North American Culture

The Importance of Drums to Native American Culture



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It is a Voice. It is a Heartbeat. It is a Prayer to The Great Spirit. The Native American Drum is all of these things, and more.

Round in design, the drum speaks of Earth, Life, and is the conduit which binds the People to their Creator. Drawing on the spirit of the animal whose hide covers the drum, the Drummer brings forth the drum's vibrational voice through coaxing out, never beating, the sound. The voice is the beating of one's own heart connecting to the heartbeat of the Earth. The Native drummer often places a personal item, or token, inside the drum to further enhance this spiritual connection between Sacred Instrument, Creator, and Self.

Drumming has always played a significant role in education, healing, history and ceremonies of Native American peoples. Oral histories and stories, accompanied by drumming, play a vital role in passing on ancestral traditions and customs to new generations. Costuming, song, dance and drumming shape each aspect of ritual, providing important information about local culture and Native American beliefs and can play a significant role in Tribal identity. Shamanic (or healing) drumming provides a pathway for negative (harmful Spirit) energies to exit the body, simultaneously providing a path for positive (healing Spirit) to enter.

Through music and stories, a Tribe's history is told and re-told, over and over again, maintaining the importance of Tribal identity. Though tradition varies from tribe to tribe, archeological evidence suggests music and dance have been an integral part of Tribal history since as early as the 7th century.

Gender frequently plays a role in Tribal drumming. Most restrict drumming to use by males. The females of a tribe will have their own, usually less flamboyant or obvious, songs, dances, and drum use. Yet, in some tribes, women play a more important role than do men.

The traditions surrounding the use of drums, as well as the type of drums played, varies from tribe to tribe. A particular drum, which most tribes seem to agree is central, is what most people refer to as "The Powwow Drum". Used at gatherings also including non-Indian People, the Big Drum is traditionally played by men with men also producing the beautifully haunting vocal accompaniment.

Generally, the Big Drum is 2-3 feet in diameter, made of a bent wooden frame, or a hollowed out log. A finely tanned buck or elk skin is stretched across the opening and secured with sinew (buck or elk ligament) bindings. The drum is then played by men either standing or sitting around the drum.

Listening to the Big Drum and the vocals gathers ALL peoples together, regardless of gender, belief, or race. The throbbing pull of the Drum connects us, one to another, with the pounding Heartbeat of Mother Earth.

More about this author: Elisa Thorp

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