Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

A Gathering at the Drum

UPDATE 2018-05-08 - This is another significantly rewritten piece, again because I have learnt more and would not take up the original topic, which was about a ceremony. I don't have enough experience or knowledge to talk sensibly about Indigenous ceremony except in the most general terms, and the majority of what mainstream people "know" about ceremonies they have the most access to, such as powwows and sweat lodges, is actually over-generalized misunderstandings. Each Indigenous nation has developed ceremonies of its own, and widely shared ceremonies like powwows and sweat lodges vary by location, history, and composition of the community. Some ways of practising ceremony are displaced significantly from their original homelands, such as the various Lakota ceremonies that have been appropriated by many non-Natives as they attempt to hawk expensive solutions to mainstream spiritual problems.

A visit to almost any store that sells leather or hides will have one or more racks full of craftwork standbys. Besides the tools a person might expect, such as sharp knives, punches, and all important oils and leather soap, there will also be racks of kits. With the ever-rising interest in Indigenous cultures and "native kitsch" it is almost embarrassingly easy to find a drum making class with little or no grounding in the stories and context of drums in any Indigenous culture. Those classes are generally supplied by the leather and hide stores, which may also provide kits for making drum sticks, drum bags, and any other regalia you may need for ceremony, if you are helping out. It is well worth visiting one of the stores actually, as the store owners and staff often include history buffs who make sure that there is a range of useful booklets and books available and a few pages on paper or the web of useful links and other book and video titles.

Hand drums are of course not just an Indigenous thing, although due to the extreme hostility to drumming expressed by most christians until the late 18th century, that might be hard to believe. In fact, hand drums are among the few musical instruments that peoples who have been de-Indigenized have managed to hang onto. Consider the fact that the tambourine is in fact a type of hand drum. Or the irish bodhrán, which may be most familiar to anyone who got swept up in the celtic dance and music craze of the 1990s. The popularity and persistence of hand drums makes a lot of sense. They are small, light, relatively easy to make and play, and lend themselves to music that people can dance to or setting a beat for storytelling. Since both dance and storytelling are key elements of spiritual practice in most religions, but for a long time explicitly not christianity, and christian hostility to drumming reflects a hostility to those other religions.

Bodhran and tippin for playing it, courtesy of wikimedia commons, photo by RichL, march 2004. Bodhran and tippin for playing it, courtesy of wikimedia commons, photo by RichL, march 2004.
Bodhran and tippin for playing it, courtesy of wikimedia commons, photo by RichL, march 2004.

Drums can be small and simple in construction, others can take far more effort, physical, mental, and spiritual, to make and keep. For the curious and good hearted, a great book to read is Louise Erdrich's novel The Painted Drum, which deals in part with the consequences of the making and keeping of a powerful hand drum. Ceremonial drums need care beyond the regular oiling that any raw hide should be given to prevent it from drying out and splitting, or gentle treatment with heat and smoke to clear any mold. They are explicitly alive, and so need ceremonial care and feeding according to the instructions provided by the Elder or ceremony keeper who has supervised the making or giving of the drum. People who care for such drums undertake real responsibilities, so if you should be so fortunate as to meet a ceremonial drumkeeper, listen carefully to their instructions and don't be surprised if you are not permitted to touch or otherwise handle their drum. It's a matter of protocol and respect to their instructions, and it is well worth taking care not to touch even an ordinary seeming drum without receiving permission to do so first.

Photograph of a sample 'native drum kit' courtesy of halford's canada. Photograph of a sample 'native drum kit' courtesy of halford's canada.
Photograph of a sample 'native drum kit' courtesy of halford's canada, november 2017.

Large drums tend to feature at larger ceremonies in Indigenous contexts, which again makes practical sense. If many people are going to be dancing in a large area, a good sized drum with a big voice is an important participant along with the singers and hand drum players. You may notice that kits to make larger drums are generally not available at the leather and hide stores, and it is fair to say that no one is busy making them as a quick class project since they are not quick to make, even if by "larger drum" we mean the sort of kettle drums played in a symphony orchestra. Such larger drums are definitely ceremonial in nature, played by a consistent group of singers who work hard together to care for the drum and sing well in the ceremonies they help with.

In this age of synthetics and "kits" that can be picked up with more or less convenience from a local store or ordered by the mail, it may be worth spending a little time considering what actually goes into making a simple hand drum from materials gathered from the land. I noticed that american stores in particular often included extensive notes to the reader that the hide used for the drum head is in fact an animal product, and furthermore that certain animal hides cannot be sent to certain regions due to hunting and game regulations. I admit to being surprised that anyone would need to be told that these kits include animal products, but on the other hand, construction kits elide the sources of their components more than effectively.

For a basic hand drum, we need materials for a frame, the drum stick, and the drum head. For the frame we need some carefully selected and dried wood, either cut to build up a ring from segments, or else carefully selected and cut so that it can be bent using heat and steam. Either way, the frame needs to be glued or sewn together, so that means we need pitch or carefully selected and cleaned tree roots. Oh, and a bone needle and awl if we're also eschewing metal tools. We can make the drum stick from a straight branch that has also been carefully cleaned, and maybe even painted. Paints means collecting a bit more stuff, such as red ochre, charcoal, oil for binding, and reeds or similar to make brushes and paint with. For the drum head and the ties, we'll need to hunt an animal, usually deer or elk if wild, cow or horse if not. Their bones can provide the awl and needles, too. The hide preparation is the toughest part after actually successfully bringing down the animal and skinning it. To get that rawhide ready will take a lot of effort, even though it is not being made into leather. It needs to be scraped to remove fur and fat, and to smooth it out where the animal has old scars. But not too much, or the result will be a hole or so thin that the drum head will split when it dries out. After all that, then you can finally cut out the drum head to size, along with some rawhide cord to tie it on with, and with it still being wet, begin the process of tying the drumhead around the assembled frame. Oh, and you have been taught how to tie it properly so that the tension is even and the drum is easy to hold already, right? Then there's the drum stick, you still need to fit it with a striker.

Oh yes, that's another reason to treat drums with respect, even the ones that come from a kit. They take a non-trivial amount of work to make, let alone make well.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:11