When it comes to authentic Native American drums, there’s a long list of styles and types. Unique in their constructions, purposes, and uses, these instruments play a critical role in Native culture and day-to-day living.
Despite the immense amount of variation found in Native drums, there are a few primary types that are—or were—common amongst most tribes. The types of Native American drums that are most common and frequently mentioned throughout history include the water, footed, hand, and powwow drums.
Before examining these drum types in more depth, it’s important to grasp a basic understanding of their importance in Native culture and their traditional construction.
The Importance of Native American Drums
Drums play a sacred role in Native culture. Through their gentle, heartbeat-like sound, they connect the Natives to Mother Earth. Drums provide a beat for dancers to dance to and a tune that complements a singer’s songs.
Tribes use them to offer thanks and praise to an all-mighty Creator, who returns the gesture by healing the sick and providing the Natives with things like food, water, and spiritual peace. As an important storytelling tool, they facilitate the coming-together of tribe members and offer them a way to share their collective beliefs and stories.
How are Drums Made?
Different in most qualities, drums often share one aspect in common—the general materials used to make them. Most percussion instruments use a wooden base topped with a head formed from animal hide.
Generally, the drum maker will soak the hide in basins or tubs full of water to soften it and make it pliable. Depending on the size of the rawhide, the soaking process can take anywhere from several hours to a full day.
After soaking, they stretch the rawhide over the base and remove hairs from the surface with scrapers, made traditionally from horn or bone.
Thongs or thinly cut lacing secures the instrument’s head fully to the base before it dries.
The Types of Drums
This type of drum consists of a tanned hide and small base—or chamber—that contains adjustable levels of water. Depending on the amount of liquid stored within the chamber and the wetness of the drum’s coat, the type of sound it produces can wildly vary.
Widespread in North and South America, they’re common in Iroquois, Navajo, Cherokee, Creek, and Apache music.
Water drums have important ceremonial purposes and act as a crucial component of traditional Longhouse social dances. The Yaqui rely on these water-filled instruments for the deer dance, with the beat of the water drum representing the deer’s heartbeat.
The materials for making modern water drums vary widely but primarily include wood and clay. Wooden bases rely on soft, malleable logs or an arrangement of cedar slats banded tightly together. Clay drums frequently reuse old, unwanted pottery and crocks—though handmade versions aren’t unusual, either.
Other types of material include metal and hearty, hollowed-out vegetables. The Yaqui, for example, craft their drums from sliced gourds.
The usage of footed drums has declined rapidly, making them a rare sight to see.
Traditionally, they were crafted from hollowed-out logs or bone and placed above a wood pit. The hollow, open bottom added a unique resonance to the instrument’s sound.
The pits these drums rested over normally resided within kivas—a type of meeting room set aside for rites or spiritual ceremonies—or dance houses.
Footed drums were common in southwestern and central-Californian tribes, such as the Miwok, Maidu, Aztec, and Hopi.
Out of all the types of Native American drums, hand drums are arguably the most common.
These drums come in multiple unique varieties, with the double-sided hoop drum being the most standard.
Their bases are crafted from traditional materials, like flexible woods or soft clays, and formed into a thinner-than-usual frame or shell. A rawhide base, normally cow or goatskin, is stretched over the surface and laced with thinner strips of rawhide or yarn.
The drum is a coveted, sacred part of Native culture. They’re said to beat in tune with the heartbeat of Mother Earth. This strong, connective bond helps create an aura and rhythm of healing and spiritual harmony.
Hand drums are used at social and spiritual gatherings and play a substantial role in Native American music and dance. They tend to complement the beat of larger, multi-user drums, like the powwow, at social gatherings.
Powwow drums, or dance drums, are a focal point of Native American drumming circles.
Similar to other instruments, a wooden frame or hollowed-out log makes up the base. Cedar is a popular choice in material. Sturdier rawhide, like buffalo or elk, is stretched across the opening and secured with thongs made of sinew.
Larger drums span from two to three feet in diameter. With their wider circumference, they’re able to accommodate multiple drum players and singers. Members of a drum circle, aptly named “drum,” gather around the instrument in an evenly spaced circle. The drum itself typically receives a name, often relating to the region or community of the tribe that made or is playing it.
At modern powwow celebrations, groups of several drummers set the stage. They gather around these wide, large drums and fashion a constant beat for the singers to sing to and the dancers to dance to.
Drums play a sacred role in Native American culture. They provide a beat for dancers to dance to and a tune that complements the singer’s songs. The variety of types and styles serve different purposes, all important. Some allow the drummer to give thanks and praise, while others heal the sick and injured. Certain types, like the powwow drum, serve to bring the community together and celebrate their tribe’s rich, vibrant culture and history.
At Tachini Drums, we take great pride in our handmade Native American drums and supplies. If you’re looking for masterfully crafted, authentic Native drums, come check out our inventory, and let us connect you with the heartbeat of Mother Earth.