creating a drum usually takes weeks, even months, depending on the size and intended use. Many drum makers spend considerable time preparing spiritually to connect to the spirits of the tree and animal which will be used to build the drum. Prayers may be spoken or during the building process, and a blessing of the finished drum may be done with the entire community present or just a medicine person and a few chosen for the ritual. Bringing in the "voice" of the drum can last for hours into the night and is considered a sacred experience.
Excessive heat and moisture, such as by leaving a drum in a vehicle on a hot summer day or taking it out in the rain, can damage a drum. Caution must be taken when transporting drums so they do not rip on sharp metals, or drop onto pointed rocks. In very cold temperatures, the hide may get loose but will tighten in warm air or under a blow dryer. Overheating can cause the head to crack. Sometimes, a drum might be lightly oiled to restore both the wood and the hide. Store drums in cool, dry places that are out of harm's way.
The primary purpose of drums for most tribal groups is to connect with one another and with the land. Shamanic journeys, healing prayers, ritual prayer, vision quests and sweats typically have at least one drum present. Even in wider-reaching drumming circles, various Native American drums are found as an expression of coming together in oneness, in harmony, for grounding and to celebrate the rhythms of life.
- "When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm"; Layne Redmond; 1977
- Native Languages of the Americas: Authentic American Indian Drums
- Sunreed Instruments: Native American Drums
- Advameg, Inc.: Iroquois Confederacy
- Little Badger Drums: The Drum People
Debra J. Rigas, a professional writing coach, has been a writer and editor since 1975. She is the author of the nonfiction book "Everyone's A Guru" and has edited novels ("The Woman Pope") and worked in arts and sciences as a filmmaker, boat captain, landscaper, counselor, theater administrator and licensed midwife.