From one end of Canada to the other, the reasons Indigenous people use the drum varies greatly from one cultural group to another and sometimes even within a cultural group itself.
Drumming events can be roughly placed into four main categories, but again, as in all things dealing with First Peoples’ music and culture, the specific instance of the drumming must be understood within its cultural context.
Social events are designed to bring the community together. Their purpose is to create solidarity and strengthen family, clan and community bonds. These events may be part of ceremonial and sacred activities or just pure entertainment. This includes hand or stick games or contests. Other social events are simply to dance and socialize. All serve to bring the people closer together and to foster a stronger sense of community solidarity.
Some social events bring young men and women together so that they get to know each other better. A prime example is the round dance in parts of Alberta. At this social function, the drummers and singers stand in the circle’s centre using hand drums. The people dance around them shuffling to the left. Everyone gets to dance and has a wonderful time.
In traditional cultures where men and women did not dance with each other, social events allowed them to gather together and socialize. The Inuit drum dances are among the better examples. This division of the sexes is still evident in the way the modern powwow is set up with the men and women dancing separately at most times. In societies where a more egalitarian approach is used, as in the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois], most of the social dances are mixed but there are still special dances for each gender.
Personal drumming events are much more difficult to describe. They vary from individual to individual, not just culture to culture. For some, drumming can be a way to calm oneself, using drumming as a focus to prepare for difficult times and situations, to find solace in times of loss, and for prayer For some, private drumming is the preferred way to communicate with the “spirit helpers” that are part of their healing work. I, Rohahes, can speak from personal experience that drumming has been a comfort for me in times of loss, a source of strength and inspiration when I was preparing for a particularly difficult task or event.
From historical and contemporary records, we know that healing was and is still practised among First Peoples. Depending on the culture involved, the drum or other percussive instrument such as the rattle usually plays a major role.
Ceremonial drumming is also difficult to cover. Cultures within Canada are vast and complex. People drum ceremonially in two different ways. The first stream is religious and covers a culture’s many spiritual aspects. The second stream is social, political and civic drumming. The religious stream would cover important events in the annual cycle, important mythological events and any other religious activities that specific cultures would consider significant. The social, political, and civic streams would deal with events such as installing new chiefs or officials. Events also include political visits from other Indigenous groups and other events that are not specifically religious.
Often in Indigenous cultures, these two streams overlap. The division between the sacred and the secular is not clearly delineated in First Peoples’ cultures. The Inuit drum dance, for example, can serve a secular purpose and provide entertainment. It can also be the occasion when people settle legal disputes and recognize authority that is sacred in nature.