By Roy Cook
They say when an unborn child is developing, the first thing they hear is the heartbeat of the mother so when babies go to powwows and hear the music, it is just natural for them. Very often, at the drum, we have seen children seated on their relatives knee asleep, serene and at peace. Also, babies placed close to the singing and the drum sleep and laugh with no fuss whatever. The drumbeat symbolizes the heartbeat of mother earth.
The drum is an important instrument for Indian people, giving both rhythm and meaning to life. It provides the beat for dancers to proudly offer their thanks and praise to the Creator during ceremonies. It is a way of carrying songs and prayers to the Creator and healing the sick. The tradition of the drum is important today and is a way of bringing Tribal People together.
From earliest times, the people have given thanks to the animals for giving their lives to feed and clothe the People. Historically, Indian drums were made from the hides of buffalo, elk or deer. Today drums are sometimes made from cowhide.
The drum-making process begins with soaking the hides for 24 hours or more. The hides are then stretched on a flat frame and the hair is removed with a metal scraper. In the 19th Century, the blade of the scraper may have come from the seat of a covered wagon or a buggy abandoned by immigrants and appropriated by Indians. The scraper handles were made from animal bones or horns.
Once the hair is removed from the hide, the hide must be cut and shaped and dried. The drum making process is often accompanied by stories and legends that illuminate the significance of the drum's central place in ceremonial life. The hide of the animal that is stretched over the ring brings with it unique characteristics of the animal and brings life to the drum when songs are sung.
Indian tribes in North America history have all used song with drums in various ways to connect with a higher power. To Native people, Indian drums are much more than just decorations or interesting musical instruments. Drum decoration is usually personal, regional or Tribal specific. In the plains, prairie and southwest there are two main kinds of drums: larger drums and hand drums.
Larger Drum (Pow wow)
For larger dance or powwow type drums, the basic construction is somewhat similar in most tribes: a wooden frame or a carved and hollowed-out log, with two sides of buffalo rawhide or elk skin stretched out across the opening joined by sinew thongs. Traditionally American Indian drums are large, two to three feet in diameter and are able to accommodate the group of singers that sit around them in a circle. Occasionally some regions have preferred the western bass drum to provide the beat for their songs.
The modern powwow is a relatively recent development in Indian Country. Several people singing around one large drum, set on a stand, provide music for these social occasions. Drum is also the name given to the group of people that sing at the large drum together. The names given to the drum often refers directly to the region or community where the people live.
For the smaller single-sided hand drums, a thinner frame or shell is used, and a rawhide surface is string onto only one side, with lacing across the other.
The hand drum is
usually accompanies only one singer, but several people can play their
hand drums together to create rhythms for a round dance, or a courting
Water Drum Traditions
The drum the main singer uses is what is called a "water drum." One of the more familiar uses nowadays for the water drum is in the Native American Church. However, long before the Native American Church was organized, water drums sounded throughout the east and southeast. Many of these in the Northeast were made from a small hollowed log, and there is some water placed in the bottom to create the resonance. For some tribes this drum may be made from pottery.
The earliest description we have of the water drum is from the Powhatan tribe of Virginia in 1612. We find that the drums "were made of deep wooden platters covered with animal skin. To the corners of the skins were attached walnuts, which were then pulled beneath the platter and tied with a cord." There is no mention of whether the platter contained water, but later in the same century there is a mention of the Powhatan using drums consisting of skins stretched over clay pots half filled with water.
In later the drum was made from barrels, or three-legged kettles with a drum hide stretched over them. For example, the drum used by the Delaware in 1780 was described as a drum that keeps the time made of thin deerskin stretched across a barrel, or a kettle. Today the preferred drum is a made from no. 6 cast iron kettle.
In addition to the water drum, the other principal musical instrument was the rattle. Among the Iroquois and Delaware, rattles could be made of gourds, bark, horn, and turtle shells; however, turtle shell rattles were most often used in ceremonials and not for Social Dances. In recent times the Shawnee and Delaware have adopted the use of coconut shells for rattles. Historically, among the Powhatan the rattles were made of gourds that were graded in size and pitch.
In the Native American Church a water drum and special gourd rattle are used to accompany the songs. The water drum, a three legged kettle with a hide (usually elk) brain-tanned and smoked, tied with 7 small rocks and a cord, is always untied at the conclusion of the meeting. Each member sings 4 songs in succession, with the rotation starting with the Roadman. This rotation is completed 4 times during the night with a taking of the medicine at the beginning of each revolution. A water break is done in the middle of the ceremony, around midnight and is preceded by the Water Song.
Keep singing songs to the heartbeat of the Tribal nations!