Native American Drums: History and Types

Native American Drums

If you are asked to think about Native American music and some of its main features, there is a good chance you are going to think about the sound of Native American drums pretty quickly.

Throughout history, these instruments and the songs and chants they accompany have served important functions for indigenous people in America, bringing people closer together and helping them to pass on their stories, while also offering an important spiritual purpose too.

The Native American drum circle, for example, is a unique cultural tradition, and one which has historically been used not only for prayer but also in an effort to promote spiritual healing of the sick and vulnerable.

In this article, we will explore the history surrounding Native American percussion instruments, as well as the most important types of Native American drums, with information about which indigenous people use them and how they can be identified.

Native American Drums History

Native American drums continue to be used today in traditional ceremonies, powwows, cultural events, and music performances, serving as a powerful symbol of Native American heritage and spirituality.

Music has played a major role in Native American history, helping tribes to socialize, share stories, engage in spiritual meditation, and much more.

Within these practices, percussion is an especially important feature, helping to accompany the vocalizations, and Native American drums are widely used for this purpose.

In fact, archaeological evidence indicates that the Native American drum circle and similar practices may date back thousands of years in total. The history of Native American drums, in general, is so vast that it is impossible to pinpoint precisely when the instruments were first made, or when they were first used for musical performance.

One thing that should be noted is that this history covers a range of different tribes and indigenous peoples, each with their own cultural traditions. Over the years, indigenous tribes in America have used drums for everything from entertainment and story-telling, through to meditation and trance induction.

Beyond this, ritualistic healing ceremonies have gone on for centuries and are among the most fascinating Native American drumming practices. Many indigenous tribes believed that the beats from drums would help them to communicate with the gods and this, in turn, would allow their prayers and requests for healing to be answered.

The vast majority of Native American drums are made using a combination of cow, elk, or deer hide and logs from trees. The hide is usually soaked in water, while logs are hollowed out and cut to size, serving as the base or frame. The animal hide is then stretched over the base, creating the basic drum, which can be played using hands or a stick.

Main Types of Native American Drums

Clearly, there is a major historic significance to Native American drumming, which extends far beyond the way many people use music as a means of entertainment. It is also important to understand that there are a number of different types of Native American drums and each has its own unique qualities and uses.

Below, you can find some information about some of the main types of Native American drums.

Pow Wow Drums

One of the best-known Native American drums is the pow wow drum. A pow wow is an event where Native American people meet for dancing, singing and playing music, with powwow drums playing a key role in proceedings.

This rawhide drum is notable for its vast size and they are usually made by stretching buffalo, elk or deers kin over a large base. They are also played with a drum stick.

Pow wow drums are typically built using cedar frames and this, combined with the animal skin, allows it to easily withstand almost all weather conditions. This is important, because pow wow drums are often played outside.

These drums produce a loud, deep bass sound, and are often used to provide the beat for a Native American drumming circle, and they are played by multiple drummers simultaneously.

Frame Drums

Sometimes referred to as shaman drums, spirit drums or heart drums, frame drums describe smaller, one-sided hand drums, which are most commonly played using your hands instead of drum sticks.

One of the defining characteristics of a frame drum is the fact that the width of the drum head is greater than the depth of the wooden frame of the drum.

The frame drum is believed to be one of the oldest Native American drums of all, and one of the oldest instruments of any kind. Some Native American shamans have historically used these drums to provide a beat that allows them to enter into a trance-like state, hence their alternate name of shaman drums.

Hoop Drums

One of the most popular types of Native American hand drums is the hoop drum, which shares a lot of similarities with the frame drum. Indeed, like the frame drum, it is relatively small and can be played by hand.

However, the biggest difference is that the hoop drum is double-sided, meaning there is an animal hide stretched over both sides of the base or frame.

This opens up a range of additional drumming techniques and makes for an instrument that provides a greater level of versatility.

Hoop drums are often associated with the Tarahumara, otherwise known as the Rarámuri; a group of indigenous people centered around the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Water Drums

One of the most unique Native American drums is the water drum. As the name indicates, this instrument is characterized by the presence of water within the drum chamber.

This is usually achieved by creating a pot or bowl, often made from clay, and filling it with water, then stretching the animal hide over the top.

The amount of water placed within the drum chamber can have a drastic impact on the sound that the drum makes, which means a number of different water drums, filled to different levels, can be used together to provide a variety of sounds.

Water drums are often associated with Navajo music, but they have also been used by the Yaqui people.

The Role of Native American Drums

Native American drums serve as important cultural artifacts, connecting Indigenous communities to their ancestral traditions, spirituality, and collective identity. They are a testament to the resilience, wisdom, and enduring cultural heritage of Native American peoples.

Sacred and Spiritual Connection

Native American drums are considered sacred instruments that hold a profound spiritual connection. They are believed to communicate with the spirit world, ancestors, and natural elements. They are used in ceremonies, rituals, and healing practices.

Cultural Identity and Heritage

Native American drums are an integral part of tribal culture and identity. They carry the rich history, traditions, and stories of Indigenous peoples. Playing and preserving these drums helps to maintain and celebrate Native American heritage.

Communal and Ceremonial Gatherings

Drums play a central role in communal gatherings and ceremonies within Native American communities. They provide the heartbeat and rhythm for dance, song, and storytelling. Drumming brings people together and fosters a sense of unity, community, and shared experience.

Oral Tradition and Storytelling

Native American cultures have a strong oral tradition, and drums are often used to accompany storytelling. The beats of the drum enhance the narrative, evoke emotions, and captivate listeners, passing down traditional knowledge, history, and teachings from one generation to another.

Healing and Wellness

The power and vibrations of drums are believed to have healing properties. Drumming is used for therapeutic purposes, promoting relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional well-being. It is also recognized as a form of meditation and a means to achieve a balanced state of mind and body.

Final Thoughts

Of course, the four drum types listed in this article are far from an exhaustive list of the Native American drums that exist, but they are among the best-known and most widely-utilized. They also cover a range of different playing styles and produce different sounds, which can complement each other or be played in isolation.

The history of Native American hand drums can be traced back thousands of years and these instruments are extremely important to many indigenous people, providing cultural, social, and spiritual benefits.

In more recent times, some of these drums have also started to enjoy popularity in other parts of the world, as people look to experiment with different drums and their unique sounds, while taking inspiration from music from other cultures. In particular, pow wow drums and frame drums have started to generate a lot of interest around the world.

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