Beneath the Native American Drum

tambour chamanique

Written by Manu

October 3, 2023

The Native American Drum:

The native american drum in Lakota culture is a part of their daily life and is present in almost all their ceremonies. There are different types of drums: hand drums, large drums played by multiple people, smaller drums, and those specially created for specific ceremonies.

Drums has always been present in different human cultures and traditions. While the world’s oldest instrument dates back more than 65,000 years and is a bone flute, percussion and drums have accompanied human voice and ceremonies from an early age. The oldest drum found dates back 30,000 years.

close up of a native american drum
sunset at the desert

The Legend of the Native American Drum

It is said that when Tunkashila (god/grandfather) was creating the earth, giving space to all the spirits that existed in his creation, a loud sound was heard, like an explosion in the distance.

The sound continued, growing louder and closer to the creator until it stood before him. Upon hearing it, he asked, “Who are you?” The spirit replied, “I am the spirit of the drum. I have come to ask you to allow me to participate in this beautiful creation.” “How do you want to participate?” asked Tunkashila. “I would like to accompany the people’s songs. When people sing from the heart, I want to accompany my voice as if it were the heartbeat of Mother Earth. This way, all creation will sing in harmony.” Upon hearing this noble request, Tunkashila accepted it. From that moment on, the drum accompanied the voices of the people.

Different types of Native American Drum

There are numerous types of Native American drums, but three main ones stand out: hand drums, pow wow drums, and water drums.

Hand Drum: It is a wooden frame drum, approximately 20 to 50 cm in diameter and 5 to 15 cm in height. It is covered with animal skin (originally bison skin) stretched and tightened with strings made from the same skin (nowadays many drums are made with synthetic strings).

Its use is mainly related to sweat lodge ceremonies and other ceremonies where a person needed to hold the drum with one hand and play it with a drumstick in the other hand.

Its original shape tends to be an octagon (the number 4 and its multiples hold great importance in Native American tradition), but it can have more pieces to take a more rounded shape.


lakota hand drum

Ceremonial Drum or Pow Wow Drum: It is a larger drum, between 60 to 100 cm in diameter, with a wooden frame (originally cedar) and skin on both ends, tensioned by a zigzag leather cord. The drum hangs on a structure, supported by 4 rings, with the skin exposed upwards.

This allows people to sit around it and be played by multiple individuals simultaneously. A long drumstick is used, which has a leather-covered cushion at its tip. There is usually one person who directs the others, indicating rhythm and counter-rhythms, as well as different songs, which alternate among the players.

Traditionally, the drum is played only by men, as are the main songs (push-ups), accompanied by a choir of female voices. This drum is used in pow wow ceremonies, sun dances, and other significant collective ceremonies.

ceremonial drum
native american drum

Water Drum: The water drum is smaller, about 32 to 40 cm in diameter, usually made with a metal base shaped like a bowl with three or four supports (feet).

Unlike the aforementioned drums, the water drum is assembled and disassembled for each ceremony. Its skin (usually moose skin) is tanned and soft, moistened and stretched over the bowl with a cord and stone beads that serve as fasteners.

Water and other elements (symbolizing various elements) are added inside. It is played with a small wooden drumstick held between the fingers, while the other hand holds, tilts, and presses the drum skin to produce different sounds.

The rhythm is faster, emulating the heartbeat of a newborn. It is generally used in peyote ceremonies and is associated with the Native American Church and Lakota tradition.

The meaning and importance of the Native American Drum

The drum symbolizes the heart of Mother Earth and is a crucial element in Native American culture. It is present in almost all their ceremonies and plays a significant role. In the inipi (sweat lodge ceremonies), it directs the ceremony, initiating the singing and prayer or asking a participant to do so (the person singing and playing the drum raises their voice in the form of a prayer to call upon the spirits, express gratitude, or convey other intentions related to the ceremony).

It is essential to explain the spiritual dimension of singing within the ceremonies. It is not just about singing and accompanying the ceremony with a melody or rhythm; it is a way to communicate with the creator, the Great Spirit, and everything that surrounds us.

Similarly, the ceremonial drum plays a vital role in different ceremonies, accompanying the dancers and giving them strength to face the various challenges and sacrifices these ceremonies demand. Each Lakota song has a specific meaning and precise time to be sung (you don’t sing a farewell song to the spirits when you are initiating the ceremony). Some songs are reserved for specific moments (such as offerings of skin/meat made in the Lakota sun dance ceremony).

The Native American drum is the heart of the ceremony, and without it, the ceremony arguably cannot be practiced.

In the case of the water drum, it also has a specific way of being played and carried during the ceremony. It is often accompanied by a rattle, a fan, and a staff that rotates clockwise.

pow wow dancer

Lakota traditions and their belief

In Lakota culture, the Native American drum is a very sacred and important element. The recent surge in finding different ways to reconnect with our origins, spirituality, and traditions has led to the expansion of this instrument.

dreamcatcher at sunset

While Native American drums are not the only drums related to shamanic ceremonies. Similar drums can be found in Mongolia, South America, and other parts of the world, often coinciding in their use and significance. This drum hold a unique place in the cultural and spiritual heritage of Native American communities.

At Daishizen Retreat Center, we offer various ceremonies and ways to connect with the drum and the Lakota traditions. We also provide workshops on drum making (Native American drum), where we explain and share all this knowledge.

Do you have such a drum?

Leave us a comment about your relationship with your drum or your experience with any ceremonial instrument.


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